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Planning a Vegetable Garden: 5 Essential Tips for Success

Are you looking for a way to add more fresh vegetables to your diet? Growing your own vegetable garden is one of the best ways to get access to healthy food without breaking the bank. With some planning and preparation, it’s easy to create a thriving vegetable garden that will provide delicious produce all season long.

I remember the first time I decided to start a new vegetable garden. Growing up, my mom had always grown a large vegetable garden, but she had less time to maintain one with four kids at home and a part time job. I was determined to create a garden of my own and hopefully replicate the same success she had!

It all began with selecting the vegetables I enjoy eating myself. I chose tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, carrots, and radishes as they were easy to grow and I had a variety of ways I could use them. Once I had the right plants picked out, I started preparing the soil by tilling in composted manure so that it could be nutrient-rich for the vegetables to thrive.

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Over the next few months, I watched with amazement as my tiny seedlings grew into lush, vibrant plants! It was such a satisfying feeling seeing them blossom with beautiful fruits and vegetables day after day!

I had more tomatoes and cucumbers than I knew what to do with, and soon I was canning salsa and pickles.

Crate of vegetables from the garden - planning a vegetable garden

If you’re getting ready to start your first vegetable garden, here are the five essential steps for a successful harvest:

Choosing What to Plant

First of all, think about what your family will eat.  You don’t want to end up with a garden full of vegetables that no one wants to eat.

When it comes to choosing what to plant in your garden, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. A lot of the decision will depend on your climate and soil type, as well as personal preference. It’s important to research the different varieties of vegetables available and determine which ones will be the best fit for your garden.

Some vegetables are more successful in specific climates, so you’ll want to consider that when making your selection. Additionally, some vegetables don’t require a lot of sunlight or water while others do, so you’ll need to take into account the amount of care each vegetable needs in order to thrive.

Location is also key when deciding what you should grow in your garden. Many vegetables prefer cooler climates such as root vegetables like carrots, beets, and turnips. If you live in a warmer area then consider warm season vegetables like beans and peppers.

Finally, taste plays an important role when selecting what to plant in your garden! You want to make sure you’re growing something that everyone will love eating! Think about all the different dishes you enjoy that could be made with fresh produce from your own backyard—it’s a great incentive for making sure you pick something delicious!

How much should you plant in your garden to provide a year’s worth of food?

Cool Season Crops

When planning your vegetable garden, it’s essential to know which plants thrive in cooler temperatures. Cool season crops can be planted in early spring or late summer, meaning you get to enjoy fresh produce when most people are stuck with the grocery store’s limited options.

Some popular cool season crops include:

  • Lettuce

  • Spinach

  • Peas

  • Carrots

  • Broccoli

  • Cabbage

Remember that these plants enjoy cold temperatures and can benefit from a cold frame or row cover to extend the growing season into and through the winter.

Warm Season Crops

Now let’s talk about plants that thrive in warmer temperatures. These crops typically require more sunshine and heat, making them perfect for those hot summer days. Plan for these in your garden to ensure a continuous supply of veggies throughout the seasons.

Examples of warm-season crops are:

  • Tomatoes

  • Peppers

  • Cucumbers

  • Melons

  • Squash

  • Beans

Most warm-season crops don’t respond well to frost, so make sure you transplant them outside after your last frost date. You can also use a row cover or cold frame to extend the growing season and protect your plants from frost.

No matter what you choose, it’s important to remember that each type of vegetable has its own unique needs. Make sure you research and understand the requirements for each plant before adding them to your garden!

raised garden beds - crop rotation - planning a vegetable garden

Crop Rotation

In case you haven’t heard of it, crop rotation is the practice of planting different types of crops in the same area over several seasons. It’s a traditional homesteading technique that maximizes soil fertility and minimizes pest and disease issues.

Take note of where and what you’re planting each season and plan your garden accordingly. Crop rotation is divided into six main families:

  1. Alliums like onions, shallots, leeks, and garlic.

  2. Legumes like green beans, green peas, southern peas, peanuts, soybeans.

  3. Brassicas: Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, turnip greens, radishes, collards, Chinese cabbage, mustard greens, and collards.

  4. Nightshades: Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and potatoes. 

  5. Umbellifers: Carrots, parsnips, fennel, parsley, and dill.

  6. Cucurbits: Zucchini and summer quash, cucumbers, pumpkins and winter squash, melons (watermelon, cantaloupe), and gourds. 

If you want your crops to stay in good condition and avoid sickness and pest attacks, there’s one simple thing you need to do: switch it up!

Avoid planting the same old crop in the same old spot year after year. Instead, try planting different kinds of veggies that come from different groups.

This will break up the environment where disease and pests are more likely to spread, and will reduce the harm they do to your plants. It’s a small and easy step to take, but it can make all the difference when it comes to keeping your precious crops healthy and happy.

marigolds planted with squash - companion planting - planning a vegetable garden

Companion Planting

Did you know that certain plants naturally help each other grow? So-called “companion planting” involves placing plants close together to benefit each other by repelling pests or improving soil nutrients. It’s like setting up a mini ecosystem within your garden.

Some effective companion planting combinations:

  • Tomatoes and basil – basil helps repel pests that are attracted to tomatoes.

  • Carrots and onions – onion scent deters carrot flies, while carrot scent repels onion flies.

  • Lettuce and dill – dill attracts beneficial insects that prey on lettuce pests.

  • Squash and marigolds – marigolds produce a compound that repels squash bugs.

I’ve found this guide from Mother Earth News to be very useful: An In-Depth Companion Planting Guide

By planting companion plants, you can create an environment in which your veggies thrive without having to resort to chemical pesticides or other treatments.

radish seedlings - succession planting - planning a vegetable garden

Succession Planting

Succession planting is a smart technique to extend your harvest throughout the growing season. You’ll get the most out of your garden space by planting rows of the same vegetables a week or two apart. This way, you’ll get a continuous harvest as the older plants are harvested and replaced with new ones.

It’s important to note that succession planting works best with plants with a short growing season like lettuce and radishes. For longer-season crops like tomatoes and peppers, you’ll want to plant all of your plants together at the beginning of the season. There is really no benefit to spacing out their plantings.

Overall, succession planting is a great way to maximize your yield without taking up more space in your garden. With a little planning and some good companion planting combinations, you can make the most out of your garden.

cottage with garden rows - deciding where to plant - planning a vegetable garden

Deciding Where to Plant

When deciding where to plant, it’s important to look at your garden as a whole. Consider how much sunlight each spot gets during the day, the soil type, and any areas that could be prone to flooding or erosion. Picking the right spot can help ensure your plants get enough sun and water and will help you avoid problems like nutrient deficiencies and root rot.

Sun Exposure

Your plants will need a certain amount of sunlight in order to grow and produce food. Before planting, it’s important to understand the sun exposure that each area of your yard gets throughout the day. Areas with full-sun exposure are best for vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, squash, and eggplants. For more shade tolerant veggies like lettuce or spinach, partial-sun or even shaded areas will do.

Sun Mapping

If you’re not sure which areas of your garden get the most sun, try sun mapping. Sun mapping is a great way to identify the sunny spots in your yard without having to move around too much.

Go outside at noon and look for open areas that are receiving full sunlight.

Because shadows are longer in the winter (sun is closer to the horizon), areas that receive full sun in the winter will receive the most sun year round.

Likewise, areas that receive shade in the middle of summer will receive shade year round.

When to map your sun and shade:

June 21: Summer solstice is the longest day of the year. This is also when the sun is the highest in the sky. Areas that receive shade between noon and 1pm on this day will receive shade year round. Avoid planting fruiting plants in these areas.

December 21: Winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. This is also the day when the sun is closest to the horizon. The sun casts its longest shadows in winter, so areas that receive full sun between noon and 1pm on December 21 will receive full sun year round.

Observe how long the sun shines on each part of your yard and draw a map based on your observations. These sunny areas of your yard will be vital to growing fruiting plants as they will need several hours of sunlight to ripen their fruit. 

Design Basics: Mapping the Sun on your Site

square foot gardening - garden spacing - planning a vegetable garden

Garden Space

Now that you have identified the sunny and shady areas of your garden, it’s time to plan out how to use the space. If you’re a beginner gardener, it’s best to start small with just a few plants. As you gain more experience and confidence in gardening, then you can expand your garden.

When deciding what to plant, consider how much sunlight each type of plant needs. For example, fruiting plants like tomatoes will need full sun for at least six hours a day to produce fruit. On the other hand, lettuce can get by with only four hours of filtered sunlight per day.

Also be sure to take into account how much space each type of plant needs. Most store bought seed packets and seedlings will provide spacing recommendations. The spacing is based upon the mature size of the plant so it can have the air flow, light, and nutrients needed to grow and produce food.

Part of the reason why I like square foot gardening is that it makes this process a lot easier. If you know how many plants of each type that you want to grow, you can determine how many squares you will need based upon their spacing.

I’ve found this guide from Simply Smart Gardening to be very handy: Square Food Garden Spacing

I also recommend getting a copy of All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew.

marigolds and tomato plants in an raised garden bed - planning a vegetable garden

Raised Beds

Raised beds are a great way to grow your plants, especially if you have areas with poor drainage or rocky soil. Raised garden beds that will also help prevent weeds and pests from invading your garden. They can also make it easier to keep up with weeding since they elevated and don’t require as much bending over.

When building raised beds, be sure to use a material that won’t rot or leach toxic chemicals into your soil. Cedar and redwood are good choices, as are recycled plastic and composite materials.

Raised beds can be filled with ground soil, compost, layers of organic materials, or you can purchase bagged planting mix specially formulated for gardening. Be sure to read the ingredients listed on the packaging to ensure it is suitable for the type of plants you are growing.

Vertical Gardening

Vertical gardening is a great way to maximize your growing space and add visual appeal to your garden. You can use trellises, arbors, wall planters, or hanging baskets for vertical gardening. Most vegetables such as beans, cucumbers, squash, and tomatoes lend themselves to this type of vegetable gardening. They also provide the benefit of keeping them off the ground where pests and diseases often lurk.

When planning your vertical garden, consider the type of light your plants will need and how much sun each location receives. Tall plants and vertical gardens can shade neighboring plants, which can work well when planning a vegetable garden for shade plants, but not for plants that require a lot of direct sunlight.

sketch of garden plan - planning a vegetable garden

Map It Out

No matter what type of garden you are creating, it helps to make a plan and map it out before you start planting. Think about the types of plants you want to grow and where they will get the most sun or shade.

Take note of any large trees or buildings that may block sunlight for certain areas in your vegetable garden plan. Make sure your vertical gardens won’t shade other, more sun-loving plants. You’ll also want to consider irrigation and the overall layout of your garden.

Mapping out your garden before you start planting will help ensure that each plant gets the best environment for its growth. It’s also a great way to visualize how the final product will look when it’s complete. Plus, if something isn’t growing as expected, you can refer back to your garden plan to make notes for the following year.

Using a Vegetable Garden Planner

If you want to get really organized, there are tools available that will help you design and plan your garden. Vegetable garden planners come with a variety of features including graphical layouts, soil type information, planting calendars, and reminders for feeding and watering plants.

They can be a great way to visualize how your favorite vegetables really will look when they’re planted.

And since they track valuable information about each type of plant, you can be sure to plant varieties that will worked well in the past.

bean seedlings - planning a vegetable garden

Choose Your Seeds and Plants

Once your garden plan is complete, you’ll be ready to choose the seeds and plants that will bring it to life. Consider varieties of vegetable plants that are suited for your particular climate and soil type.

First, you want to look at your last and first frost dates to determine the length of your growing season. Then focus on varieties that will have enough time to mature within that window.

If you live in a very hot and/or arid environment, you’ll also want to choose varieties that are more heat tolerant.

Next, you get to decide if you want to grow hybrid, open-pollinated, or heirloom varieties

Hybrids have a lot of appeal because they usually grow bigger and faster with more disease resistance, but they won’t breed true if you want to save seeds.

Heirloom varieties have bred true for at least 50 years and can be safely used for seed saving. 

Open-pollinated are younger plant varieties, but they will still breed true like heirlooms. They may also be more vigorous and genetically diverse than heirloom varieties. 

Now, when it comes to seed companies, you’ll generally get a different answer for every person you ask. Everyone has a favorite and they all have their reasons why.

My current favorite seed company is True Leaf Market because they offer a wide variety of vegetables and herbs that do well in the heat and humidity of Florida.

drill working on garden project - planning a vegetable garden

Plan Your Projects

Once you’ve chosen the seeds and plants, you can start planning your projects. Whether it’s building a new flower bed or setting up a trellis for tomatoes, it’s important to have an idea of what needs to be done before you get started.

Make sure you ask yourself questions like:

  • How much space do I need?

  • What type of soil will I need?

  • What type of experience do I want to have in my garden?

Will you till the ground or go no-till? If you decide to do no-till lasagna gardening, you can start collecting cardboard and deciding what you’ll use for mulch.

Do you need to build a fence, trellises, or raised beds? Start collecting wood or saving money to purchase it.

Regardless of how much or how little you have ahead of you, the more that you can plan, save, and collect now, the sooner you can get to work once you’re ready.

Final Thoughts

Seed-starting and gardening can be intimidating at first, but it’s a wonderful way to enjoy the outdoors and spend time with family. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that it’s not as hard as you thought and allows for plenty of creativity.

Whether you’re starting an edible garden from seed or purchasing plants, make sure you choose varieties that are best suited for your climate and the type of soil you have in your garden.

It’s also important to research seed companies to make sure they offer varieties adapted for your location and growing conditions.

Once you’ve done that, you can start planning out projects and gathering materials. And before you know it, you’ll be ready to get started on your garden.

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