As you might expect, there are quite a few things to consider in planning how to plant your garden - but let's start with the most important question: what do you like to eat?
Where to Start: Make a list of the foods you'd most like to eat fresh from the garden - then look them up on the internet (or here on the FarmCity site!), or in you favourite veggie gardening book. Start by looking at only three kinds of information about each type of plant. Don't look at anything else for now, or it just gets too overwhelming. Make note of:
1) How much space do my plants need to grow in - that is, how many plants can I grow?
2) How much light do the plants need?
3) When should they be planted - and how long until they're harvested?
A lot of this information can also be provided on the stick labels in bedding plants, or on seed packets.
How Many Plants Can I Grow? From this information, you can begin to create a planting diagram, drawn to scale, of your gardening space. I draw the basic plan of the space in ink, then make several of copies of it, so I can do successive diagrams as my ideas shift as I go. Or sometimes I even make scaled cut-outs of the various plants, which I can move around on top of the plan as much as I need.
Once you begin adding the plants to the diagram, you'll quickly be able to see how much room you may or may not have for the various plants you are hoping to grow. Adjust your list accordingly: "12 tomato plants, not 15 - but I bet I could squeeze a row of radishes in behind the cabbages over there."
Light: From the start, you will also be considering which part of your garden gets the most sun, which the least - and of course this crucially affects where to put the various plants. The basic rule of thumb, as we've noted before, is: whatever you grow for "the fruit or the root" needs full sun; whatever you grow for the leaf, does better in less sun. So tomatoes, squash or eggplants need full sun, while chard or lettuce does better in half sun or even less.
My experience with root crops has been that they can deal with some shade - especially if it's dappled shade rather than dense. I also find, despite the conventional information, that most herbs (like the marjoram, above) can deal with part-shade as well. The exception here is basil (right), which needs lots of heat and light!
So, I try to locate the largest sunny plants at the "back" of the bed (ie: away from the sun), so they don't shade the ones in front. These would include squash, cucumber or beans grown up a trellis, as well as "indeterminant" tomatoes (the ones that grow tall and need a lot of staking up).
In front of the tallest plants, I locate the next smaller plants, then in front of those, the smaller yet - and so on. For obvious reasons, I almost inevitably end up with a row of strawberries right along the front edge of the bed!
In the shade of the sun-loving plants, I squeeze in some of the shade-tolerant plants - parsley, slipped in behind the tomatoes, or of course, that row of radishes behind the cabbages!
Timing: The other thing to consider is when the various crops can be planted, and how long they'll last - because this will allow you to plant - and harvest - more food over the season than it might seem at first glance. For instance, you can plant peas in March, and expect them not to grow past late June - so the trellis on which you've planned peas will also house the beans you want. Plant the beans at the feet of the peas in early June, and let the beans take over as the peas fade.
Or if it's early April, you can grow a couple rows of greens for a quick spring harvest, in the same place where you'll be planting your summer tomatoes in late May. By the same token, be sure to take into account the spots that will need to become seed beds for your winter garden: for instance, don't plant the potatoes, which you won't harvest until September, in the same spot where, in July, you'll be starting the brussels sprouts to transplant out for the winter garden.
Complicated? Yep, it can be - but the two things to recall are:
1) There is no perfect plan, so don't worry about trying to achieve it. One decision may mean a slightly different balance to the garden than another decision may have. You can't really go wrong - just a bit better than your previous time around.
2) A garden is always a dynamic and changing thing - so a planting diagram is only ever provisional: things change over the season, and should definitely change from one year to the next as you rotate crops to keep pests and diseases at a minimum. So the plan you have for this year can't be set in stone; it is just a good basis on which to make further decisions - which call for still other decisions.
More about your planting plan in the next post: Planting Plans Part II