How To Plan A Vegetable Garden – 5 Easy Steps

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Learning how to plan a vegetable garden will help you make educated decisions on what to grow and how much to grow in your garden.  It’s important to make sure that you order the right amount of seeds, start the right amount of seedlings, and have the proper space for them prepared in the garden.  It is also important to study companion planting and how to rotate your crops each year to prevent pests and disease.  Come along with me as I give you 5 easy steps that will make your garden planning successful.

how to plan a garden

When To Plan A Garden

There’s an old saying that goes something like this, “Anyone who thinks that gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year.  For gardening begins in January with a dream.” And that is so true!  One of my favorite things to do on a cold winter day is to get out my seed catalogs and maps of my previous gardens and plan a garden design for the new year.  

lady planning a garden

How We Grow A Garden To Fill Our Homestead Pantry

We grow just over ½ acre market garden on our homestead in zone 4b in Nebraska.  From this garden we preserve thousands of pounds of food each year. We also take lots of produce to sell at farmers market each week during the summertime.  Having a solid garden plan helps the planting process go smoothly because I have the right amount of vegetable plants for my garden when it comes time to plant.  It also helps when making sure I have all the supplies I will need like weed fabric and drip line so that when it comes time to plant, I can quickly and easily get my plants growing in the ground.

full pantry shelves

What Type Of Garden To Grow?

When planning a garden, it’s important to decide what type of garden it will be.  Will it be to grow food just for fresh eating?  Or will it be to grow large amounts of your own food to fill your pantry and reduce your dependence on the grocery store?  Will it be just to bring joy and beauty as a flower garden?  Or maybe a combination of all of these things?  

I grow a large vegetable garden, but I always like to include some flower beds because flowers attract pollinators and bring me so much joy when I’m working out in the garden.  Some flowers like marigolds help prevent pest pressure. I also like to grow herbs and flowers along with a few vegetables like green onions and things that are quick to throw into your fresh cooking in a kitchen garden located closer to my house.  

flowers in garden

Soil Testing

Sometimes the soil in your garden area is very heavy clay soil or maybe it’s very sandy, and needs organic material added to it to grow the healthiest vegetables.  It’s very important to take a soil test first and make sure that your garden soil type is amended properly for growing your crops.  I have a full tutorial on how to take a garden soil test for growing vegetables here.

mixing soil in 5 gallon bucket

Five Easy Steps I Follow When Planning My Vegetable Garden

1. Make A List Of What To Plant

This starts with taking an inventory of any seeds I might have leftover from previous years.  I keep my seed packets in ziplock bags separated by type of seed.  I store all of these bags in a small tote in my pantry where it is cool and dark.  

Most seeds will keep for 3-5 years if stored properly.  If you’re not sure whether they are still good or not, you can always put a few of them on a moist paper towel inside a ziplock bag and watch to see how many of them germinate.  This will tell you how many extra seeds you might have to plant to get the right number of transplants to completely fill out your garden beds.  If in doubt as to whether the seed is still viable, I usually just plant two or three seeds in each soil block as I’m seeding to make sure I’ll have enough plants.  If they all come up, then I just thin them later on.

2. Determine Where To Plant Each Crop

To determine where to plant each crop I look at the maps from my garden last year and refer to some companion planting and crop rotation charts in my garden planner.  Then on graph paper, I draw out my basic garden layout.  Do your best to follow the companion planting and crop rotation charts, but don’t get super technical about it.  If you end up with a crop that is planted next to another crop and they aren’t the best companions plants, just go with it.  It will grow just fine even if it’s not paired up perfectly.  

I like to grow all of my crops in 30” wide garden beds instead of traditional rows because it is a more efficient use of space in the garden.  I also recommend that you make all the beds in your garden space the same length if possible.  It will be easier to figure out how many soil amendments are needed for each bed.  I also like to use high-quality ground cover on all my beds to suppress the weeds, and if all of your beds are the same length, it will be easy to rotate fabrics when you rotate crops.

garden in early sping

Something else to consider when deciding where to plant each crop is which crops like full sun and which crops like partial shade.  Most vegetables like full sun, except for the cool-season crops like lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower.

If you have limited space in your garden, you can do some creative trellising with crops like cucumbers and zucchini to maximize the space available for growing.  Other crops that take up a lot of space like tomatoes can be easily trellised using the Florida weave method of trellising.

3. Determine How Much Of Each Crop To Plant

Once you have your garden map drawn out, it is time to figure out how much of each crop you will need to plant.  This will help you know how much seed to order and how many trays you will need for starting the seeds indoors that will need to be transplanted. Check out my full tutorial for making a budget friendly DIY indoor seed starting setup.  

indoor seed starting setup

I have created a plant spacing cheat sheet for you that is based on growing on 30” wide x 50’ long beds. This will help you to easily figure out how much space you will need to give each plant in each bed, and depending on your garden size how many plants to grow.  Some smaller garden plants like lettuce can be planted four plants wide in a 30″ wide bed, but larger plants like tomatoes will have to be grown in a straight line down the middle of the bed because they will get really big come late summer.

One other thing I have to mention is that it’s always a good idea to plant more than you think you will need. Not every plant survives long enough to produce fruit. Sometimes there is late frost, or an influx of grasshoppers, or the kids pull up some plants while helping you weed, or the cows get in your garden and flatten it (see the next picture). If you end up with extra produce, that’s okay! Give it away or sell it, turn it into compost. None of those things are wasteful. You want to make sure that you will have plenty of food to feed your family for the coming year at least. On a bountiful harvest year, store away as much food as you can, because the next year’s growing season might not be as productive.

4. Determine When To Plant Your Seeds

Determining when to start your seeds indoors and when to direct seed crops out in the garden is a crucial part of planning your garden.  Some cool-season crops like peas and cabbage like to be planted in early spring so they can grow when it’s cool.  Other crops like tomatoes and squash cannot be planted until all danger of frost is past.  

squash and potatoes

The easiest way to figure out when to plant everything is by using a free online app called Seedtime.  In the app, you can put in your last frost date and it will tell you the best time to plant each crop.  It’s easy to customize the tool with all of the different crops you plan to grow.  It will also tell you when to plan on harvesting your crops so you can make sure to plant longer season crops like squash early enough so they will be mature before the first fall frost. I would highly recommend that you check out this valuable tool. I have used it successfully for over 10 years.

5. Order Seeds & Other Supplies

After you have your garden map drawn out, a list of how much and when to plant each crop, then it is time to browse the seed catalogs and order your seeds.  My two favorite seed catalog companies are Johnny’s Seeds and Berlin Seeds.  Both of them have seeds that grow well in northern climates, and Johnny’s especially has varieties bred for producing high quantities of produce for market gardeners.  Reading the Johnny’s Seed catalog is an education all in itself as they give so much information on how to grow each crop successfully. Another great place to order seed and garden supplies is True Leaf Market. I always get all of my seed starting trays from True Leaf.

Less Is More

It’s also important not to try too many varieties especially if you are a beginner gardener.  It’s much better to keep it simple and grow a small garden.  There’s an old saying that goes like this: “A smaller well tended garden will produce more food than a large out of control garden” and this is very true.

Garden Hardiness Zones

Also, you’ll want to grow crops that are easy to grow in your garden zone.  To find out what hardiness zone you are in, you can visit  Rhubarb, for example, doesn’t grow as well down south where it gets very hot in the summer.  While crops like sweet potatoes don’t grow as well up north unless you grow them on black fabric to make the soil warmer, etc.  Some crops have too long of a growing season to be grown in a northern garden without a greenhouse.  Once you learn your average last frost date in the spring and average first frost date in the fall, you’ll be able to figure out which crops are best for your hardiness zone.

Grow Things You Like To Eat

I would also suggest that you grow things your family likes to eat.  If your family doesn’t like kale, then don’t grow a whole bed of it until you find ways that they will eat it.  It’s also wise to look at your pantry and figure out what you need to preserve for the coming winter.  

Consider growing a good mix of storage crops like winter squash and potatoes, and also some crops for canning like tomatoes and green beans.  It’s okay to start simple with just a few things in your garden, and once you learn to grow those well, and learn how to preserve them, then you can expand to other crops.  I always recommend that new gardeners start with tomatoes and cucumbers for sure.  They are such a staple crop that most everyone likes to eat, and you can preserve them in several ways to start a homestead pantry.

full garden beds

The main crops I always grow in my garden are:

  • Peas
  • Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Basil
  • Onions
  • Carrots
  • Beets
  • Green Beans
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Potatoes
  • Summer squash
  • Winter Squash

It’s also a good idea to add some perennial crops to your garden as you can.  Things like raspberries, strawberries, grapes, asparagus, and fruit trees are wise additions to any garden and will come back year after year and provide food for your family.

strawberry in ladies hand

Water Source

When planning your garden, it’s also a good idea to figure out how you plan to water your garden. Make sure that you have a hydrant or creek close by that can provide enough water to support your garden.  I like to water everything with drip line because it’s not good for most vegetable crops to be watered from over head. Watering with something like a sprinkler can increase blight, disease and other fungus problems.  When you water with drip line, you are putting the water right at the root of the plants and you can easily control how much water your plants are getting.  It’s also important not to give your plants more water than they need.  Usually 1-2″ per week is sufficient. It’s good for the roots to have to grow deep to access water as it makes for a healthier plant.

The only time when you may want to overhead water, is for crops like lettuce.  You can keep them from getting bitter in the heat of the summer by overhead watering for a few minutes every day. This can best be done with a sprinkler on a timer. If you aren’t set up for drip line watering yet, you can still grow a successful garden with a sprinkler especially if you are just learning. Do what you can with what you have! The important thing is just to start!

Be sure to watch my full tutorial on how to plan a garden that will fill your pantry.

If you have any questions on how to set up and plan a vegetable garden, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.  I’ll be happy to help you in any way that I can.

Happy gardening, LaRee.

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grow the food to fill your pantry

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