For anyone who is new to gardening, it might seem crazy to be thinking about garden planning in February. Especially when you live in a ski town where there are still many feet of snow on the ground. But to any seasoned gardeners out there, you’ll know that I’m actually already running behind! While I haven’t actually started planning this year’s garden yet, I have been thinking about it a lot. And that’s the first step. So, if you’ve also been thinking about planting a vegetable garden this year, here are a few useful tips to help you get started.
First of all, you’ll have to decide what you want to grow. This seems obvious, but it takes little more thought than you might realize. Every year when I get my seed catalogue in the mail, I excitedly flip through and circle all the things that I want to buy. But then I usually have to go through it again and decide what I will realistically eat. It’s easy to go overboard and buy all the seeds. And it’s easy to become overwhelmed with too many plants in your garden. Think about the vegetables that you regularly eat and start there. Then you can add one or two novelties and see how they go.
I also try to focus on vegetables that will last. Root vegetables, like carrots, potatoes, and parsnips, as well as garlic, onions, and squash store for long periods of time. Veggies like greens and tomatoes need to be eaten as soon as they’re ripe. Of course, you can preserve some of these veggies, but again, try to be realistic about how much time and effort you want to put in at the end of the summer.
The next step is to draw out a map of your garden space. This way you can make sure you have enough space to grow all the things you want to grow and figure out ahead of time where to put them. Certain vegetables grow better when they’re in close proximity to other specific plants. For example, rosemary seems to repel carrot flies, so planting rosemary and carrots together will help keep the carrots safe. These are called “companion plants,” and you can find a list of these in most vegetable gardening books or websites.
It’s also important to save your plan every year, so that you can look back the following year to see where things were planted (trust me, you won’t remember). Different plants and plant families require different nutrients from the soil. If you grow the same crop in the same spot year after year, those nutrients will get used up and your plants will suffer. Moving your crops each year, a practice called “crop rotation,” gives the soil time to replenish those nutrients. Rotating your crops can also help with pest management, as their preferred food won’t be available in the same spot that the pests over-wintered.
You’ll also need to decide whether you are going to start your plants from seeds or buy the already-established plants from a garden centre a little later in the season. You’ll be able to plant certain seeds directly in the garden in the spring, like beans, peas, beets, lettuce, carrots, and parsnips. But other vegetables require a longer growing season than we have in northern climates. These plants will need to be started indoors and moved outside once they are big enough. These include tomatoes, cucumbers, winter squash, cabbage, and many others. If you have the space and the determination, starting these plants from seed in your home can be very satisfying and far more affordable. You will need either a large space near a sunny window, or room to set up grow lights somewhere in your home. Some of these plants, like onions, need to be started as early as February, but most should be started about 6-8 weeks before the last expected frost. If this sounds like too much work, you can always buy these plants from a garden centre when you’re ready to get your garden going in late spring.
My last piece of advice, and one of the most useful that I’ve ever received, is to keep a gardening journal. It is one of the best things you can do to have garden successes year after year. One of the challenges of gardening is that every year is different. You might grow great green beans one year, and the following summer you barely get any at all. There are so many factors that are out of our control that contribute to the successes and failures in gardening. Keeping track of everything that you do in your garden will help you to control what you can.
Here are some things to write in your gardening journal:
- Dates: when you started your seedlings indoors and when you moved them into the garden; when you planted seeds directly in the garden; date of the last frost in the spring and the first frost in the fall; when each vegetable is ready to harvest, etc.
- Weather: whether the spring was cold and rainy, or warm and sunny; if there was a drought in the late summer; daytime and nighttime temperatures throughout the season; etc.
- Pests: which varieties of pests live in your garden; which veggies they’re eating; methods you’ve used to control them and whether they worked or not; etc.
- Your garden plan: Your journal is a handy place to keep your plans from years past. This way you can easily look back on which plants were planted where and plan your crop rotations. You should also make notes about how well the plants grew in each spot.
If you’re looking for some great gardening books, I recommend The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith, and The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour. And if you live in a cold, northern region like I do, you might want to check out Down to Earth: Cold Climate Gardens and Their Keepers by Jennifer Heath and Helen McAllister. Happy planning!