With the fluctuating temperatures the region has experienced this week and the always-inevitable hold out for the springtime thaw, many of us are no doubt itching to get out and get our hands in the dirt. Since we’re still smack dab in the middle of winter, it’s still too early to sow for many crops, but while we’re waiting for spring, now is the perfect time to get your garden plan in place.
Before you get started, it’s important to consider a few items:
- The Site: Choose a site that receives at least 6-8 hours of sunlight a day (For most vegetable gardens, aiming for a minimum of 8 hours is most ideal). Avoid sites that are close to heavily wooded areas or tall buildings, as they may give off unnecessary shade cover. You also want to be sure that the site in question is close to an adequate water source. If you are planning a garden for your backyard, a good rule of thumb is to have it as close to the door of your house as possible. Makes sense, right? Keep an eye on the soil- You don’t want to work the soil if it is too wet, as it can lead to compaction and damage of the soil structure itself. Need help determining if your garden is dry/wet enough for tilling? You can check out this blog here.
- The Size: It’s good to dream big, but dream what you can manage. Thanks to innovative garden techniques such as raised beds and trellising, you can grow an abundance of food in a relatively small amount of space, but in general, plan for a plot size that is easiest and most sensible for you to manage.
- The Irrigation: As mentioned earlier, a well-planned garden site should be close to an adequate water source. A vegetable garden needs about an inch of water per week. Grow Appalachia recommends the use of a drip irrigation system, which, although efficient, can be costly. If you are on a bit of a budget, try this trick to gauge the timing of watering: Set out several tuna cans in random locations throughout your garden. Using a sprinkler, turn it on and time how long it takes for the tuna cans to be filled. You can determine how often you need to water from there. Lastly, the best time to water your garden is during the morning: the heat of the afternoon sun during the summertime can lead to evaporation, and water that sits out on plants during the evening and overnight hours can lead to disease.
After you have pondered these possibilities, here are some additional items to consider when making your garden plan:
- Grow what you will eat (and manage!): This might sound obvious, but gardening requires physical inputs and time commitments, so plant only what you and your family will actually eat. Weeding, pest control, the time of year, and irrigation are all different factors and all of these factors affect crops differently. Some crops need to be irrigated regularly, while others need to be trellised or pruned in specific ways as they continue to grow. Also, if you live in a cooler region, you don’t want to grow crops that do better in warmer weather, and vice versa.
- Consider whether or not additional protection is needed: If your summers are just unbearably hot and your winters unbearably cold, you might want to consider investing in additional protective measures, such as row cover. Row cover, used during the winter, can provide an additional few degrees of protection during frost seasons. You can also use old sheets or light blankets for this purpose. Low tunnels are also ideal for growing crops such as greens during the winter months. In the summertime, floating row cover can provide additional shade, as well as act as a barrier for certain insect pests. You can explore additional season extension methods at this blog.
- Consider any soil amendments: It is very important, before you do any planting, to get a soil test! Your local extension agent can help you obtain an accurate soil sample. Once you receive your soil test results, you can modify your soil safely for even more favorable growing conditions. Regardless of your results, you should also make it a habit to incorporate organic matter into your soil each spring and fall; OM provides ample sources of nitrogen and other valuable nutrients as they break down. Compost, leaf mold, grass clippings, and straw are all good choices.
- Practice crop rotation: The main idea behind crop rotation is that you never want to grow crops in the same spot year after year, or no more than once every three years. Certain diseases and pests can thrive in soil for years, so when you rotate crops, it removes their host crop. Also, many pests target crop families, not specific crops themselves (e.g. Solanaceous crops, such as tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and Cucurbits, such as cucumbers and squash). Keeping crops in the same spot year after year can also lead to nutrient depletion in the soil.
Below are a few links that provide additional information on garden planning, crop yields, and calculations for family size and produce size.
Home Vegetable Gardening in Kentucky: This 44 page document, published by the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension, provides in-depth information on planting, vegetable and plant care, disease, weed, and pest management, and an A-Z list of crops and their care.
Produce Yield Chart: Shows the amount of fresh produce needed for 1 adult, for a family of four, as well as amounts needed for preservation or storage.
Guide to Growing Organic Fruits and Vegetables: From Mother Earth News, this comprehensive list contains clickable links and covers everything from artichokes to winter squash.
Mother Earth News Garden Planner Software: This software is free for 7 days, after that, it’s $29/annually. Choose from over 100 vegetables, sizes from raised beds and square foot gardens to traditional rows, over 5,000 different weather stations for accurate location and climate, and much more. The FAQs for this software can be found here.
There’s always more to learn, so if you have any tips and tricks on all things garden planning, send them our way! Until next time, happy planning…and dreaming!