As I type this, I am sitting outside on our deck, basking in the sun of a 75° degree day—Spring has officially sprung, my friends! And as soon as the buds start showing on the trees (well, actually quite a bit earlier than that), I start getting the gardening bug. There is something about all this rampant sunshine that makes me just itch to get outside and get my hands in the soil.
I know vegetable gardening seems intimidating (especially if you weren’t fortunate enough to grow up in a gardening household like both Craig and I were), but I promise, it can actually be incredibly simple. And I can promise you, there are few things in this world as satisfying as producing your own food. I’ve done a lot of “big” things in my life. I’ve won big awards. I’ve worked on big projects for big, important people. I’ve been to big, exciting places. But, to me, nothing is as satisfying as the fulfillment I get from nurturing a plant from seed to plate. Not to get all new age-y on you, but there is something really spiritual about the whole process.
And even if you aren’t as crunchy granola as we are, there are obvious logical benefits to being your own food producer as well. First up, you save some cash. Take fresh herbs for example (something that is a breeze for anyone to grow, even if all you have is a sunny window). A tiny one-ounce packet of fresh basil at our grocery store runs about $2. And there’s barely enough basil in there to make a caprese salad. But you can pick up a packet of basil seeds for about that same price. And that packet of seeds will give you enough basil to eat a caprese salad for every meal from June through October. Plus enough to make all the fresh pesto you’d ever want (and enough to freeze some pesto for use in the winter).
And now I really want a caprese salad.
Another benefit is that you know exactly what goes into and what goes on your food. Don’t want to eat pesticides? Fine, don’t use them. Want to skip GMO food? Cool, just buy seeds that aren’t GMO. Hate cucumbers with big seeds? Fine, just pick a variety that doesn’t have big seeds (and pick your cucumbers early).
And of course, my favorite benefit—it just tastes better. Better than anything you’ll find at the supermarket.
Anywho, enough of me trying to convince you that you need to grow your own food (really, you do). Let’s talk logistics.
I thought that you guys might like a sneak peek into how we go about planning our garden every year. Now, I totally and completely get it that we are blessed with our massive, huge, giant garden and a lot of folks don’t have that kind of space (or don’t want to maintain that kind of growing space). But this process that we go through can work for big gardens (like our garden that is, literally, more than twice the square footage of our house) all the way down to patio gardens. And we should know! Before we made the move out the country, we did five years of container gardening on an apartment patio in the city. And we used the same method for planning out our crops then as we do now.
Let’s get started.
1. Figure out your space.
If you don’t have an already established growing space, you’re going to need to figure out where to put your garden. To grow veggies, you’re looking for a sunny spot—quite honestly, the sunnier the better, but you could get by with as little as 6 hours (during the summer) of direct sunlight a day. You’ll also probably want access to water for those stretches in August when you don’t see a drop of rain for weeks at a time. Good soil makes your life easier, but it isn’t necessary (compost is your friend—make your own or pick up some at your local garden supply store).
I won’t go into how to build a garden from scratch (there are lots of great books with that information—like this one), but I will say that if you aren’t sure if gardening is for you, my suggestion is to start small. Build or buy a single raised bed. Or snag a few large containers from your local home improvement store. I believe a lot of the reason why people get overwhelmed with gardening and give up is because they sign on for too much at the beginning. I get it! The potential of growing all these beautiful veggies can be exciting. And excitement leads to 300 seed packets and a backyard that is completely destroyed—and a gardener that is frustrated and defeated before they even harvest their first tomato. Start small. You can always add more next growing season, but you can never get rid of the bad taste that is in your mouth if you have a bad first season.
2. Figure out what you want to grow.
Now that you’ve mapped out your space, you have to figure out what you want to grow in it! This sounds really simple, but it’s actually one of the most time intensive parts of our garden planning process. In fact, we usually start this way back in December or January for our big garden, but that’s because we cram nearly 200 varieties into our growing space! We pore over seed catalogs and seed review sites to figure out what we want and what will work for us—but you don’t need to do that. Your process can be as simple as heading to the local garden center and looking at their seedlings or seed packets and just picking out what sounds good.
Our lists are pretty complex. We actually study each variety of tomato (we’re only growing six varieties this year—down from 10 last year) and make notes about each one, but your list can be as simple as saying, “Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Green Peppers.” Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be! If you catch the gardening bug, you’ll eventually get great joy out of spending hours in front of seed catalog. But for now, just pick out some things that look and sound fun.
A bit of advice: you’ll be tempted to grow foods you and your family don’t usually eat. Don’t. It sounds crazy, but I promise, the appeal of the shiny seed packets and the beautiful seedlings are really hard to pass up, even if no one in your family likes cucumbers. Stick to the foods that you and your family really love and enjoy. Not only does it make sure you won’t waste any of your hard-earned veggies, but it also means you’ll be more motivated to put the time and effort into nurturing your plants. It might sound romantic and idyllic to grow heirloom tomatoes, but if your whole family hates tomatoes, you aren’t going to be successful. Pick foods that excite you!
Once you have a list of what you want to grow, it’s time to match it up with your space.
3. Plan the space.
There are a few ways to match up your space (which you figured out in step #1) with your plants (step #2), and each gardener has a preference. In fact, Craig and I both do it different ways! Craig likes good ole paper and pencil for planning out our garden. He’ll draw it up on graph paper and draw in the plants using the recommended spacing on the back of the seed packets or seedling tags. I sometimes use this method, too.
I think the pencil and paper plan is perfect for newbies. Folks have been doing it for generations. It’s hard to mess with that!
But, I usually go a little more high-tech. There are numerous garden planning websites and programs out there (some free, some not, some good, some not), but I love the Mother Earth News Vegetable Garden Planner. It’s free to try for 30 days, which is plenty of time to plan this year’s garden. We actually pay the $25 a year for the service because it works so well for us. And no, Mother Earth News doesn’t sponsor me (or this post). Although that would be totally awesome if they did. I <3 Mother Earth News.
I love the Mother Earth News planner because it’s easy to use, it automatically fills in spacing for you (no referring to seed packets), it recommends plants that work well together, and best of all for long-term gardeners like us, it saves your plans from year-to-year. You simply put in the measurements of your garden (or draw in your containers) and then you drag and drop plants from the top bar into your space. It’s fun!
My favorite part of the Mother Earth News planner is that once your plan is done, you can print out a handy-dandy plant list reference sheet that tells you how many plants you need to pick up, how to plant them, what spacing to use, and, most importantly, when in your area to plan them. This little sheet is a lifesaver during planting season!
Your garden plan is almost done, but before you dig into the soil, you need to tackle one more thing—timing.
4. Plan your schedule.
For most veggies, you’ll want to wait until after the last frost date in your area before planting (there are cool weather veggies—like kale, spinach, onions, peas, etc. that can go in earlier, but not a ton earlier). So you’ll need to know that date! If you’re using the Mother Earth News planner, it automagically fills in that information based on your zip code.
But if you’re going old school with paper and pencil, this chart has frost dates for all major U.S. and Canadian cities. In our area, our last frost date is May 10th, and we usually live on the edge and put our plants out around Kentucky Derby weekend (the first weekend in May, for you folks who don’t live in Kentuckiana).
Before that date, you don’t really want to put anything out in the garden (unless you plan on growing cooler weather veggies, which will be noted on their seed packets or seedling catalogs), for fear of a late frost that nips all your plants. Most of the summer standards—tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, eggplant, herbs, etc.—need to stay far away from cold weather.
And that’s it. Your garden is planned! Now you just have to wait until your frost date (which is always hard). Happy gardening!