13 Steps to Planning your Vegetable Garden

Reader Contribution by Pam Dawling
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Chard is a reliable insurance crop.

1. Before planning anything, be clear about your garden goals 

Are you growing for your household, mainly for your household with some sales on the side, or to make a living and feed your household? Are you growing vegetables for the whole year, or mostly salads and tomatoes? Have you got one hour a week or 40 hours a week? Have you got 500 square feet or 5 acres? If you’re not selling anything, skip to step 4.

2. How much money do you need to earn? 

What are your living expenses? What are your farm expenses? What do you want to save for old age, rainy days, raising children, and college funds.  Do you have other sources of income? Once you’ve determined how much money you need to make for your efforts, look at how you might earn that. Jean-Martin Fortier in The Market Farmer shows how his family met their goals and fit their resources.

Setting prices is another side of how to make enough money. See the Iowa State University publication Determining Prices for CSA Share Boxes. Vern Grubinger in Sustainable Vegetable Production from Start-up to Marketexplains how to make an enterprise budget for each crop. These calculations compare one crop with another, while not delving into overhead costs.

3. Which markets to sell at? 

Consider CSA, farmers’ market, sales to neighbors or work colleagues, sales to restaurants. How many weeks of the year do you want to be selling? 20? 26? 35?

4. Which crops to grow 

Choose vegetables based on demand balanced with the practicalities of growing in your climate, whether or not you are growing for sale. In Market Farming Success: The Business of Growing and Selling Local Food, Lynn Byczynski identifies and explains aspects of market farming growers need to tackle: you need a diversity of crops, not just a few profitable items; you need not only early crops, but critical mass for the whole of your chosen season. Grow what yields well for less labor, grow what sells best at the highest price, and also grow what fills gaps between your major crops.

Kale and other leafy greens give high yields for the area they occupy.Photo by Wren Vile.

Some crops offer more money per area (mostly the leafy greens); some are more profitable in terms of time put in. See Richard Wiswall’s Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook,whichincludes crop enterprise budgets for 24 crops. He makes spreadsheets easy and clear. The book includes a CD you can use to create all kinds of farm worksheets. Ben Hartman in The Lean Farmreports that of the 25 crops they looked at, heirloom tomatoes gave the highest dollar per square foot and bulb onions the least. But that did not account for the time each crop occupies the space. Nor does it matter, if what you need are onions to store for the winter.

Some crops are easy to grow, some that sell for high prices are more challenging. Some crops are valuable in providing a good crop rotation, or something fresh to eat in spring (try garlic scallions). Crops which provide multiple harvests from one planting are valuable, as are crops for winter storage. It’s good to have some easy-growing resilient “insurance crops” which will provide harvests even if other crops fail. Chard is my favorite example. It reliably grows. Harvest leaves when you want them, ignore the plants otherwise.

5. How much of what to harvest when:make a Harvest Schedule 

Be realistic. How much salad mix do you really want each week? The average person eats 160-200 pounds of fresh vegetables per year (USDA). I hope we’re all better than average! The average CSA share feeds 2 or 3 people.

Decide which crops you want to harvest when, how often and over what length of time, including quantities. Multiply that up, add a margin for culls and failures (10%?), and list how much of each crop to have ready for harvest each week.

6. How much to grow to achieve your harvest goals 

Now you know how much you want to harvest, turn your attention to how much to plant to get that. The table I provide in Sustainable Market Farming lists 48 crops, with likely yield, quantities required for 100 CSA shares, quantities we grow to feed 100 people year-round, and lengths of rows needed to grow these amounts.

Some seed catalogs have tables of likely yields. Elizabeth Henderson and Robyn Van En Sharing the Harvest and John JeavonsHow to Grow More Vegetablesboth have charts too.

7. Calculate sowing dates to meet harvest dates: Field Planting Schedule 

The Field Planting Schedule is the calendar of when you plan to plant out in the garden (direct sowing or transplanting). Work back from each target harvest date, subtracting the number of days to maturity (from the catalog or seed packet), to give the planting date. Be clear about whether the number is from sowing the seed to harvest or from transplant to harvest.

Days to maturity in catalogs are generally for spring planting once conditions have warmed to the usual range for that crop. When growing in late fall, winter or early spring, add about 14 days – plants grow slower when chilly. In winter when the temperature is below 40F (4C), plants don’t grow much at all – ignore those days from your calculations.

Decide whether you want to direct seed or transplant each crop. There are the pros and cons of each method. Draw up your list of outdoor planting dates, along with varieties, row feet, spacing, notes and space to write down what you actually do. Make a spreadsheet or a worksheet and be sure to leave room to write what actually happens when, not just what you plan! Sort it by date order, for ease of use when busy.

8. When to sow for transplants: Seedlings Schedule 

If the crop is to be transplanted add the time to grow the transplant. See Sustainable Market Farming. In future years you will have your own records to customize your calculations. Calculate the dates to sow for transplants, and make your Seedlings Schedule – another spreadsheet or worksheet. Sort it by date order.

9. Where to plant each sowing of each crop: Maps 

Draw up garden maps, and decide where in the garden to plant each sowing of each crop. Start filling your map with your major crops (the ones needing the most space), remembering crop rotation and cover cropping considerations. Note the spaces leftover for squeezing in other crops.

10. Packing more in: interplanting, relay planting, double cropping, season extension, succession plantings. 

Promptly clearing short-term crops like beans or cucumbers helps with pest and disease control and opens up the space for double-cropping or for cover crops to replenish the soil. Fast-growing crops like lettuce, radishes and greens can be interplanted between or alongside slower-growing crops to provide more veggies. We grow peas with spinach,peanuts with lettuce, okra with cabbage.

A row of snap peas interplanted in a bed of spinach makes good use of space.Photo by Kathryn Simmons}

Season extension requires putting in more time and/or money than main season growing, to gain extra production. Find the balance point at which time, money and energy put in are still definitely worthwhile.  It’s easier to get extra harvests for a month or two in fall from mature plants, than to get harvests a week earlier in the spring. A small investment in rowcover can easily pay for itself and help you harvest more produce.

Beans, edamame, cucumbers, melons, squash, sweet corn can be produced through the frost-free period, if you sow several times. Beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, spinach can be grown in spring and again in the fall in mild climates.

11. Adjust to make your best possible plan and tweak 

Once you have your plans made, look them over for chances to make improvements, or for glitches. It helps to have someone else willing to talk this through. This could be a good winter task for your local garden group.

If you can’t fit in everything you want, drop some crops, change your quantities, or tighten up your planting schedule. Keep your highest priorities in mind: crops for your best markets, the signature crops you are famous for, and food for your household.

Perhaps the old crop is not so worth keeping, if pulling it helps you establish a new crop in a more timely way. Check the timings of your sowings for transplants — do you have enough germinating capacity? Is it physically possible to do all the transplanting you plan in the time allotted?

Sometimes it helps to simplify planting dates, e.g., squash and cucumbers on the same day. Other times it helps to spread the workload over several consecutive days, to give you time to harvest, eat lunch, do your other work.

12. What to do if something goes wrong: Plan B 

Be ready to think on your feet and adjust your plans as the situation changes. Have a brainstorm list to help deal with disasters:

• Do immediate damage control to stop the problem getting worse

• Ask for help,

• Salvage anything you can and process it in some way to use later.

• Some greens and root crops mature in 60 days or less, which is useful if a crop fails.

• Write down what went wrong and why, so you don’t have the same problem next year. 

13. Record results for next year’s Better Plan

Make recording easy to do. Minimize the paperwork. Have a daily practice of recording planting dates and harvest start and finish dates on the planting schedule. Allow time to do that, without losing your lunch break.

If your records suggest adjusting a date next year, adjust it to halfway between last year’s plan and what seems ideal – gradually zero in on the likely date without wild pendulum swings based on variable weather.

Pam Dawlinghas worked at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia for more than 27 years, growing vegetables for 100 people on 3.5 acres and training many members in sustainable vegetable production. She is the author ofSustainable Market FarmingandThe Year-Round HoophousePam often presents workshops at MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRs and at sustainable agriculture conferences. She is a contributing editor with Growing for Market magazine, and a weekly blogger onSustainableMarketFarming.com. Read all of Pam’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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