Garden Planning Tips- Part 1, by Sarah Latimer

Well, spring has sprung, the bulbs are coming up, and plants are showing signs of life around us. My daffodils are coming up, the hyacinth are blooming, and lilacs budding. I am yearning for fresh fruits and vegetables from our garden, though we have plenty left from last year’s crop. The surplus is mostly stored in freeze-dried and dehydrated form in either vacuum-sealed jars or mylar bags, but we still have a good amount in the freezer waiting to be eaten or freeze-dried. There are also still some vegetables, like carrots and onions, stored in cool, sandy soil through the winter for fresh eating, cooking, and/or replanting/seed-making. We thank the LORD for the bounty given last year, which is a healthy, tasty gift given from the earth He created for us to guard and care for!

While Hugh is most certainly the God-ordained head of our household, he gives guidance as needed and delegates responsibilities. We operate as a great team, happily in the manner God instructs. (I am a blessed and well cared-for woman, willing to serve my mighty leader, Hugh, in whatever he asks of me, and he not only says he would readily die for me but he does so, daily, by sacrificing his own desires to prefer my needs and desires and those of the members of our household over his own.) As such, one of my responsibilities is to oversee food management. I take that very seriously. That does not simply entail meal planning, shopping, and meal preparation; in our family, it involves the management of food production, long-term food storage, and inventory also.

Food management is a continuous effort, even in winter, as that is when we continue moving things from the freezer into the freeze dryer and dehydrator to make room in the freezers for the fresh produce that will be coming out of the gardens. So, our family’s food production operation is a constant work in progress, only taking time off for our Sabbath rest.

We produce the bulk of our annual vegetables and herbs ourselves as well as many of our fruits, spices, teas, and medicines, too. We even have some to share with loved ones, as the LORD guides or as we are blessed with visitors. What a joy that is!

We grow a large, annual vegetable garden and then also have perennial vegetable/herb gardens plus medicinal and tea gardens as well as fruit trees and bushes, all requiring care.

While I may manage the food for the family, Hugh and every member of the family, in various capacities, participates. The only area where I work alone is in the garden design/planning. So, today, I’d like to share some of my tips on that. I thought I’d give you a few of the planning tips and resources that I have used over the years to help me. These are by no means comprehensive. We have had some excellent articles written on SurvivalBlog about how to begin gardening, which use very similar methods to mine and address garden location selection, fencing/barriers, soil preparations and amendments, seeds, tools, and details. I have some additions I’ll make in future articles, too, but these are great articles to get you started in addition to what I’m sharing today. The Tennessean provided very detailed information from seeds and growing specific plans to soil, composting, wind breaks, tools and equipment, and food storage, permaculture, and operational security in his article on “Our Experience Growing and Storing Our Own Food”Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. AJ has excellent information for some of us in ”Learning How to Grow Food in the American Redoubt”.

Since our garden is worked as a family team, and certainly if you are working as a group, I highly recommend that you have a pictorial plan of your garden that can be shared with everyone. This way your visual learners will be able to get the vision of what the end goal looks like from the beginning and will be more motivated toward the end. Drawing your garden is helpful, not only for the work of seeding or transplanting but also earlier in establishing rows and/or setting up irrigation, depending upon how you are watering, and in putting up trellises or any other garden support systems, especially those that need to go in before the plants emerge or are recognizable. If you are like me, you may have people helping in your garden from time to time who do not know what certain plants look like and feel a bit overwhelmed when faced with venturing into your large garden to find something for whatever reason; so when you tell them to go pick two of the largest bell peppers, they really appreciate having a map of your large garden to help them find where the bell pepper plants are located. You can tell them how to pick or cut your fruit and vegetables and then just hand them a map. (It’s a good idea to have multiple copies of your garden map and laminate each, or put them inside plastic page protector sheets, so that if the maps are dropped in water or mud they aren’t ruined.) I keep one posted in my kitchen on the refrigerator to be reviewed any time. I have found that the garden planner software available through Mother Earth’s News is a great resource! I’ve used it for years, and each year it just gets better with more plants and capabilities. Because I continue to subscribe, my garden plans year after year remain and help me rotate my garden plants, but I believe you can use it for a 30-day free trial. So, why would I rotate my garden rather than just planting it the same each year? I’ll tell you about that, but first, let’s continue talking about the mapping and spacing of the garden.

Plant Spacing and Placement

When visiting a young family who had just put in their first garden a few years back, I saw that their long, beautiful rows were all only one foot apart. When I asked what they were growing and heard the list that included squash, tomatoes, spinach, melons, and corn, I knew they were in for some surprises once those plants grew to maturity…if they grew to maturity due to the limited space for the roots to grow. Just like people, who must have enough air to breathe and food to eat, plants must have enough sunshine, air, water, and nutrients if they are going to live and thrive. So crowding them is not a good idea. On top of their ability to grow, we must be able to get into our garden to harvest without damaging our precious crop, so having long, narrow rows with no room to get into the garden is not efficient. Raised beds that are reached into from outside walkways or long rows with room in which to walk between are necessary for hand harvesting, which is how most families harvest and certainly will be the means for harvesting if/when there is no more fuel for tractors available. So, allot plenty of room for the plants you are growing. Some, like carrots, require only a few square inches each, while others, like melons and squash, require multiple square feet. Again, the online garden planning tool from Mother Earth News is very helpful in this function. Depending upon what plant you are placing into your garden space design, it allots the appropriate amount of space per plant. It has a grid, showing your garden’s dimensions, which you provided in the set up. (You can have multiple garden plots, too.) You can drag the corner dot of a particular kind of plant to place multiple plants, and it will tell you how many plants of this particular type fit within that space. It’s a great planning feature that simplifies the process, especially for a novice who isn’t sure how much space to dedicate for a specific number of plants in their planning process.

When placing plants, remember the maturity height and shadows that tall plants will create. I place my plant beds/rows running east to west for drainage purposes (because of a slight slope), to give the plants maximum sunlight as the sun progresses across the southern horizon, and so that I can place taller plants on the north side, or in rotating the tall plants to the southern side of the garden, I give more space between the bed/row to allow for sunlight to reach behind the taller plants to those shorter ones behind them. For example, I will space rows of corn, which grows over five feet tall and fairly dense, at least three feet apart and put corn on the north end of the garden so that it does not shade low-growing plants. When I rotate the position of the corn to other areas of the annual vegetable garden, I will provide at least four feet of space on the north (shaded) side before planting a low-growing plant, like bush beans or potatoes.

Crop Rotation

Some plants, like corn, extract a great deal of nitrogen from the soil while others, like beans, put nitrogen into the soil. Crop rotation is designed to prevent overcropping– exhausting arable land by excessive cultivation. Instead, rotating the crops to various parts of your garden allows regeneration of the soil through a variety of plants that enrich it where some plants withdraw. I understand that there are some who get by without crop rotation by using cover crops put in during the fall and grown during the winter and then tilled into the garden several months before the garden is planted in order to provide increase nitrogen into the soil, but I have not yet done this in any large scale. I have had a fair crop of dandelions, grass, and lettuce from blown-in and dropped seeds, and even some other volunteer plants come up each early spring that get tilled in (or transplanted into pots, depending upon the plant) before planting begins months later. Everything that has died in the garden gets put back into it. (We don’t waste much, as either the animals or the garden/compost get almost all of our food/plant waste.)

Additionally, certain plants attract certain “bad” microbes and also insects that may lay eggs in the soil where these plants were grown in the previous year. By rotating where you plant them within your garden, you may help minimize damage to young plants by making the new plants less accessible to their predators and disease, since they are no longer in the same area where the “parents” were last year. This, of course, is a very simplistic explanation, but it is the concept.

Tomatoes, corn, and melons are some of the plants that must be rotated each year. However, some plants are just fine staying in the same place year after year. Because of the microclimates within my garden compounded with the fact that a few items, like lettuce and celery, prefer cooler temperatures and I have filtered afternoon shade offered in two west corners that work well for them in my high elevation during the heat of summer, there are several annual crops that are not rotated in my garden, but these have companions that help to protect them from predators.