Just starting out with gardening? Planning a productive vegetable garden is a lot easier than you imagine. Just remember to start small with your first garden. Even if you have a huge backyard and dream of growing food for family and friends, start off small. Starting small allows you to get the feel of it, to see what grows and what doesn't, and it can save you some sanity! I'd recommend keeping your first vegetable garden at 100 square feet or less. Using the right techniques, you can grow a surprising amount of food in a garden that size.
Choosing the location
Most vegetables and herbs like sun, and lots of it, but there are some plants that tolerate partial shade. If you yard has one area big enough for your entire garden which gets full sun, use that spot. If you need to use a couple different areas in your yard, that can work as well.
Once you've picked the area, or areas, where you want your garden beds to be, I recommend taking a little time to observe those areas. Observation is a key permaculture principle, and helps you get a better understanding of where you want to plant. What do I mean by that? A lot of time we think we know when the sun hits a certain area in the yard, or how a heavy rain effects the ground, but do we know this from serious observation or just a passing glance? Since you are still in the planning stage of creating your garden, why not try this observation exercise?
If you can, go out to your yard and observe the place (or places) you want to create your vegetable garden. Do this in the early morning, around noon, and late afternoon or early evening. Watch when the sun hits the garden spots, and when it is shaded. Take a notebook with you and make notes on this. Also try to pay attention to these areas on windy days, especially if you live in a normally windy area. Imagine how the wind might effect your plants. You should also pay attention to heavy rains and how it effects the garden area. Ideally you should check it out during the rain, but if you'd prefer, you can just head out right away after the rain stops. You want to observe if the water pools up in the garden area, or if it runs off. If your yard has a slope, you'd also want to consider if a heavy rain may cause erosion in your garden. If you do have a sloped yard, you can create a swale to divert the runoff. I'll talk about swales in a separate article.
While there are garden design programs available which let you draw your garden on the computer, I generally head to the garden with a notebook and sketch it out as I am outside by the garden. I also take measurements so I know how much space I have to grow in, and how much is needed for pathways. In the diagram above, you can see how I laid out my garden. I have one square 10' x 10' (100 s.f.) garden plot, and a smaller oval shaped one which is perhaps 15 s.f.. The small oval shaped plot is small enough and doesn't require pathways, but the 10' x 10' plot does. As seen in the sketch, I've divided the square plot into 4 smaller plots and have placed wooden boards (8" wide) as my pathways. I chose to use boards as the paths to help avoid soil compaction where I walk. While the boards will compact the soil, it helps that weight is distributed wider than just stepping on the soil. With the plot divided as seen, I now have four plots which are roughly five feet square. Since I have access to each plot on four sides, my farthest reach is only two and a half feet. That distance seems to work well for me, but others may want a shorter distance.
Now that I have the garden space figured out, it is time to plan what will be planted, and how much of each crop to feed the number of people I intend to grow for.
What to Plant
When we are looking at seed catalogs, our eyes can be bigger than our skills, not to mention our growing zone. I went a bit overboard with my first garden here at my mountain cabin. I wanted everything! Corn, tomatoes, zucchini, basil, etc. Well, at nearly 9000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, not all of that is going to grow as well as a more conducive climate and growing season. If you are just starting out, it is perhaps best to stick with a more basic vegetable garden. Greens such as spinach, collards, kale, Swiss chard, and various lettuce varieties do well. As do radishes, carrots, beans, garlic, and others. Of course, if you are in a warmer growing zone than I am, you can almost bet on a zucchini plant doing well!
Planting Techniques to Consider
All seed packets will give you info on seed spacing, and approximate times from seeding to harvest. The seed space noted on the packets is for traditional planting methods. Many feel these traditional spacings waste valuable planting space, leave more room for weeds, and lower the potential production of your garden.
One alternative is to use the popular Square Foot Gardening method. Another method is biointensive, also know as French Intensive. Both the Square Foot and biointensive methods use tighter plant spacing which produces more food, helps to reduce weeds, and often helps keep more moisture in the soil. Personally, I combine biointensive and Square Foot method along with permaculture methods. (I'll talk more about permaculture in a future article.)
The other aspects of planting that needs to be considered are: succession planting for continuous harvests; and using intercropping and companion planting to fully utilize your growing space.
Succession planting is the concept of planting a crop every week or so you have staggered harvests throughout the season. For example, if determined that you want radishes all season long, you can't just plant them all at once, or you will have a lot of radishes to harvest at one time. So when you space out your planting times, you can have radishes throughout the season. The Fantastic Farm and Garden Calculator helps you to figure out your successive plantings, making it easier to plan your garden.
Intercropping & Companion Planting
The concept behind intercropping is that you plant two or more crops in the same space, at the same time. The crops must be of varying maturity so harvest dates will not overlap otherwise they may crowd each other out. For instance, I always plant radishes and carrots together. Radishes generally are ready for harvest within about 35 days, while the carrots take twice as long until they are ready for harvest. The radishes will be harvested before the half way through the carrot's growing cycle, allowing the carrots room to grow from that point on. You can see, this intercropping method allows you maximize your use of growing space, and get two crops out of one growing space.
The concept of companion planting is that some plants grow well together, while others do not do well together. In my example above, radishes and carrots do well together. Another example is tomatoes and basil, they not only do well together, but it is said that the basil improves the growth and flavor of tomatoes. From my experience with my micro farm, that is true! A good book on companion planting, or even just a basic list of companion plants can help you better plan your garden.
Intercropping and companion planting tie in with succession planting. If you were to succession plant without intercropping and companion planting, you would end up with wasted space while you wait to do successive plantings. By using intercropping and companion planting you maximize your growing space and production.
Using the Fantastic Farm and Garden Calculator to Plan the Garden
In the next installment of this article, I am going to use the Fantastic Farm and Garden Calculator to help me plan plan my garden. Please check back for that article.