The ABC's of a Garden Plan

Adapted from an article by William R. Tutus, Horticulture Magazine, March 1977

Experienced vegetable gardeners know that the gardening season begins long before the first seeds are placed in the ground. Preparations for the new garden should start as soon as the old garden succumbs to the last frost, and even in the dead of winter there are seed catalogues, books and bulletins to read through for instruction and information. Planning is the key to good gardening, and the wise gardener will begin early to consider where his garden will be, what preparation the soil needs, and what vegetables can be grown under the conditions available.

The first consideration is the location. The ideal site for a vegetable garden is a bright, sunny spot. Most authorities recommend a minimum of five or six hours of sunlight for growing a reasonably wide spectrum of vegetables. If you can't find a spot in your yard that receives that much light, adjust your garden plan to emphasize cool season vegetables such as beets, cabbage, carrots, chive, kale, leeks, lettuce, mustard, green onions, parsley, radish, Swiss chard, and turnips.

A reasonably level sit is easiest to work with. If there is a slope, run the rows across the slope to prevent erosion. Steep slopes can be used, but they may require terracing as well as contour cultivation.

A vegetable garden should be on a well-drained site. The existence of puddles may suggest severe limitations on what you can grow there. Raised beds, tile drain lines, and sometimes dry wells can solve the problem.

No matter what kind of soil you have, there are probably ways in which it can be improved. A soil test to determine how the pH should be adjusted is essential. Collect several small samples from the garden area, mix them together in a pail. let them dry and give about half a pint of the mix to your cooperative extension office or perhaps a local garden center for a pH test. The results of this test will enable them to tell you what your soil needs and how much of the necessary material you should add. Many soils are acidic and will require the addition of some limestone. Because limestone works into the soil at the rate of only about one inch per year, it's wise to apply at least part of it before tilling the soil. Use ground dolomitic agricultural limestone. It adds calcium and magnesium, improves soil structure, and makes fertilizer elements more readily available, as well as raising the pH. The ideal pH for most vegetables is about 6.5.

There are very few soils that wouldn't benefit from liberal additions of organic matter. It holds apart the tiny particles of clay so they can drain excess water more readily. It provides clay soil with pore space, which lets in the air essential to good plant growth, and makes it easier for plant roots to penetrate the soil. It fills in excess pore space on sandy soil, slowing down drainage and increasing the water-holding capacity. It regulates soil temperature, releases nitrogen and other nutrients for plant use through the process of decay, and promotes growth of microorganisms which help condition soil.

It may be necessary to supplement the organic matter with some fertilizer. Most organic sources are low in phosphate and only produce limited available nitrogen. Fertilizers should be added at planting time and as side dressings during the season.

Once you have chosen a spot and have taken steps to improve the soil, it's time to decide what your are going to grown. Your aim should be to get as much high quality food from the area as your can. Try to grow family favorites and develop a good variety of crops to make meals more interesting. even if you have plenty of space, don't plan too large a garden if you are inexperienced. A small, well-kept garden will be more rewarding than a large one that becomes a bore.

In the process of planning, make the most of information available in seed catalogues and government bulletins. Land grant colleges usually publish, through the cooperative extension service, lists of vegetable varieties recommended for each state. These varieties are recommended for their higher quality, better yields, disease resistance or other advantages. Even the seed package gives instructions for depth of planting, row spacing, planting time, time to maturity and other useful guides. spacing information provides guidance when you are deciding how much you can fit into your garden. Planting time will tell you how early you can get started, and time to maturity will tell you how soon you can plan on harvesting and planting a successive crop.

Early crops such as peas, radish and leaf lettuce get a fast start from seed. Broccoli and cabbage can also be planted as soon as the ground can be worked, but they take a little longer to mature. To speed up the process, construct a hotbed or coldframe to grow transplants. When an early crop such as radish is harvested, it could be followed immediately with something like bush beans. Head lettuce, which grows well in cool weather but bolts when it gets too warm, can be planted early, harvested and then followed by New Zealand spinach, which produces good salad greens in hot weather.

Fast maturing crops can be planted between slower maturing crops to be harvested before the slower ones need the space. Carrots and radishes can even be planted together in the same row. When you harvest the quick radishes, you also automatically do some thinning of the row to give the carrots room to grow.

Make good use of vertical space by growing pole beans, tomatoes on stakes, and cucumbers on a trellis. Don't overcrowd vegetables. Decreasing the spacing tends to decrease head size or root size, thus decreasing yield per unit of space. Beginning gardeners would be wise to follow recommendations on the seed packets for each crop and to devise systems for intercropping quick maturing crops with long season crops.

Make a scale drawing of your garden and work out your garden design, spacing, and timing well before the season starts. This allows you to purchase seed and materials systematically. Decide right now to devise a record system to keep track of how long it took your beans to reach just the right stage of maturity in 1977. This won't always agree with seed pack "estimates." If you keep weather records as well, you'll soon learn what to expect of your vegetables each year. With planning, records, and experimenting, you should be able to garden more efficiently each year and perhaps discover some worthwhile gardening innovations.