Updated: Nov 2
Whether you’re starting a garden for the first time, or you’ve been gardening for years, every good garden starts with a plan! However, one of the first things you’ll want to remember about garden planning, and gardening, in general, is there are many different ways to do it, and what is right for you may not be right for someone else's garden.
Depending on the type of garden you’re planting, the goals you hope to achieve with it, the space you're in, and the soil you have, your plans may look completely different than someone else’s. That’s okay, “you do you”. That being said, in this article, we’ll walk you through all the basic steps that you need to know to plan a garden, and from there, you can plan and plant to your heart's content.
Why Plan a Garden?
Though many avid gardeners make it look simple, there is more to gardening than just putting seeds in the ground and watching them grow. As with most things, it pays to think through your garden project before you start ordering seeds and plants. Otherwise, you may find that you have varieties that won’t grow in your region, or soil type, and your garden could be doomed before you start.
Get in the Zone
One of the most important things to consider before you plan your garden is what USDA planting zone you are in. Here in Southwest Colorado, we are in Zone 5b. You can find your planting hardiness zone here. Your planting zone will be a large factor in what you can and cannot grow. Additionally, you will need to know your first and last frost dates. You can find out your dates, by entering your zip code here.
When Should Garden Planning Start?
There’s no time like the present! Planning a garden should be started as soon as you decide you want a garden. Ideally, it is done in late winter, or early spring. The point is that you need to get your plan in place so you have the time needed to order seeds, plants, soil amendments, and any necessary tools or implements. Plus, If winter blues are starting to get you down, there’s nothing better to lift your spirits than looking forward to spring and planning your garden.
Location, Location, Location!
One of the things that will have the largest impact on the success or failure of your garden is its location. Consider these important factors when thinking about where to place your garden.
The first thing to consider is, which way is south. The south side of your property will inevitably get all or most of the sun, while the north side is often shaded by your home or other structures. Ensuring that your garden is facing south will take the guesswork out of predicting where the sun will be. Soil can be brought in or built up, but the sun can’t, so a south-facing location should always be your top choice even if it means more work to get set up.
Even if your chosen location faces south, you still want to observe the space throughout the day. Be mindful of the path the sun takes and make sure that your space gets enough exposure throughout the day. While there are plenty of shade-loving plants, most vegetables need eight to ten hours of sunlight per day during the growing season if you want them to fully mature and give good yields.
Slope or Grade
Take note of the slope in the area you are envisioning for your future garden. If you’re lucky enough to have a flat, level, sunny, open area, good for you! Most people don’t, so a little extra strategy may be needed in the form of terracing or swales. Or you may need to bring in fill dirt to level the space. For our garden, we are on a mountain top with no flat land, so our garden is terraced, top to bottom.
Fencing and Protection
Fencing will be a concern for almost any gardener. Whether it’s to keep out bunnies or deter deer, your garden will need some form of boundary. Here in Colorado, any gardener who wants to keep the deer from eating their crops will need to have an 8’ fence at the very minimum.
For our garden, we have all manner of creatures we have to keep at bay which means that our fences go 8’ up, 1’ under, and 2’ out! It kept all the bunnies, and deer out, but we still had a few fights with the squirrels, and in the end, moles took over completely. Luckily our harvest was in, so I let them have it. But this year we will be placing fencing in the ground under our beds as well to keep them from destroying our garden from below.
Source and Location of Water
One thing people often overlook until it's too late is where their water source is located. If you have to use a long hose to reach the far corners of your garden you may lose pressure or worse, damage plants as heavy hoses drag across them. Consider where your water source is located and how you plan to get it to your plants efficiently.
If this is your first time gardening, bigger is not better. Gardens take a lot of work and dedication to maintain. If you’re new to gardening or have limited time to devote to your garden, opt for a smaller size that won’t overwhelm you. Start out small and focus on your favorite plants or the vegetables your family is most likely to enjoy. Grow slowly with a plan to expand little by little each year.
The more time you spend gardening the easier it is to take on more. Experienced gardeners make it look easy because they’ve had years of learning the hard way and streamlining processes to make them more efficient. Trust me, if this is your first year gardening, don’t overdo it.
Pay Attention to Your Soil
There’s no way to overemphasize the importance of good soil. Poor soil quality will stop a garden in its tracks. Plants grow best in nutrient-rich, well-drained, weed-free, non-compacted soil. Before you get started, test your soil quality to help decide what if any additives your soil will need to produce a healthy garden.
Keep in mind that it may take more than one season to amend your soil quality. But, don’t despair, while you work on regenerating your soil there are still plenty of things you can grow that aren’t as picky about the soil they grow in. And, stay tuned because we will have upcoming articles this spring about how and when to amend your soil.
Planning Your Plants
The final planning consideration is the variety of plants you want in your garden. Each plant has its own shape, space, height, water, and light requirements. These will typically be listed on your seed packets and are easily searchable should you buy nursery starts, but there are a few general rules worth noting:
Always know which way the shade is going to fall, and keep taller plants to the back so they don’t shade other crops. On the flip side of that, if you have shade-loving plants that need a little sun relief, you can plant taller plants around them to help offer shade through the day.
Plant vining or spreading crops like pumpkins and peas around the edges of your garden and be sure to provide trellises for them to travel up if you don’t want them taking over your beds.
I learned this lesson the hard way with pumpkins in my first year. It really didn’t occur to me that the vines would get over 15’ long and I failed to provide adequate room for them to vine. It resulted in our pumpkin patch taking over the entire lower portion of our garden and engulfing the neighboring strawberry bed. This year we will be installing an arched path of 16’ cattle panels for them to climb up and over.
Keep an eye out for invasive plants. There are plenty of varieties common in gardens that can spread out and take over if not kept in pots or separate beds. These include mint, oregano, raspberries & strawberries, dill, calendula, Jerusalem artichokes, and chamomile among others.
Keep it Simple:
As you get into gardening you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to get overzealous and order way more seeds than you have space to plant. And, honestly, as I write this my mind is wandering over to the literal case of seeds I have from last year with the boxes of seeds I ordered this year sitting on top of them. I’ll probably need an intervention soon, and chances are you will too one day. A good rule of thumb is to stick to your favorites and choose the most cost-effective varieties. Then aim to try out one or two new varieties each year.
Put it All Down on Paper
It’s a good idea to get your garden plan down on paper so that you have a visual representation of the ideas floating around in your head. Or if paper isn’t for you, there are garden planning apps as well as digital planners available.
The point is, having a log of all your plans will help you to make better judgments regarding what to buy, as well as when, where, and how to plant them. If you are a fan of pen and paper, we’ve designed a great downloadable, printable planner that you can buy here. Whether you use a planner, a simple notebook, or a digital app, having all of your garden information in one place will help you stay on task and within budget.
Don't Get Overwhelmed
One of both beginner and experienced gardeners' most common mistakes is trying to take on too much. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and overly ambitious plans quickly turn into weed-infested plots because, well, life happens. This year, garden smarter not harder by starting with a solid plan.
What plans do you have for your garden this year? Tell us all about it in the comments below! Happy planning, and as always, until next time: