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Pen, Paper & Plants: A Complete Guide to Garden Planning

If I had a nickel for every time I heard “I really want to grow a garden this year!”…well, I might not be rich but I’d have a few bucks! It can feel overwhelming to jump into a new hobby that seems to have a lot of rules. Even worse - if you’re a chronic house plant killer, you might assume you have a brown thumb. But starting a brand new garden doesn’t need to feel complicated or impossible. Let’s simplify the first few steps of garden planning and get set up for spring seed starting!
 
Where do I start?
Before any plans can be made, let’s determine whether you have space for a garden. Most vegetable and cut flower gardens like 8+ hours of direct sunlight a day.  There are crops, like lettuce or carrots, that can thrive on less than 8 and some that don’t mind shade. But as a rule of thumb, gardens should be grown in full sun. Check your desired space at different parts of the day and make note of when it receives sun. Avoid low spots in your yard that never seem to dry out as there are very few fruit and vegetable plants that can survive in sitting water.

Now that you’ve identified your growing space, it’s time to measure. Don’t be tempted to skip this step – it’s important to know the exact amount of space you have. It would be a waste of time and money to grow twice the number of seedlings you have space for. Measure the length and width of your desired garden bed in inches and write these measurements in a garden journal. It can even be beneficial to draw out your garden on a piece of grid paper, with each square representing one foot. Grid paper is the easiest way to visualize your garden at scale. Check out our post on building a raised bed garden for more in-depth on planning your space.



Plant Spacing
Discovering the size of your space will help inform the choices you make when choosing crops. It is important to consider plant spacing requirements (the space between plants) before you sow any seeds. Small spaces lend themselves to crops with 2-6” spacing, like radish and carrot, while large gardens can host huge, vining crops like pumpkin or sweet potato at 24"-36" apart. Most seed packets will have spacing requirements listed. You can also reference the graphic below, for an easy spacing guide. Using your grid paper and spacing requirements, predict the amount of each seed you'll need to start and buy your seed packets accordingly.


 Choosing Seeds
Now that you’ve determined which crops you have space for, it’s time to start planning your garden! This is the dreamiest time of the year on the farm. It’s so much fun, imagining what the field will look like in the coming season. For our home garden, I consider not only what we have space for but what will get eaten! If you use garlic, onion and potato often but rarely buy tomatoes, then don’t grow tomatoes! Just because something is a popular garden crop doesn’t mean it’s a right fit for you. Food waste should be a consideration for any home gardener so make sure to have a plan for the crops you grow, whether it’s eating, preserving, or gifting.
 
Sourcing good quality seeds is very important to gardeners looking for success. Those inexpensive seed packs at the big box stores might seem appealing but they often have low germination rates, produce poor quality plants, or even spread disease to your soil and neighboring plants.

Below are the seed sources we trust, here at Fifth Acre.
 
For over 50 years Johnny’s has set the standard for high seed quality, germination rates, pathogen testing, and traceability. Johnny’s is 100% employee owned and headquartered in Winslow, Maine. We love Johnny’s for their reliability in quality and the wealth of information provided on each seed packet. We use Johnny’s for 80% of our crops on the farm.
 
Baker Creek Seed Company, headquartered in Mansfield, Missouri, is an heirloom seed company on a mission to preserve history. “Heirloom” refers to the plant’s genetics – heirloom plants are grown from seeds that have remained genetically unchanged for 50+ years.  Baker Creek is North America's largest heirloom seed company and their catalogs now features about 1,000 stunning heirloom varieties.
 
Putting It All Together
So, you’ve measured your space, shopped seeds online and written out your crop wish list. Now it’s time to put your plan together! Getting a plan together will answer several questions. Am I starting seeds indoors or buying seedlings from a store? What am I sowing directly into the garden? When do I need to start seeds? And lastly, how will everything fit together?
 
Seed Starting vs. Transplanting
Whether you start your own seeds indoors or buy seedlings from the store is really a matter of personal preference. Starting your own seeds is fun and gives you many more options. A plant nursey might only have 3 types of tomatoes to choose from while a seed catalog could have dozens. There is, however, the matter of time and effort. Starting seeds at home does require a bit of dedication. If you don’t feel excited by the idea of tending your own seed nursery, consider buying seedlings from a trusted nursery or farm. For a more in-depth look at indoor seed starting, take a look at our post - Seed Starting 101.

There are certain crops that should never, in my view, be purchased as seedlings. Recently, there has been an uptick in large, corporate nurseries selling seedlings that should always be directly sown into the garden, from seed. There is absolutely no reason to purchase four radish seedlings for $5 when a pack of 500 radish seeds cost $4 and they mature in just 30 days. Radish should be sown directly into the garden. Seed companies will often recommend the most successful method of sowing on the seed packet information so be sure to read all seed info before making a decision. Looks for things like "direct sowing recommended" or "start seeds indoors". Reference the chart below for our general sowing recommendations.

Write It Down
Next, you're going to start putting things in writing. You'll want to fill out a planning sheet as well as a planting calendar. Both of these will serve as your road map as you plan and plant your garden.

In order to keep track of our planning on the farm, we use a very large spread sheet that details all types of information, from quantities to planting dates. Home gardeners often use a similar sheet to keep track of their garden planning. Below is an example of a simple planning sheet for home gardeners.




So far, we've covered the "crop" and "sow method" sections of this chart. "Days to Maturity" can be a little tricky. Often, it refers to the amount of days a crop takes to grow from seed to fruit. But it can also mean the amount of time a plant takes to produce fruit after being transplanting into the garden. This usually applies to crop that are often started indoors, like tomatoes or peppers. A crop's "days to maturity" is most typically provided on the seed packet. Knowing a crop's maturity time helps me to plan crop rotations in my garden, as well as predict harvest dates and last sow dates.

Know Your Dates
Next on our planning sheet are the "sow" and "transplant" dates. These dates are some of the most important bits of garden planning because they they tell you when you should be sowing seeds indoors or transplanting seedlings into your garden. To find these dates, you're going to first need to know your last frost date. This is the predicted date your region will receive frost for the last time of the season. Heat-loving summer crops cannot survive frost and therefore should only be planted outdoors once all risk has passed. Click here to use your area code and discover your region's last frost date.

Once you know the predicted last day of frost, use the information on your seed packet to determine when seeds should be sown. For example, if your last frost date is May 8th and your seed packet suggests to "sow 8 weeks before last frost date", start at May 8th and count backwards 8 weeks on a calendar to find your sow date of March 13th. (You can also just prompt Google with "8 weeks before May 8th" for an exact date.)

Next, to determine your transplant date, reference your seed packet again. It should give information like "transplant after danger of frost has passed", which means that seedling will go into the garden after your last frost date. At this point, I can also predict my first harvest date by taking my transplant date and adding "days to maturity". For example, if I transplant tomatoes on May 8th and they have 60 days to maturity, I can expect my first ripe tomatoes by July 7th. All of this calendar math can seem a little daunting but it's important if you want to stay on track with the season.

Use a Calendar
At this point, it's time to break out a yearly planner and begin to fill in the calendar portion with your planting dates. I used a medium sized planner that comes with me everywhere. In addition to keeping track of sow dates, it has ample space for note taking. The science nerd in me loves to take note of how long a seed took to germinate or which seedlings were started too early. I keep all of this information and use it to make adjustments the following year. Observation and experimentation keep gardening exciting!

You're Ready to Start!
The hardest part of any new project is starting it. But here's the good news- you've already begun! By gathering information through blog posts like this, you've begun your journey as a new gardener. Let's summarize the basic points and get you on your way -

1. Measure - know the exact length and width of your new garden space
2. Plant Spacing - use your measurements to plan what plants you have space for
3. Buy Seeds - use online seed catalogs to choose crops (or choose to skip seed starting)
4. Fill Out a Planning Sheet - write out important information like sow dates and methods.
5. Use a Calendar - list important dates for each crop in a planner or calendar

It is my hope that starting a new garden feels fun and exciting. There's no need to overwhelm yourself or feel the need to do everything to perfection. Gardening adds joy and peace to my life and I hope it does the same for you. Happy planning!

-Rachel
owner/operator, Fifth Acre Farms




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