It’s never too early to start planning next summer’s garden! Although it will still be several months before the snow melts and ground is ready to plant, I already have a stack of seed catalogs begging for my attention.
I’m working on a talk about vegetable garden planning that I’ll give at the library next week. As part of that, I identified five questions that I hope will help you hone in on what you need to do to have a successful vegetable garden this year.
1. What worked well (or didn’t work at all) last year?
It’s always helpful to start next year’s garden planning by thinking about last year’s garden. It’s usually easy to remember the highlights from last year, and notes recording the seeds sown, crops grown, and other details are usually easy to dig up. (A note about notes: writing things down is tremendously valuable; start doing it now if you don’t already do so!) I usually think through each of the different plants and think about what worked and what didn’t work so well. For example:
- Did I grow the right amount of that plant?
- Do I want to grow the same amount (or more or less) next year?
- Were the plants productive and healthy?
- If not, what problems need to be addressed next year?
For example, last summer I grew about 20 tomato plants that I purchased as transplants from two local greenhouses. It was the right amount of plants overall, except that I want more cherry tomato plants because they produce well in our short season. Production was poor last year, especially given the good growing conditions that we had. Both greenhouses had issues with their plants last year (aphids at one place; nutrient deficiencies at another); I’ll still purchase plants from these greenhouses next year but will be more observant. The poor growth also indicated that I need to put more time into improving my soils, which I started last year by planting some cover crops. That’s tomatoes, and I go through the same thinking for every plant in my garden.
2. Is there anything new you want to try this year?
Winter is a great time to get ideas for new things to try out. Many gardeners love the time that they spend flipping through their seed catalogs, particularly on cold and snowy days when the activity provides an opportunity to mentally get away from dreary weather. Consider whether you want to try new varieties for any of the principal crops that you grow (like purple carrots or a faster-growing pea) as well as altogether new plants to try (short-season melons, anyone?). Also consider whether you want to try any new methods for season extension, pest control, or soil improvement. This is the time of year to brainstorm and research.
3. What do you really eat?
Vegetable gardening is about growing food, and this question relates to the one above in asking whether you are growing an amount of vegetables that is in line with your consumption. There may be some things that you plant that you don’t like or can’t keep up with. Zucchini is a classic example, as one or a few zucchini plants will often produce more than a household could ever use. I’ve heard people joke of locking their car doors in summer so that someone won’t be able to send them home with an extra zucchini. When I worked at a farm market in high school, we gave out zucchini brownie recipes to entice people to buy them. (Note: If you’ve ever looking to sell zucchini, that strategy totally works!) So, unless you’re eating zucchini noodles every night in the summer, you can probably get by with just one or two plants.
Instead, plan to plant more of what you really eat. This past year was the first time I planted onions from starter plants. I planted about 100 plants across one and a half beds (an area about 3 feet by 12 feet). They grew well, and I had fresh onions until November or December. Next year I want to grow at least as many—perhaps even more—and want to include some red onions in the mix as well.
4. Are there any issues you need to address before you can plant?
As you are figuring out what plants you want to grow next summer (and ogling those sexy seed catalogs!), you’ll also want to consider what work you may need to do before you can plant. If you haven’t tested your soils recently, it would be wise to do that in early spring well ahead of planting time. Doing so would provide important information for determining whether soils need nutrient or organic matter additions ahead of the growing season. Improvements may be needed to the physical garden structures, such as erecting a fence to keep deer out, building or repairing raised garden beds, or setting up an irrigation system. Any methods that are used to extend the growing season, such as high tunnels or cold frames, may create additional work that needs to happen before you can plant.
5. How much time and effort do you realistically have?
Winter garden planning involves a lot of daydreams and big ideas (which is why it is so fun!), but it can be all too easy to create unrealistic expectations of what you can realistically accomplish. Just as you thought about what worked well (or not) with your plant production last year, consider how well you were you able to find time to tend your garden. Are there times of the year that your garden creates stress because you can’t find time to stay on top of it? And if so, which set of tasks (e.g., planting, weeding, harvesting, or putting food up) is the most overwhelming? Depending on your situation, you may be able to identify a problem that you can fix to make things less chaotic, such as figuring out a better watering system so that you don’t have to spend all your time dragging hoses around. Or, if you find that you’re not able to keep up during many parts of the season, it may be a sign that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and may need to downsize.
Hopefully these questions will get you off to a good start. Happy garden planning!