5 Tips for Planning A Vegetable Garden

Anyone can grow vegetables!

Honor Your Time & Energy

During the COVID pandemic, vegetable gardening saw a huge upswing. Seed companies sold out of seeds early, nurseries quickly emptied their supply of seedlings, and garden websites and social media pages were busy answering questions. Empty shelves in grocery stores, economic stresses, being confined to homes, and the psychological need to escape the realities of a very different lifestyle were all contributing factors to the sudden surge in growing vegetables.

As we return to work and our previous lifestyles, my hope is that those new gardeners will continue to grow food. But a reality check may be necessary: how much time and energy do you have to devote on a weekly basis to your garden? There are several ways to save both in the garden:

  • Plant perennials like rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries, raspberries & blueberries.
  • Install a timed drip irrigation system. A HUGE timesaver with additional benefits.
  • Purchase starts to transplant instead of sowing seed. (More expensive but still cheaper than buying food at the grocery store.)
  • Only one garden bed? Grow a salad bed: lettuces, radishes, green onions, 1 cucumber plant & 1 cherry tomato plant. Or how about a salsa garden in containers: cilantro, a cherry tomatoes plant, and a pepper plant?
  • Partner with a like-minded friend or neighbor, splitting both the work and the abundance of a bigger garden.
  • Interested in preserving for winter? Check out local farms and farmers’ markets for end-of-season boxes of tomatoes, squash, peppers, cucumbers, etc.
As perennial fruits, strawberries are easy to grow.

Choose the Right Crops

Before you start salivating your way through multiple seed catalogs, first make a list of what you want to grow. Next, consider your space, time, and energy and adjust your list accordingly. Then visit your county Extension Services website (connected to one of your state’s public universities) and see if they have a list of vegetable and fruit varieties that do best in your area. Varieties that have adapted to your climate will have far better success and be less prone to disease.

If you are new to growing food varieties, do research on how to grow each crop you are considering. Your Extension Service will likely have downloadable PDFs of individual crops but library books and websites can offer additional details (see my list of recommended books below). Seed companies seldom provide more than basic information. 

  • Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening: A Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Healthy Garden by Deborah Martin This book is designed for true beginners and is a great place to start if that description fits you.
  • The Suburban Micro-Farm by Amy Stross This is another book designed for beginners but with a permaculture focus. She includes chapters on building healthy soil, growing vegetables, fruit, and herbs, and designing edible landscapes.
  • The All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel BartholomewThis was my first gardening book decades ago and it is perfect for gardeners who want a couple of raised beds with a lot of plants. The author died in 2016 but his simple method remains a favorite among backyard gardeners.

Grow Wisely

Many people choose crops based on recommendations and photos. But one consideration seldom considered is the nutritional value of a crop. We know we should eat a rainbow of colors to boost our intake of antioxidants, so why not grow colorful vegetables? In her research-based book, Eating on the Wild Side, Jo Robinson convinced me to rethink what I would grow in my garden simply based on colors: 

  • Purple potatoes, carrots, sprouting broccoli, asparagus, and cauliflower, contain more anthocyanins – antioxidants that reduce inflammation in the body.
  • Red lettuce, cabbage, onions, berries, and corn also contain more anthocyanins than their less colorful cousins.
  • Open-pollinated varieties can (not always) be more nutritious.
  • Studies have shown that organically or sustainably grown (without the use of synthetic chemicals) produce offers higher levels of nutrients and may contain more antioxidants.
Red cabbage is loaded with antioxidants.
Red cabbage is loaded with antioxidants.

Another factor to consider is the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables in your area. My region is full of orchards so I don’t grow fruit trees. I also have access to a growing number of market farmers who grow organic vegetables that are sold through local farmers’ markets, collectives, and farm CSAs. When I purchase from local growers, I am contributing to a local food economy and saving time and energy as well as my aging back!

Create a Garden Calendar, Map, & Notebook

How do you know when a cabbage or ear of corn is ready to harvest? How well did the varieties that you grew last year do? When did the aphids show up last year? What crops were dramatically affected by last summer’s heat waves? If you plan to rotate your crops this year, how will you remember what and where you planted last year?

Recordkeeping is part of the learning process and a few minutes each day of recording information could save you time, energy, money, and heartbreak the next season. You don’t need to invest in special garden journals and software though that is certainly an option. You can use digital spreadsheets, documents, and calendars on your computer. I use a mix of digital and paper methods.

  • A digital planning spreadsheet for crops and dates for planting
  • A second spreadsheet for my seed inventory
  • Graph paper for creating a hand-drawn map of my garden each year
  • A 3-ring binder to record written observations & notes
  • Paper calendar that I keep in the binder

Plant for Succession, Extension & Seed Saving

Succession planting ensures a continual harvest of crops that have shorter maturity rates by planting smaller amounts every other week instead of planting all at once. It takes a bit more time, organization, and good notetaking but is an excellent way to keep harvesting healthy and nutritious vegetables each week throughout your growing season. In northern latitudes, the following crops can be sowed every two weeks, possibly up to the last frost date if season extension strategies are used.

  • Lettuce, radish, green onions, salad turnips, peas
  • Arugula, kale, bok choy, mustard greens, Asian greens, spinach
  • Cilantro, parsley, basil
  • Cabbage, fennel, kohlrabi, broccoli
Redhead lettuce planted every two weeks can keep you in salad throughout the season.

Extending your growing season is another way to grow a bit more food. Using cold frames, mini-greenhouses, cloches, and cloth to protect plants from frost and cold temperatures are called season extension. In my snowy region, keeping plastic tunnels on a couple of beds over the winter will make them accessible for earlier spring planting. Because of the changing light, growing earlier in the spring is a bit easier than extending into late fall/early winter.

Mini-tunnels over raised beds.

For thousands of years, food growers had to save their own seeds because there were no retail outlets. Saving seeds is economical but also a bit spiritual for me as I ponder the many hands of women, over thousands of years, who collected, cleaned, and stored seeds to feed & heal their families the following year. It’s the same warm and fuzzy sense of self-reliance I get when I stand before my filled freezer and pantry.

Seed garlic
Never buy seed garlic again: save the biggest cloves each year to plant in the fall for next year’s harvest.

My purpose for creating this website is to help people develop skills and knowledge that will increase their resilience and happiness. You don’t need acres of land to practice homestead thinking; the homesteading mindset is about abundance, purpose, and ethical living. Permaculture’s ethics, principles, and strategies have changed the lifestyles and lives of millions of people on this planet.

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Let’s embrace the abundance and simplicity of a homesteading mindset.