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For me, a detailed vegetable garden planner is essential to growing a productive and healthy vegetable garden. It keeps me on track of when to sow seeds indoors, helps make crop rotation simple, and allows me to maximum production with a succession planting schedule. Whether you’re starting your first food garden or are a seasoned vegetable gardener, consider creating your own custom planner to help you get more out of your garden.
Planning a new vegetable garden
When planning a new vegetable garden, start off right by picking a site that offers plenty of light. Most vegetables need at least eight hours of full sunlight to support healthy growth and maximize production. This is especially important for crops like tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers that bear fruits. Leafy greens are more tolerant of less light, so if finding a spot with full sun is a struggle, stick to these vegetables.
Designing a vegetable garden
Designing a vegetable garden is an important step in your vegetable garden plan. A well-designed space has a huge impact on the amount of time you need to spend tending your garden. My garden consists of twenty raised beds and here is what I’ve learned when planning a new garden:
- Raised beds are great for busy gardeners. Raised beds keep the garden looking tidy, let me plant intensively and grow more food in less space, and are less prone to weed problems (that said, it’s very important to stay on top of weeds and never let them go to seed!)
- Bed size matters. In my raised bed garden, the beds are either four by eight-feet or four by ten-feet. These are common and convenient sizes as lumber is widely available in eight and ten-foot lengths. I would definitely recommend keeping bed width to four or five-feet. I’ve seen six or eight-foot wide raised beds but these are far too wide for you to comfortably reach the centre of the bed for planting, tending, and harvesting. One of the biggest benefits of growing in raised beds is that you don’t walk on the soil, which compacts it. By keeping beds narrow enough that you can easily reach the middle, you won’t need to trod on the soil. As for height, this will depend on your design style, existing soil, and budget. My beds are sixteen-inches tall which provide a place for me to sit while working in the garden.
- Leave space for working. When I built my garden, I’ll admit it was tempting to cram more beds in my allotted space, but I was careful to leave enough room between each bed for easy access. I wanted space for a wheelbarrow and comfortable working. My main pathway is four-feet wide and secondary pathways are two-feet wide. I also left room for seating so I would have a spot to sit and enjoy the garden.
For more information on gardening in raised beds, check out this list of raised bed articles which covers design, planning, soil, and planting. You may also be interested in my book, Groundbreaking Food Gardens which features 73 plans, ideas, and inspiration from food growing experts across North America and the UK.
Annual vegetable garden planner
Once you’ve found your site and built your garden, the initial work is done but you’ll still need to stay organized from year to year to get the most from your space. Here are some considerations for planning and planting your vegetable garden, as well as advice on extending the harvest season into late autumn and winter.
The three growing seasons
There are three main growing seasons in my vegetable garden year – the cool, warm and cold seasons. It’s important to understand the different growing seasons as you’ll need to match the crop to its best season. Of course there is overlap. For example, carrots thrive in the cool season of spring and fall, but with protection we also harvest them during the cold winter season.
- Cool season – The cool season happens twice each year, in spring and again in fall when the temperatures are between 40 and 70 F (5 and 20 C). This is a time when leafy greens like lettuce and spinach thrive, as well as crops like broccoli, cabbage, beets, and carrots. I love gardening in the cool season when the temperatures are mild, there is usually ample moisture for the plants, and fewer blackflies and mosquitos which makes outdoor working more pleasant. There are also fewer garden pests like squash bugs and aphids, although I do have plenty of slugs to handpick each spring.
- Warm season – The warm season is the stretch between the spring and fall frost dates. Warm season vegetables aren’t frost tolerant and need plenty of heat to produce a good yield. Examples of warm season crops include tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and peppers. In short season areas, using season extenders like mini hoop tunnels, a greenhouse or polytunnel, or even just pre-warming the soil with black plastic can speed up growth and increase yield of warm season vegetables.
- Cold season – The cold season is long, cold, and dark in my zone 5 northern garden. Yet, it’s still a productive time as beneath my season extenders I have a good crop of cold-tolerant vegetables like scallions, leeks, kale, carrots, and winter salad greens. Most of these are seeded or transplanted in mid-to late summer.
Vegetable garden planting plan
Raise your hand if you love seed catalog season! Deciding what to grow each year is one of my favorite ways to pass the long winter days. As I’m going through the seed catalogs, I make a note of crops and varieties that pique my interest. I then go back over that list a few times, picking family favourite crops and varieties as well as new and new-to-me ones to try.
While I love growing ‘standard’ vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and lettuce, I also love to experiment with unusual and global crops like cucamelons, amaranth, and edible gourds. This became the topic of my third book, the award-winning Niki Jabbour’s Veggie Garden Remix. If you’re looking to shake up your annual vegetable garden, be sure to check it out.
Another important consideration when deciding which varieties to grow is resistance. If certain insects or diseases are annual problems in your garden, you should plan to grow resistant varieties of your favorite vegetables. For example, if you’re plagued with late tomato blight, opt for resistant varieties like ‘Defiant’ or ‘Mountain Magic’. If your basil is prone to downy mildew, try ‘Amazel’, ‘Prospera’, or ‘Rutgers Devotion DMR’.
Small space gardeners who don’t have a ‘back 40’ for their vegetable garden typically grow vegetables and herbs in small beds or containers. Happily, plant breeders have been busy developing compact or dwarf varieties of your favourite crops. There are many space-saving varieties like ‘Tom Thumb’ peas, ‘Patio Snacker’ cucumber, or ‘Patio Baby’ eggplant. Find a detailed list of compact varieties to grow HERE.
When it comes time to actually starting seeds indoors, pay attention to the recommendations listed on the seed packet or in the seed catalog. Starting seeds too early isn’t a good idea as overgrown seedlings or those producing fruits while still immature typically never live up to their production potential. For more advice on the pitfalls of starting seeds too early, check out this article.
If you’re new to gardening, you’ll want to find out your average spring and fall frost dates. These are your guides for timing when to seed or transplant. Cool season crops are generally planted a few weeks before the last spring frost and warm season crops after the last frost date has passed. The frost date is also important when calculating when to start seeds indoors under grow lights. For example, tomatoes are usually started indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last expected spring frost. If you know your frost date is May 20th, you should sow your tomato seeds indoors around April 1st.
To calculate when to sow your seeds indoors, check out this helpful seed starting calculator from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
The planting of cold season vegetables harvested in late fall and winter is based on the first fall frost, not the spring frost. For example, I love growing Napoli carrots in my winter garden. They take around 58 days to go from seed to harvest and I use that information to calculate when to plant for a fall and winter crop. I simply count backwards 58 days from my first expected fall frost date. However, because the days get shorter in autumn, I’ll add an extra week or so to the seeding date to make sure the carrots have adequate time to mature. That means my fall crop of Napoli carrots needs about 65 days to mature. Counting backwards from my average fall frost date of Oct 6th tells me that I need to seed my carrots around August 2nd.
Annual Soil Preparation
One of my main reasons of having my vegetable garden planner is to aim for the highest yield from each crop. To do that, I need to pay attention to soil health. We’ve all heard the advice to ‘feed the soil, not the plant,’ and this is a good rule to follow. I get a soil test every few years to access the health of my soil, adding organic amendments and nutrients when needed. I make my own compost (start a compost pile!) from kitchen and garden scraps and also make a few piles of shredded leaves each autumn to supply me with leaf mold compost.
I also feed my soil with aged manure, composted seaweed, and balanced organic granular fertilizers. These are added at the start of the planting season but also lightly between each crop. During the active growing season, I apply a liquid organic fertilizer every few weeks to high fertility crops like tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers. Container-grown vegetables also get regular application of liquid organic fertilizers.
Finally, because I live in a region where the native soils tend to be acidic, I keep an eye on my soil pH, adding lime when necessary. Most crops grow best when the soil pH is in the 6.0 to 7.0 range.
To be a savvy vegetable garden planner you need to consider crop rotation. Moving crops around the garden on a three or four year rotation schedule is the best way to reduce insect and disease problems and prevent nutrient depletion. Crop rotation sounds complicated but don’t worry, it’s really quite simple. I like to divide my vegetables by family – cabbage family, nightshade family, and pea family – and group each family together in the garden. These vegetable families are then rotated around the garden each year.
For example, if you have four beds you can maintain a four year crop rotation schedule by shifting each family to the next bed each year. If you only have a single bed, I would still recommend crop rotation, especially if you’re growing disease or insect prone vegetables like tomatoes. Try a three year crop rotation schedule by planting your tomato plants at one end of the bed in year 1, the opposite end in year 2, and in containers in year 3.
- Cabbage family – broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, radishes, mustard greens, turnips
- Nightshade family – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, potatoes
- Pea family – peas, beans
- Gourd family – cucumbers, squash, melons
- Carrot family – carrots, parsnips, celery
- Amaranth family – spinach, Swiss chard, beets
When I’m planning what to grow in my vegetable garden I don’t just think about what to plant in spring, but I also think about what I’ll want to grow to take the place of the spring crops once they’re finished. For example, a spring crop of arugula can be followed by bush beans for summer followed by broccoli for autumn.
Succession planting is just planting another crop once an initial one has been harvested and is one of the best ways to grow the most food in your garden. When I order my spring seeds, I keep the summer, fall, and winter harvest seasons in mind. Many of my late season crops are planted or transplanted in mid to late summer. Ordering all the seeds I need for the entire year in my January seed orders helps keep me organized and ensures I have the seeds I need when I’m ready to plant. Plus, placing a few bulk orders saves on shipping costs over a bunch of smaller orders.
To organize my succession planting, I find it helps to have a sketch of my garden layout. On each bed, I then jot down what I wish to plant for spring, summer, and fall/winter. Then to expand my plan, I make a month by month planting list to remind me when to sow which seeds and how they need to be started – indoors under my grow lights or direct sown in the garden. This keeps my planting plan on schedule.
Common garden pests and diseases
I plan for potential pest and disease problems before I plant my garden. How? I choose disease and insect resistant varieties, I rotate my crops on a three to four year schedule, and I use lightweight insect barrier covers to deter pests. In my garden, my biggest issues are deer, flea beetles, and slugs, I have an electric fence surrounding my garden to keep the deer out. In a small space like a single raised bed, you can erect a mini hoop tunnel covered in insect barrier fabric, chicken wire, or deer netting overtop. This should be enough of a barrier to keep deer away from your vegetables.
As for insect pests and plant diseases, it’s important to take preventative steps, especially if your garden is plagued with the same issues year after year. As noted above, growing resistant varieties is key, but so is researching the most common pests you face and see how you can deter them. Jessica’s excellent book, Good Bug, Bad Bug is extremely helpful at identifying insect pests. Lightweight insect barriers are effective for squash bugs and flea beetles, diatomaceous earth for slugs, and a soil mulch of straw or shredded leaves can reduce the spread of soil-borne diseases like early tomato blight.
A year round vegetable garden planner
I love my year-round vegetable garden. I love that I can harvest a wide selection of organic vegetables all through the year, including the winter months. And I live in zone 5! I’ve written extensively about season extension in my award-winning book, The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener, but essentially I pair cold hardy crops with simple season extenders.
My winter food garden is filled with mini hoop tunnels, cold frames, and deep mulched beds. I also added a polytunnel in 2018 which has been a fantastic way to not only shelter winter crops. It also gives me a jump on the spring planting season and offers extra warmth to my heat-loving summer tomatoes and peppers from late spring through mid-autumn. I wrote about using a winter greenhouse in this article.
3 season extenders for the home garden:
- Cold frame – Cold frames are bottomless boxes with clear tops. The box can be made from wood, bricks, polycarbonate, or even straw bales. The top can be an old window or door, or specially built to fit the size of the box.
- Mini hoop tunnel – A mini hoop tunnel looks like a small greenhouse and that’s exactly what it is. I make mine from 1/2 or 3/4 inch diameter PVC or metal conduit bent in a U-shape. The metal conduit is bent with a metal hoop bender. They’re spaced three to four feet apart in my raised beds and are covered with a sheet of clear polyethylene or row cover, depending on the season.
- Deep mulching – This technique is perfect for stem crops like leeks and root vegetables like carrots, beets, and parsnips. Before the ground freezes in late autumn, deep mulch the bed with at least a foot deep layer of shredded leaves or straw. Top with an old row cover or other piece of material to hold the mulch in place. Harvest throughout winter.
For more information on creating a vegetable garden planner, check out the excellent book, Week by Week Vegetable Garden Planner which offers plenty of space for you to create your own custom plan.
You’ll find additional information and advice on food gardening in these helpful articles:
- 6 steps to growing a healthy tomato garden
- Unique vegetables to grow in your garden
- Learn how to garden with a cold frame
How do you plan your vegetable garden?