‘Tis the season for seed catalogs to arrive in the mail, and I want you to have the tools to fully appreciate them without being overwhelmed on how to plan your garden. It’s easy to get swayed by the seductive lure of glossy pictures and glowing descriptions of plants. You might have even seen the widely-circulated picture of a sultry young man saying, “Hey Sweetheart, want to go upstairs and circle everything you want in the seed catalog?”
He has a point. Planning and dreaming are a big part of successful gardening. Here are some tips for effective dreaming as you gear up for the next growing season.
Whether you have 1 or 30 years of gardening experience, there are some things you know—or can find out—about your garden. I’ll give you a few places to start in thinking ahead, so it’s not such a daunting task. Don’t make yourself do anything that won’t be fun, but I can tell you that thinking ahead even a little will yield big results.
Remember that the map is never the territory, and the certain thing about plans is that they tend to change. My garden spreadsheets start off precise for a few months, and then drop way off as I navigate the changing conditions of the growing season. Growing conditions such as first and last frost dates are usually available from your observations or from a local extension office or garden club, or numerous online calculators by ZIP code.
List What You Know You Know About the Site
While there are lots of great places to get advice, remember that you are the expert for some very important questions—such as which vegetables you want to eat. There’s no point in devoting garden space to beets or to turnips if you know you don’t like them! You also know the specifics of how much space you have to garden in, and how much sun it gets. This may take some observation, but that’s what makes you the expert.
Exercise: Make a list of what you know and what you don’t know about your garden-to-be. Make sure frost dates are on the “What you know” list, since they influence when and what to plant. You will never know it all, but over the years, the what-you-know list will get longer. You’ll also worry less about what you don’t know and can’t control. Life lessons from gardening!
List What You know About What You Want to Eat
Second, remember that your garden is for you. As I’ve gotten older, my mantra has become, “I have only myself to please.” Gardening is one of those time-tested human pursuits, like music or art: basically simple, and also takes a whole lifetime to master. So view it as an art project and be gentle with yourself as the inevitable speed bumps pop up in the road. You will also want to identify your goals in gardening. Do you want to grow all the greens for your family for 6 months of the year? Try a new variety of popcorn? Do you have your heart set on growing sesame seeds? Or enough cherry tomatoes for the whole neighborhood? Each of these goals will produce a different garden plan.
Exercise: Write a few sentences about how you will know your garden is successful. These benchmarks give me a concrete way to structure my growing season. For instance, will I feel successful if I grow one pound of garlic for each person in the household? If my husband is thrilled to have 300 pounds of cabbage to make sauerkraut? Do I want to identify 5 species of pollinators in my garden? I include less tangible goals, too, like feeling more peaceful. Calories are not the only crop!
List What You Learned From Previous Years
Related to this exercise, figure out your optimal mix of reliable and novel crops. For example, I grow Sungold tomatoes every year because everyone loves them. But I always make space for a few plants of other varieties, or even anonymous tomato seedlings given to me by a friend, just to pique my sense of curiosity. My garden gives me tasty food AND a sense of adventure. Talk with other gardeners about the tried-and-true food plants in your area. If the plants are new to you, that might be enough adventure right there. Just set yourself up for success by growing sturdy plants that are likely to give you a yield.
But as I’ve gotten familiar with certain plants and their varieties, my novelty-seeking impulse always finds a place for a handful of new experiments. Quinoa? Sesame? Rice? Yep, I’ve tried them. I’ve tried a dozen corn varieties and settled on my favorites. I’ve tried 8 different ways of growing potatoes, and I can tell you what works for my farm, my tools, and my farm crew aka farmily.
So here’s another exercise. Whether or not you gardened last year, take out a piece of paper and jot down everything you learned about gardening in 2020. Maybe you learned you want a garden next year! Maybe you learned eggplants don’t like to grow under shady cedar trees. Maybe you want to do an interpretive dance of aphids on your kale. You can go on a walk or sit in your garden space, or flip through photos of the growing season to jog your memory. Even the smallest window box usually has stories of triumph and tragedy over the summer. What worked and what didn’t? If you are planning your first garden, what resources do you want to devote to gardening in 2021? Look back over the previous growing season and think about how much time you had available, how much sun you had available, which vegetables you bought. These all point towards your ideal future garden.
A Vision for Garden Success
Now you have a few lists, whether in your head or on a page. You know what you know and what you know you don’t know (there is a lot you don’t know you don’t know, but let’s tackle that another time). You have thought about your goals, i.e what you’re looking for in order to feel successful. You reflected on the lessons of 2020 and fold those into your garden plan mix. Perhaps some themes emerge, like, “The rabbits ate everything.” Or, “An herb garden would be really great, I love fresh herbs and they are expensive at the store.” With all that loaded into your consciousness, it’s time to get dreamy.
Stroll around the garden, or just travel there in your imagination. What is your ideal scene for gardening? How do you feel? What are the sensations that inspire you? The warm tomato in the sun, the precious baby lettuces, children harvesting snap peas and raspberries with delight, a rainbow of flowers and fragrances… I could go on, but that’s out of my goal list, not yours. And this is a personal vision, especially in knowing how you want to feel in your garden. Really let your imagination run here, especially with the feeling of throwing an anchor into the future. When you cast that anchor strongly, you can just pull yourself along the anchor chain to get there!
I garden for a living, both as a garden consultant and for the straight-up calories we get. The feeling I had this year of purpose and joy in gardening was priceless. Just knowing that the whole household could hunker down and probably survive without grocery stores was an awesome feat, and a testament to the long hours of work put in by many people on the farm besides me. Tending food is a human right, and a wonderful way to connect. It’s what puts me squarely in ecological context. My meals are rewarding and connective when I’ve watched those meals grow from seed.
I hope this brief look at garden planning has been useful to you. Perhaps some aspects of this planning outline helped you in other areas of your life. Whatever your interests, I hope the winter brings you deep and nourishing rest and renewal. And as you dream up your garden, go ahead and circle everything you want in the seed catalog!
Alexia Allen is a farmer, teacher, and homestead orchestrator at Hawthorn Farm in Western Washington State. She taught at Wilderness Awareness School for 12 years before moving into farming full-time and enjoys a Renaissance woman life with something new every day of every season. Read all of Alexia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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