Over the course of my adult life (40+ years), I’ve tried many different approaches to gardening, in many widely different areas of the United States, from north-central California to Florida to the Midwest to the Deep South, a couple of different areas of the Rockies, and now the high desert I currently live in.
I also had the blessing of being able to work some with my mother in her very large farm garden as a teen-ager, although not as much as I would have liked, but that is another story.
My mother taught me many things about both gardening and chickens, and how to combine the two, many years before I saw the first book on combining chickens and gardens.
One of the best garden lessons I learned from mom was the need to plan my garden.
She said, “What’s the point of harvesting 300 lbs of green beans, 500 lbs of tomatoes, 200 lbs of cukes, and 50 lbs of peppers in 3 weeks if you can’t eat or preserve that much in that short time?”
It made a lot of sense to me then, and still does, as I’ve watched many friends practically kill themselves trying to process all of the food coming out of their gardens in just a few short weeks in the late summer/early fall, often having a lot of spoilage before they could get it all done.
It also doesn’t make much sense to have 500 lbs of green beans (or any other vegetable or fruit) that your family isn’t particularly fond of so, how do you prevent these problems, or the related problems of not growing enough to provide as much of your family’s nutrition as you hope to?
I’ve long heard it said that if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.
That’s the kind of thing that makes people abandon gardening as an expensive hobby.
So, how do you plan a garden?
Step 1 is figure out how much space, time, and money you can realistically give to it.
Do you live in an apartment? A few pots on a patio, deck, or in front of windows may be the majority of your garden space, but even that can grow a fair bit of food.
Do you have a small city lot? If it’s one of those “zero lot line” or condo style, again, your garden space may be very limited, and CC&R’s might even limit you to planting just a few edible flowers. Yes, there are edible flowers, but that’s a subject for another time. Or, maybe you can dedicate a small area of back yard to a vegetable garden, and plant some edible flowers in your front landscaping.
Step 2 is to figure out how much of each kind of vegetables your family will eat in a year (or 6 months, or whatever length of time you want to try to provide home grown vegetables) and, which of them can be grown in your area.
Step 3 involves checking with some resources (see below) to figure out how many of each vegetable you want to plant and how much space your desired vegetables will take compared to how much space you have available. If your space (or water) is limited consider square foot gardening. For time and sanity sake, consider succession planting if you are trying to provide large quantities of food rather than an occasional supplement to your grocery store foods.
Step 4 requires you to put pencil to paper, or, use a good garden planning software program. Personally, I have used paper and pencil for many years, but recently switched to the garden planner at almanac.com – which I like so well, I hope I never have to go back to paper and pencil! Besides, the computer planner gives me wonderful lists of materials and plants needed, email reminders of when to do specific tasks, and a host of other very helpful features my pencil and paper never even thought of, or, required lots of time for me to research on my own, then write on my calendar or include in my plan. I love any feature that saves me time!
Step 5 is to decide which varieties you want to plant based on things like your
- soil type (sandy, silt, clay…), for example, in my extremely rocky soil I would be silly to think I could plant long variety carrots unless I want to utilize a raised bed garden
- length of growing season
- water availability
- sun/shade availability
- preference for hybrid or heritage
- some things, like beans & peas, may have bush varieties and climbing varieties – which would work better with your space?
- Do you want varieties that will be ornamental as well as productive, for example standard green beans versus scarlet runner beans?
- Anything else important to you…
Step 6 is to consider how you will be able to preserve your excess that you can’t eat fresh. Plan ahead!
- Do you have a root cellar? If so, what can you realistically store in it, and for how long?
- Will you be dehydrating some of your harvest? Solar? Oven? Dehydrator? How will you package your dehydrated food to keep it safe?
- Smoking isn’t often used for vegetables, meats and cheeses, yes.
- Canning? Do you need to buy supplies like jars, lids, pressure canner (all vegetables other than tomatoes)
- Fermenting – Again, do you have all of the supplies you will need?
- Freezing – plastic bags, plastic containers, glass jars?
- Freeze drying – most expensive (!!!), but also preserves the food for the longest with the best retention of nutrients and flavor for the longest time
Resources for deciding how many plants of each vegetable you might want to grow:
Sunset’s Vegetable Garden Book (out of print but still available with a bit of searching – excellent resource for much garden information in a concise format)
Websites are in no particular order in terms of my recommending one over another!
Remember though, a plan is a tool, not an iron-clad guarantee, like the year I planted 2 dozen tomato plants and harvested an average of 400 lbs of tomatoes per week for 6 weeks, WAAAAY more than I had planned for or could handle. Then there was the year the doggone grasshoppers ate nearly half of my garden.
Every year with a garden is something of an experiment. It’s always a learning and growing experience.