Are you looking forward to having the best garden ever this year? You need to do some prepwork in order to get there.
Fortunately, getting ready for a garden isn’t hard at all. You just need to put a bit of thought into it and plan ahead BEFORE you get lost in those colorful seed catalogs.
Ask yourself a few questions like “What do you like to eat?”, “How much room and time do I have” and “Can I compost”?
Here are some tips to help you plan ahead for the best garden of your life.
1. Ask yourself – what do you like to eat?
A “rule of thumb” that my family likes to follow is to plant what you eat. No sense in planting acorn squash if no one in your family likes it, right? So, we go down the list and think of what we like to eat.
Things like pizza and salsa (needs tomatoes, onions and peppers), salads (lettuce, spinach, kale), peas, green beans and corn. So, those top our list for what we plant. Then, we pick one “new” item to try in a small bed each year, like okra or butternut squash.
2) How much room do you have?
Obviously, if you only have containers or a small space to plant, you most likely are not going to plant corn, or lots of squash. You may want to stick with lettuces, spinach, kale, and a tomato plant. Of course, if you don’t like spinach, or tomatoes, you will want to stick with things you DO like.
Other things that grow well in pots are carrots, bell peppers, and even a couple pole bean plants. I’ve seen a cucumber plant growing in a 5 gallon bucket, with a large stake in the middle for it to grow around. Another idea is to repurpose 2 liter bottles and hang them on a fence.
Think outside the box, and you’ll find you have more space than you ever realized! The best thing we have ever done is to plant more or less items. Instead of 12 different types of beans or tomatoes, we planted 12 beds of 1 kind of green bean, or 12 roma tomatoes instead of 12 different tomato varieties.
3) How much time do you have?
Gardening is pretty easy, really. You drop a seed into the ground, water it, make sure it has some sun and pull weeds once in a while. But, multiply that times 10 beds of different veggies, and you and it can be time consuming.
I think there is nothing more disheartening than planting a huge garden, with high hopes and dreams, only to have “life” stop you from getting out there and weeding or watering, and most of them die. Yes, that’s happened to us…
So, if you are working at a full time job, running kids to various activities, etc…you may want to scale back your garden a bit. 1-2 tomato plants, a cucumber and some lettuce will make for a fresh, crisp salad all summer long. Consider planting a few of your favorite herbs in a container in your kitchen windowsill as well. They will be easy to remember to maintain, and having fresh herbs at your fingertips while cooking is AHH-mazing!
4) Can I compost? Why, yes you can!
Compost is like “black gold” to a gardener. It’ll help replace nutrients in the soil and nourish the plants. A super duper easy way to get started composting is to re-purpose an old bucket with a lid. Ice cream bucket, kitty litter, basically anything. If you can eat it, it can be composted.
I would recommend staying away from adding meat, cheese or citrus in the bucket, though, as those can take a long time to decompose. Once the bucket is full, you will want to have a place outside for it. If you have the room, a large area that is dedicated to composting is great.
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You can use pallets (see a picture of ours here) or plain chicken wire around 4 posts to make a compost area. Live in an apartment or don’t have a place to have a large compost area? Try a worm composter to keep it going.
If you have the ability to have chickens, let THEM compost the kitchen scraps for you. They eat the scraps, and their droppings are perfect in a compost tea (1 cup poop to 1 gallon water).
Putting some compost in with your soil, even in a container will greatly improve your plants growth. For containers, I like to use a ratio of 1:1:1 or 1 part “dirt”, 1 part potting mix, and 1 part compost. In beds, I like to add 1/3 of the total mass as fresh compost and mix well.
5) What is the best location for my garden?
Most vegetables and other plants grow best when they receive a minimum of six hours of sunlight per day. Therefore, it’s usually best to plant your garden in a spot where it will receive ample sunlight.
If you can finagle it, make sure that sunny location is also close to a convenient water source. If you can sow seeds or plant your transplants in a spot where hauling water or running irrigation lines won’t be a huge hassle, you’ll save yourself a ton of work – and keep your plants healthy – later on down the road.
6) Which plants are easiest to grow?
When starting a garden, you will do yourself a big favor by choosing options that are easy to grow. As a beginner, you probably shouldn’t be starting out with more difficult varieties of plants that require a lot of fuss and care, like unusual heirlooms or plants that aren’t necessarily hardy where you live.
This will make your life a lot harder when it comes time to care for your garden – and it can also lead to discouragement and burnout. Start small and don’t commit to growing tons of plants that will only overwhelm you.
What are some good “starter” vegetables?
This can vary depending on where you live, but you might want to consider easier plants like lettuce, radishes, carrots, and spinach when you’re first getting started.
7) How does your soil look?
Too many gardeners spend all of their time researching gardening equipment and plant varieties without paying any attention at all to their soil quality.
Without great soil, your garden just isn’t going to perform the way you want it to.
You need to spend some time improving your soil and making sure that it is in tiptop shape before you plant a single seed.
Plan for proper soil
Take some time each spring to amend the soil. It needs to be weeded, loosened (so that it is not compacted), and well-draining. Most importantly, it needs to be fertile.
Working in some compost, as I mentioned earlier, can help. However, it is vital that you conduct a thorough soil test prior to planting to see what your soil actually needs.
Is it low in nitrogen? Potassium? Calcium? What does the pH look like? Believe it or not, pH actually plays a major role in the fertility of your soil, since soil that is too acidic or too alkaline prevents soil from absorbing and retaining nutrients the way it should.
The same goes for your soil structure. If your soil is too heavy, it may hold onto nutrients for longer than necessary, and if it’s too sandy, the opposite is true.
Add other amendments
Consider adding other organic amendments to your soil in addition to compost such as:
- Shredded leaves or leaf mold
- Aged animal manure
- Straw or hay
- Worm compost
…and so on.
Grow a cover crop
Another way you can prepare your garden for the season ahead is to grow a cover crop.
Cover crops help the soil in a variety of ways. They help to loosen up compacted soils, allowing the delicate roots of new vegetable plantings to penetrate through.
They also reduce weed pressure, since they’ll grow in the place of stubborn weeds during the dormant season. They can reduce soil erosion since they’ll provide a nice blanket of coverage during the late winter, fall, and early spring months.
They can even increase your overall soil fertility!
Good cover crops to consider growing include winter peas, hairy vetch, and rye.
8) Are there any tools that need to be added to the garden shed?
Gardening is a great hobby because it only has to be as expensive as you want to make it.
If you only have a little bit of money to dedicate to your passion, no problem! You don’t have to invest in a lot of specialized tools…
You should, however, make sure you have a few faithful items in your garden shed.
Be sure to have:
- Soil knives
- Spades or shovels
- Garden hoes
- Pruning shears and saws
- Watering hoses and cans
- Lawn and hedge shears
- Gardening gloves
You may also want to stock up on a few containers. These can be used for starting seeds indoors, transplanting, and of course, for growing plants in pots! It’s a good idea to stock up on containers in the off-season, because this is when they’ll be much cheaper and easier to find.
Don’t wait until the last minute!
These essentials will help you care for your garden with ease. Keep in mind that many can be purchased secondhand for minimal cost – or even found for free at local thrift shops!
9) Can you buy some mulch in bulk – or store it up?
Mulch is a gardener’s best friend, regardless of what you decide to grow. By investing in mulch, you can reduce the amount of time and money spent weeding, watering, and fertilizing the soil.
Mulch suppresses weeds, ensures soil moisture, and if you choose an organic mulch, can even add nutrients back to the soil as it breaks down. It also gives your garden a nice, tidy appearance and can keep vegetables cleaner as dirt doesn’t splash back onto them when you irrigate.
What more could you possibly want?
You can use any kind of mulch you want, but again, organic mulch is preferred if you want to reap the maximum benefits. Consider options like shredded leaves, shredded bark, wood chips, straw, or hay.
10) Where will you get your plants?
The next question to ask yourself when you’re planning your garden is where you will get your plants.
Many gardeners choose to start their plots from seed. This works well for most types of plants, but some may be better off when introduced as seedlings.
Root crops and most legumes are best grown when sown directly in the garden from seed. These vegetables have a shorter growing season and therefore, don’t need to be started early indoors.
Consider growing things like carrots, potatoes, onions, beets, parsnips, green beans, and peas directly from seed in the garden.
Some plants that are not sensitive to frost and cold, like broccoli, can also be grown from seed outdoors, since you can start the seeds before the last frost of the year.
Other plants, like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant have a longer growing season and are very sensitive to the cold. Because of this, they need to be started from seed earlier in the winter or early spring indoors.
If you don’t want to do this yourself, you can buy seedlings from a local gardening store or nursery. However, it can get expensive. Because of this, many gardeners choose to start their own seeds.
This is a great way to save money on your plant costs, but there is a bit of a learning curve involved. You’ll want to dedicate plenty of time to learning the ropes before you dive into this endeavor – and be patient with yourself as you’re learning.
There are plenty of other ways you can acquire plants for your garden, too.
- Can you save seeds between growing seasons?
- Is it possible for you to meet up with other gardeners in your area to do a seed or plant swap?
- Does your local library or cooperative extension offer any educational programs or resources for new gardens?
You can buy seeds online, from a catalog, or locally. I recommend one of the first two options – and I recommend ordering early. The earlier you can place your order (before the companies get busy), the better – that way, you can avoid substitutions and rain checks that can affect your harvest times and yields.
Leave no stone unturned as you get ready for the growing season ahead!
11) Track your progress – and success
Last but not least, how will you keep track of whether your garden has been successful?
If you can, consider investing in a garden journal (hint – any old notebook will also work!).
When you are able to write everything down, from your germination rates and times to your harvest yields and even pest and disease problems, you’ll be able to become a stronger, more informed gardener.
Consider logging everything in a notebook so you always have a record of your successes – and most importantly, of your failures.
List everything in your journal – including your inventory. You should keep track of extra seeds at the end of the year (store these in an airtight jar in the refrigerator) as well as other supplies you have on hand. That way, you won’t waste money or time trying to figure out what needs to be ordered.
And while you’re at it, consider investing in a calendar, too. This is a great way to plan out planting dates, fertilizing times, and so on.
When Should I Start Preparing for My Garden?
The best time to start preparing for your garden? Two weeks ago.
I’m just kidding, of course, but really, you can’t start to plan too soon. I usually start planning out next year’s garden before I even have all of this year’s plants out of the ground! I like to stay ahead of the eight-ball, especailly when it comes to my beloved plants.
Now that you have decided what you want to grow, and the space you have, grab yourself some seed catalogs from places like Peaceful Valley Organic or BakerCreek, and get your green thumb going!
Be a constant learner and research everything. Review plant information in catalogs. Try to become a plant detective, doing everything you can to evaluate your successes and failures.
You’ll only get better with practice and with knowledge – so don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions and take a close look at your gardening.
With a bit of preparation and know-how, you’ll find yourself on track to have the best growing season yet!
last update: October 26th 2021 by Rebekah Pierce
Heather’s homesteading journey started in 2006, with baby steps: first, she got a few raised beds, some chickens, and rabbits. Over the years, she amassed a wealth of homesteading knowledge, knowledge that you can find in the articles of this blog.
Learn more about Heather and the rest of the writers on this page.