Garden Planning for Beginners

Start small and grow what you love.

If you are a food grower, chances are you have been making a list and checking it twice of what you want to grow and may have already placed your seed order. Good for you! The seed industry has experienced tremendous pressure the last two years and this year is expected to be the same. 

If you aren’t growing a portion of food, what is stopping you? A lack of knowledge, overwhelm, not sure where or how to start? Then this article is for you. This article is also for those of you who are mentoring a new gardener or trying to encourage someone to start growing food. Or for the tired gardener who is experienced garden burnout or simply wants a carefree summer.

But first, for a bit of inspiration, watch this TED Talk from 2011.

I have a big vegetable garden – over 4000 sq. feet that includes 13 raised beds, two long hugelkultur beds, a large raspberry patch, a small L-shaped herb bed, and a large rectangle of a sheet mulched bed where I have been growing tomatoes and squash for the last few seasons. It is my almost full-time job during the growing season, and I count my food production and preservation as part of my annual income (tax-free vegetable currency!). I enjoy the fruits of my labor throughout the winter when I open a jar of jalapeno salsa, bake a winter squash that has been stored in my unheated spare bedroom, or roast a head of garlic for soup. I still buy fresh fruits and vegetables from local growers and my local grocery store and after watching prices rise this past year, I am glad to have so much healthy food preserved and stored.

A year's worth of garlic
I grow a year’s worth of garlic by planting in October, harvesting in July.

I certainly didn’t start out that way. I didn’t grow up gardening and didn’t get serious about it until my 30s. My first homegrown vegetable success was a row of onions in my neighbor’s yard! A few years later, when I decided to grow my garden to nine raised beds, an herb garden, an ornamental landscape, and a small apple orchard while working full-time, I immediately felt overwhelmed and unprepared. My goal was simple: grow everything. Needless to say, a lot of time, energy, and money was wasted and disappointment and resentment were ever-present as I stomped around the garden. 

This year I am being mindful about my garden planning as I suffer from “Shiny Seed Syndrome” – a condition where you buy and start lots of seeds and then try to figure out where you are going to plant them and then feel discouraged when you don’t get around to harvesting and eating what you have grown. I blame the gorgeous seed catalogs! But I know I have other big projects for this year and so I am planning a smaller garden.

Why bother? I believe every person should grow at least one food crop. It keeps us in tune with the cycle of life, gets us outdoors, offers a glimpse of the challenges of growing food, and is a sign of optimism. The last two years have tested us and it’s looking like 2022 is going to do the same. We need healthy and hopeful distractions. What is more hopeful than planning a garden in the middle of winter?

To that end, I offer some tips and thoughts on a planning food garden that you will enjoy.

First, take an inventory of your motivation and reality.

  1. What are your reasons and goals for growing food?
  2. How many hours each week are you willing to dedicate to your garden?
  3. How much space do you have?
  4. Will it be a solo or group activity?

Note that your goals may be quite ambitious but you may not have the space or time to support the goals. The best garden advice to beginners is to start small. Define your goals. If you are new to growing food I recommend starting small by growing 1- 3 crops. Remember that you can do additional sowing (called successive sowing) throughout the season.

Most vegetables and fruits require 6-8 hours of sun, consistent watering, occasional weeding, decent soil, and benefit from doses of fertilizer. If you don’t have access to land, you can grow food in containers on a patio, deck, or balcony. Does your community have a community garden that rents out beds? This is a great way to meet other gardeners and garner growing tips and garden wisdom.

Fruit Options

Another factor to consider is what you prefer to buy at your local store or farmer’s market? I buy most of my fruit from local growers (apples, pears, cherries, apricots, blueberries) since it is readily available and they do the hard work of caring for fruit trees and shrubs. I do grow raspberries, strawberries, and rhubarb for the following reasons:

Raspberries: Super healthy including lots of fiber, easy to grow and preserve, and are a perennial over-achiever, producing an abundance of starts each summer. They do require consistent watering, pruning in the late fall or early spring, and some space. I grow the fall-bearing cultivar, Caroline, because spring and summer are too busy to harvest raspberries.

Raspberries are one of the easiest fruits to grow.
Raspberries are one of the easiest fruits to grow. PHOTO: SK

Strawberries: Easy to grow and preserve, they reproduce through runners and don’t require much space. They can be added to a south-facing ornamental bed or grown in a trough on your patio. Slugs like them as much as we do and they do need consistent watering.

Ripening strawberries
Ripening strawberries. PHOTO: SK

Rhubarb: Technically a vegetable that we treat as a fruit. A perennial that is one of the first plants to pop out in the spring, unfurling its lime green crinkly leaves. I only have two plants because it is truly a seasonal delight that I harvest and use immediately rather than preserve. 

Crinkly leaves of spring rhubarb
Crinkly leaves of spring rhubarb. PHOTO: SK

Fast Growing Salad Fixins’ & Seed Saving

A variety of lettuces and salad radishes can be sowed in early spring and then later, transplant cucumber and cherry tomato plants once the soil is warmed up to 50°F. If you have the space the lettuce and radishes can be sowed every two weeks until the summer heat settles in. Then let the last sowing go to seed to save for next year. Once the temps cool down in September, you can sow lettuce and radish one or two more times (or more with row cover protection).

Using older seeds from a variety of cultivars, I combined them and sowed them, creating a mixed lettuce bed.
Using older seeds from a variety of cultivars, I combined them and sowed them, creating a mixed lettuce bed.
PHOTO: SK

A Bed of Greens, Please

I have learned to eat greens – I am not enthusiastic about it but if you add onions, garlic, soy sauce, or sriracha, I promise to eat all of my greens. Edible greens like kale, spinach, mustard greens, chard, collard greens, nettle leaves, and an interesting array of Asian greens (tatsoi!) are easy to grow, cook and preserve, and highly nutritious. Which is why I eat them. The thing about greens is that they can be used in so many ways: sauteed and served as a bed for a salmon filet or chicken breast; added to smoothies, soups, and stirfries; hidden in meatloaf, layered in lasagna, even dried to a powder to add to everything else! Kale and collard greens will stand up to snow though look a bit rough when the snow melts. Aphids like my kale plants so I try to harvest the leaves frequently, then saute and freeze them in a silicone muffin pan and call them Kale Cakes. (recipe below)

Red Russian kale is a prolific producer.
Red Russian kale is a prolific producer. PHOTO: SK

Tomato Love

There is one food plant I will continue to grow when I have to give up my big garden: tomatoes. They fall on my prima donna list because they can be a bit demanding about their growing conditions but tomatoes plucked from a plant, cut and placed on a salad, or paired with a slice of fresh mozzarella and a basil leaf, and drizzled with balsamic vinegar is the main reason for growing tomatoes. Other reasons include pasta sauce, roasted tomatoes, dried tomatoes, and tomato-based soups. Start with a cherry tomato plant and then watch as you become obsessed with growing tomatoes.

Tomato plants need support and benefit from pruning throughout the growing season.
Tomato plants need support and benefit from pruning throughout the growing season. PHOTO: SK

Resources

If you are wondering about garden planning that includes details about creating a garden from nothing, then check out the following books at your library:

Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening: A Beginner’s Guide to Start A Healthy Garden

Square Foot Gardening (perfect for small spaces)

The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible 

Gaia’s Garden (permaculture basics and my introduction to permaculture)

My gardening education has led me to permaculture which is much more than growing food but it can be the portal you choose to start growing food. There are so many more resources available than when I started growing back in the 1980s. There are also websites, podcasts, many youtube channels, TV shows, and social media groups. I don’t really utilize that media for gardening information but welcome any recommendations from readers.

Start Here

I wish someone had told me decades ago about seeking regional garden information. One often-overlooked regional information source is the state Extension service. Each state has an Extension office housed at a state university. The Extension staff support local agriculture through research, crop trials, providing support for farmers and orchardists, and most have some staff who assist home gardeners by providing recommended cultivars and education through the Master Gardening program. You should find publications that you can download for free or for a small fee. This is a great resource that your tax dollars are already supporting. 

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