How we plan our garden beds
Having a good plan is the key to success in many areas of life. Planning garden beds is certainly no exception.
Long before we place a single seed into a tray, we take the time to reflect on last year’s garden. Reflecting on the successes and shortcomings of the previous season will provide a starting place for the new plan. We’ll take note of what the weather was like, and how that could have affected the garden. We’ll also keep in mind how much we harvested, and what we’d like to harvest more or less of.
For example, last year, we had a great carrot harvest. There were plenty to eat fresh as they matured, and enough leftover to can several cases of. I’ll know for this year to commit the same amount of bed space to the carrots.
On the other hand, we didn’t harvest nearly as many pickling cucumbers as I’d hoped. We had a hard time getting them to survive after transplanting; and then they were out-competed by the other squash. This year, I’ll start extra cucumber seeds so that I have more starts to choose from, and I’ll wait for the weather to be more consistent before transplanting.
Having these notes to reflect on from previous seasons is a great starting place for this year’s garden plan.
What we did in 2022
We have 2 main garden spaces on the homestead. The first garden is a large fenced-in area with 12) 4 foot by 8 foot raised beds. There’s also a pair of potato boxes, a handful of large planters, and some space for sowing directly into the ground along the fence.
Our second garden space is also a fenced in area, about 50 feet by 80 feet. This space isn’t a productive garden space yet; instead we’ve been sowing cover crops, green manures, and some vegetables in an effort to start building up more organic matter in the dusty, rocky soil.
When we’re planning garden beds for the year, I’m focused primarily on the first garden space.
Our 2022 garden plan took shape on a piece of printer paper. Yep. A piece of paper and a pen to plan out the year’s gardening and harvesting. It’s simple, doesn’t require the internet, and if we need to change the plan we can just throw it away. There’s no shortage of high-tech garden planning websites and apps, but I find that the more complicated I make something, the more likely I am to procrastinate on it. Pen and paper it is.
We started by drawing 12 rectangles on our piece of paper- one for each raised bed.
After the beds are drawn, we add the potato boxes and any other large planters that will be enclosed in the garden.
With all of the infrastructure in place, the fun part of planning can begin.
By comparing to the previous years’ garden, we know where we shouldn’t plant certain crops. I don’t like to plant the same thing in the same bed 2 years in a row. (The only exception being nitrogen-fixers like peas and beans) We can also fill in where our perennials are, which means those beds are off-limits to new crops.
We fill in the asparagus bed, the potato boxes, and the strawberry planter. I need a whole bed for carrots, 2 for tomatoes…
8 beds to go.
We keep a running list of which crops we need space for and which crops have been assigned on the back side of the page as we go. Gradually every bed is filled in on paper. Some crops get whole beds to themselves, others only half a bed or a row. It just depends on what we’re ultimately hoping to harvest.
In 2022, we had a bed for our asparagus. 1 bed for carrots. 1 bed that was split half-beets and half-radishes. We committed 3 beds to brassicas (kohlrabi especially). 2 1/2 beds to squash. 1/2 bed to eggplants. 2 beds to tomatoes. And the last bed was half onions, half peppers. We ended up sowing more radishes in various beds as space was cleared. We also direct-sowed peas and beans whenever some of the brassicas were harvested.
Overall, our gardening went pretty well last year. We were at the mercy of the weather at the beginning and the end of the growing season. We got a frost in June that really affected the transplants, and a killing frost in mid-October that essentially ended the garden for the year. With that experience in mind, I know to be a little more careful about hardening off seedlings. And we’re looking at ways to protect our plants past those first frosts of the fall.
What we’re planning for 2023
Now that it’s January again, all of my seeds have been ordered, and we’re mere weeks from starting seeds indoors. It is high-time for planning garden beds for 2023.
I’ve started off, as always, with a simple sketch of our current garden bed layout. (Plus an extra bed that we’ll be building for a spot nearer to the house)
The asparagus, strawberries, and potatoes get filled in first.
I’ll put the carrots in the bed that we grew cabbage & green beans in last year.
The beets and radishes can go in the bed next to that- where we grew onions and peppers last year.
Our brassicas will get transplanted into the 2022 squash beds.
The tomatoes will go in the old carrot and radish beds.
The squash can grow in last years tomato beds.
All along the fence we’ll sow more mammoth sunflowers.
And the large planters can hold marigolds and other flowers.
That leaves just the new bed. Our kitchen herb garden. Rosemary, thyme, dill, fennel, basil, oregano, mint… Anything and everything I can get my hands on will grow shoulder to shoulder in a chicken-proof space behind the house.
Advice for planning your garden beds
Hopefully an overview of our previous and current garden bed plans has given you some inspiration. If you find yourself itching to sketch out the garden, go for it! I’d also suggest asking yourself these questions, as they will help guide the garden planning process:
How much space do you have total?
We have about 430 square feet of bed space, spread across 13 beds and a few large planters. Knowing this ahead of time can help you plan a realistic goal for your harvest. I wouldn’t expect to grow a ton of potatoes and hundreds of pumpkins in our garden, for example.
What do you want to grow, and how much space will you need per plant?
Seed packets are a great resource for this sort of information. They’ll often tell you how much space to leave between seedlings and how much to leave between mature plants- as well as giving guidance on how much of a yield you can expect and when.
Another great resource for this sort of information is “How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method,” published by Rodale in 1976. I bought my copy from a thrift store, but you can also purchase it from Amazon (here).
Where does the sun shine?
Our garden runs east to west. The southern-most beds get the most shade, the northern-most beds get the least. You don’t need to be very exact on where, when, and how well different parts of your garden are shaded, but a rough idea is a lot of help in the planning stage. Some crops, like corn and tomatoes, love the heat and sunlight. Others, such as brassicas and radishes, do better with longer periods of shade. Knowing what your plants prefer, and how much sun your garden will receive, are important facts to have before planting.
What’s your infrastructure like?
We only have PVC hoops over half of our beds right now, so anything that needs a cover has to be planted in one of those beds. We also only have studs for trellising in some beds, so anything I need to climb will have to be planted there. If your beds aren’t totally uniform, some of those variations may affect how you plan your garden as well.
With those considerations in mind, I feel confident that you’ll be able to start laying out a plan for your garden beds. Take the time we have left this winter to research what you’ll be growing. Familiarize yourself with the plants and the layout of your garden: when spring finally arrives, you’ll be well on your way to a successful growing season.
And if you haven’t ordered your seeds for 2023, I highly recommend you check out this list of my favorite vegetable seed suppliers. You can also read more about the basic seed starting process, here. If you want more information about herbs, and how I start my herb seeds indoors, I’ve got a post about that here.
Thanks for reading and happy homesteading!