With the arrival of seed catalogs, the next garden season begins. Before you place an order from catalogs or online sources featuring beautiful photos and enticing descriptions or purchase plants in the spring from garden centers, get your garden PLAN in place.
It may seem that gardening is merely picking out some seed or plants, putting them in the ground, and watching them grow. Seasoned gardeners will tell you that growing a successful garden is also an investment of time, patience, and hard work and begins with a PLAN, whether it be flowers, herbs, fruits, or vegetables. There is no need to be a master gardener to create a PLAN that brings joy or an abundant harvest. Here are a few tips to help get your garden PLAN started or improved upon.
P – Ponder your project.
Before getting carried away with ordering or buying seeds, plants, or stock, ask yourself some important questions. What kind of garden do I want? What do I like? What piques my interest? How much space do I have? How much space is needed for the individual plants? How much time can I commit to seed starting, planting, weeding, mulching, watering, maintaining, pruning, or harvesting? What will I do with the produce? Which plants will thrive in my plant hardiness zone? Will I plant from seed or transplants? Is there a location where a garden can be placed or would containers be a better option? How will I control weeds? Answers to these questions will help develop a plan for your location and lifestyle.
L – Location and layout.
Once you have decided what you want to grow, consider the location of the garden. How will it fit into your outdoor space? Do the plants require sun or shade? Most vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowering plants grow best with at least six hours of sun so a sunny location is needed unless you are considering a shade garden. How level is the ground? Should the beds be raised? How close is a convenient water source? Avoid locations near trees or shrubs, north-facing slopes, and low areas. These locations pose potential problems with shading and roots robbing nutrients and moisture, cooler temperatures and less sun, and extended periods of wetness nurturing disease and rot, respectively.
Once the location has been determined, sketch a layout of the garden site on graph paper or use a computer program. If growing a vegetable garden for your own food, calculate how much to plant per person using this K-State guide. Determine the distance needed between rows and plants. The recommended spacing is usually given on the seed packet or plant tag; it is also important to allow enough space between the rows or plantings for cultivation and access. A north to south layout is ideal according to Michigan State University. If a garden has been previously grown in the location, plan to rotate the plant families by moving them to a different location within the garden to increase soil fertility and crop yield as well as to cut down on common plant diseases that overwinter in soil.
A – Analyze the soil.
A soil test is the only way to determine soil pH (acid or alkaline) and what nutrients are needed to amend the soil to maximize plant potential. Most garden plants grow best when the soil pH is between 6.0 and 6.8. Once the analysis has been made, you will know what is needed to amend your soil and prevent over fertilization and some plant diseases. To get an accurate soil test, sample collection needs to be done carefully. University of Minnesota has an excellent ‘how to’ YouTube video to correctly collect a soil sample. Soil testing is done by private and state laboratories. A list of certified labs in Iowa can be found on the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship website. Most labs do not test for nitrogen because nitrogen is not retained in soil making it necessary to replenish it annually. After getting the results, you may want to contact your local Extension Office for help in understanding the results.
N – Notes.
Keeping good records, notes or a garden journal is imperative to learning from previous garden experiences. Notes should include sources of seeds or plants, where and how planted, time of planting, yields or outcomes. One should also record the layout, number of plants, spacing, soil test results, inputs added prior to planting and during the growing season along with any chemicals that were applied during the season for insect control, fungus, or disease. At the end of the season, notes should include “to dos” for the next growing season such as pruning, transplanting, or anything else that would improve the health and wellbeing of plants in the next garden. Pictures, seed packets or plant tags, and chemical labels are also great keepers. And it doesn’t hurt to add a “wish list” for the next growing season as well—books, tools, plants to try, resources, tours, workshops or webinars, podcasts, etc.
Along with notes, one should also take stock of any seed that may have been left from planting a previous garden or collected. When stored in cool, dry, and dark conditions, seed may remain viable for one to five years or longer. Charts indicating the average viability of properly stored seed can be found on several internet sites; some seed catalogs also have charts. Clear Creek Seed is one source for vegetables, flowers, and herbs; UNL Extension has a more extensive guide for vegetables. If you are uncertain about whether seeds will germinate, an easy germination test will be beneficial to determine viability.
Let the season begin! Make your PLAN now and put it into action to achieve your best garden yet.
Collecting Soil Samples for Testing. (May 2018). Purdue Extension. https://extension.purdue.edu/news/county/marion/2021/09/Soil-Testing-Information.html
Eilers, Steven. Soil Testing. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. https://www.extension.iastate.edu/blackhawk/soil-testing
How to Take a Soil Sample from Your Lawn or Garden. (8 June 2020). University of Minnesota Extension. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeK4Eg9Dzr8
Last, Rob and Robert Polomski. (12 February 2021 revised). Planning a Garden, Fact Sheet HGIC 1256. Clemson Cooperative Extension. https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/planning-a-garden/
Lindgren, Dale T. and Sarah J Browning. (June 2011) Neb Guide G2090. Vegetable Garden Seed Storage and Germination Requirements. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. https://go.unl.edu/seedstorage
Marr, Charles W. (October 2017). Vegetable Garden Planting Guide. MF 315. K-State Research and Extension. https://bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu/pubs/mf315.pdf
Planning a Garden. Seed Savers Exchange. https://www.seedsavers.org/planning-a-garden
Schirtzinger, Sabrina. (13 May 2020). Checking the Germination Rate of Old Seed. Ohio State University Extension. https://bygl.osu.edu/node/1564
Taylor, Lee and Gretchen Voyle. (26 August 2016). How to Plan Your Garden Tip Sheet. Michigan State University Extension. https://www.canr.msu.edu/resources/how_to_plan_your_garden_tip_sheet
Upham, Ward and Charles W. Marr. (October 2017). Vegetable Garden Planting Guide. K-State Extension. https://bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu/pubs/mf315.pdf
USDA. Plant hardiness Zone Map. https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/