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Can you believe it’s time to plan out your gardens? I always get so excited this time of year knowing it’s time to start growing, but before you rush off to the store to and start buying up every plant be sure you take the time to map out your vegetable and flower garden!
How to Map, Plan & Plant Your Vegetable Garden
Garden planning is an important but often overlooked step, especially in beginner gardens. Mapping out and planning your garden allows you to spatially lay out where and when you are going to place all your plants in order to keep your beds producing all season long to their best ability.
It’s not hard and I hope my tips help! Remember, the initial investment of a couple of hours of your time will save you countless hours of headache as the season begins and progresses!
Table of Contents
(So you can skip to each section easily, but if you are a beginner I suggest reading the entire post through!)
Before sitting down to map out your garden you’ll want to consider these important tips!
1. Set Your Goals & Assess Your Space
There are a few factors I like to consider and questions I ask myself when first sitting down to set my plan.
- What are your goals for the garden? Are you just supplementing regular grocery needs? Are you wanting to be as self-sufficient for veggies as possible? Are you wanting to share your bounty with friends and neighbors? These are the very first questions to consider when coming up with your plan because your answers will determine other cascading factors.
- How much space is available/how big would you like your garden to be? This is also key in figuring out your plan, it will determine how many plants you can (or want to) physically fit.
2. Choose Your Location Wisely & Know Your Hardiness Zone
Growing vegetables requires ample sunlight; the bare minimum is 6 hours of hot, direct sun, but 8-10 is best. Ideally, your garden will also be away from standing water, any large root systems and tree canopy cover as these can hinder the growth of your crops.
Also, consider proximity to a water source – make sure your garden is easily reached by a hose so you can water your plants!
The other main thing you will want to know is your USDA Hardiness Zone. This tells you your general last and first frost date. This is super important to know since many vegetable are “tender,” which means they will die in cold temps. Knowing your last frost date let’s you determine when you can plant out your veggies!
Click here to find out your USDA Hardiness Zone by zip code!
3. Decide What Veggies to Grow & Purchase Seeds and/or Starts
The easy part right!? Sometimes not, especially when you’re like me and you want to grow all the things haha. So what it comes down to is what are your priorities? What are you planning on using/eating a lot of? What are you planning to experiment with??
For example, if you plan to rely solely on your own tomatoes, you definitely want to make sure these take priority. Or if say you are trying out a new vegetable for the first time and maybe are the only one in your family who likes it, this would not be as high of a priority.
Make a list from the most important crops to the least important when mapping out your garden and try to consolidate from there.
Next browse seed catalogs to get familiar with your options. This is the fun part but I easily get carried away here. Try your best to stay on track and only choose what you know you can handle! Even if you’re not starting seeds for your garden this is a great way to become familiar with the tons of different veggie varieties on the market.
These are my go-to seed retailers:
- Renee’s Garden – My favorite for organic and heirloom veggie seeds
- Johnny’s – Reliable, tested varieties and great mixes for beginners. They offer both flower and veggie seeds as well as tools, supplies and tons of info on growing
- Botanical Interests – Long-standing and reliable seed retailing company, they also sell a wide variety of garden tool sand supplies
Or, you can skip the intricacies and time-commitment of seed starting and simply purchase starts! Starts are young plants, ready to go in the ground, that you can purchase from your local farm or garden center from around April through June in most zones.
They are great because they take all the legwork out of seed starting for those of us that can’t find the time or aren’t great at it yet. The only few things to consider are that starts are more of an investment money-wise and you won’t be able to find as much variety within the veggie type as you would from seeds. But as far as ease and saving time, starts are the best option for most veggie types.
Quick Tip: Some veggie plants prefer to be directly seeded into the growing bed (because they don’t transplant well), they include: root crops like carrots, beets, radishes, parsnips, turnips and greens like lettuces, spinach and arugula.
Once you have determined your priorities and chosen your crops, you can decide on how many plants of each you want in your garden and also how much room the mature plants will take up in your beds.
4. Research Plant Spacing
Doing a little research, and even just reading your seed packets and plant tags, ahead of time will give you all the information you need; with little effort you can find a wealth of information on how exactly to space your veggies and flowers, which is necessary for drawing out your garden map.
Each veggie plant has different spatial requirements in order to grow to its fullest potential. For example, broccoli and tomato plants each need a 24″ circumference around them but broccoli stays shorter while tomatoes grow up to 6ft. tall.
Knowing your plant’s characteristics, especially as far as height and width, is integral when mapping out your garden.
Once you’ve done your research you’ll be better equipped to sketch an accurate plan!
5. Identify Large Plants that Need Trellising & Staking
When mapping out your garden be sure that you plant your tall trellis plants on the north side of your garden box. This includes anything that climbs such as peas, pole beans, zucchini, cucumbers and tomatoes.
This is to ensure these plants do not shade the other plants by blocking them from getting the proper sunlight that they need.
Shorter plants like greens should be planted on the south side of the beds and medium-height plants like swiss chard and kale can be in the middle.
6. Consider Companion Planting
This is one of my ongoing research topics that I have been loving learning more and more about with each growing season!
There are plants that greatly benefit from being planted near each other, both for things like deterring pests (marigolds and herbs are great for this reason!), attracting pollinators or that their root systems have symbiotic relationships. And there are also crops that can actually be harmful to each other when planted in close quarters, so that’s good info to know too.
Herbs make for GREAT companions to veggies in the garden, I always plant a ton even if I’m not going to consume them all just because they benefit the veggies so much.
One of my favorite reasons to have herbs close by veggies is that they are great at attracting pollinators – the beneficial insects necessary for pollinating your veggies’ flowers and producing the fruit!
Companion planting is so fascinating and when you get the hang of it your garden will be an even happier place!
Check out my free guide HERE for more info on companion planting, and I suggest this book, Vegetables Love Flowers, for further reading.
7. Succession Planting
Succession planting means sowing seeds a few weeks apart so you can get several harvests in the season, you would do this with “determinate” crops, or crops that just produce their edibles one time.
Root veggies like carrots, beets and radishes are determinate as well as most cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. There are even some determinate tomato varieties, so you’ll want to be sure of what you have so you can plan and succession plant these crops correctly!
Quick Tip: Greens like mesclun mixes, spinach and arugula can be continuously replanted or replaced because they grow and become ready to eat so quickly. For my zone (6a) we sow these greens every 2-3 weeks from April through May and then August through September.
By planning all this out it helps to really maximize bed production.
8. Three Season Planting
Did you know you can grow different crops from early spring through late fall? And in some zones, even winter!
So another thing you’ll want to take into consideration when mapping out your garden is the seasonality of different crops. Some veggies prefer cool weather while other prefer the hot days of summer.
Plants like spinach, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower and peas prefer cooler temps and can handle a frost so they can be planted in the very early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked. These crops also see a second coming for fall, they can be planted in late summer (late august/early September) for bountiful fall harvests. Brussel sprouts actually taste the best (sweetest) when harvested after a frost so we don’t harvest our fall crop until November!
Warm weather loving crops like the nightshade family (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant etc.) just have one season and grow best during the summer, when temps are consistently above 50 degrees.
So, when considering the seasonality of your different veggie plants you can plan on planting multiple crops in the same bed. You’ll just need to know whether the plants are color or warm-weather loving and how many days they take to reach maturity.
For example you can plant spinach (~45 days to maturity) and kale (~55 days to maturity) in mid to late march. Harvest your greens, amend your soil and then plant tomato transplants in late May right in the same bed!
9. Crop Rotation by Vegetable Family
We often think of crop rotation as only being beneficial for big plots or farms, but it works just as well in your home garden!
What is crop rotation? It simply means not growing the same crop in the same spot every year. Best practices call for rotating crops through your garden beds on a 3 or 4 year cycle.
Even despite using fertilizers and soil amendments, planting the same crop in the same spot year after year depletes the soil of the same important nutrients (this is especially true with tomatoes!) and makes the soil in that specific area more susceptible to erosion, pests and disease.
The practice of crop rotation has been around for many years and is a major contributor to the health of your garden soil so it definitely needs to be considered for your garden map!
Benefits of Crop Rotation:
- Increased soil fertility
- Improved pest and weed control
- Reducing soil erosion
- Reducing need for fertilizers
- Ease of mapping/planning your garden
For further reading: Chem out Crop Rotation on Organic Farms: A Planning Manual and Rotation of Crops, Succession, and Companion Cropping, both available on Amazon.
Knowing Your Crop Families
Learning and understanding these different plant families will come with time so I don’t want to overwhelm you, but I do think it’s important to consider your vegetable families, especially when practicing crop rotation.
Some veggie families are heavy feeders that deplete garden soils while other families are light feeders and others even help to build soil health. For example, tomatoes do great growing in the same bed where beans and peas had grown the prior season because legumes actually put nitrogen back into the soil, the main nutrient that tomatoes love!
We rotate our garden by the vegetable families on a four-year rotation schedule. For example, Tomatoes are also extremely susceptible to disease and fungus, which will lay dormant in the soil until the next year. The key is to replant the old tomato soil with reparative plants. That area should definitely not be replaced with another tomato family member, such as peppers since anything in the Solanaceae group can be infected by the same fungus.
- Soil Depleting Crops – Corn, tomato, potatoes, most fruiting vegetables
- Soil Neutral or Soil Conserving Crops – Cereal crops like wheat, barley, oats
- Soil Building Crops – Legumes; pea, bean, alfalfa, clover
- Weed-Reducing Crops – Cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower (because of their dense broad leaves)
Below I’ve listed the main plant families we work with and rotate in our garden. It’s not imperative to memorize these but again I do think it’s great to be aware of!
Alliaceae Family (Alliums)
Chives, garlic, leeks, onions, and shallots.
Solanaceae Family (Nightshades)
Eggplant, peppers, potatoes, tomatillo, and tomatoes.
Brassicaceae/Cruciferae Family (Brassica/Cruciferous)
Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens, radish, rutabaga, spinach, and turnips.
Cucurbitaceae Family (Curcubits)
Cucumbers, zucchini, gourds, melons, pumpkin, and squash.
Fabaceae Family (Legumes)
Alfalfa, lentils, beans and peas.
Asteraceae & Amaranthaceae Families (Greens)
Lettuces, endives, tarragon, beets, swiss chard and spinach.
Umbelliferae Family (Umbellifers)
Carrots, celery, fennel, parsley, cilantro, caraway and dill.
You’ll need some graph paper, a ruler and a pencil! Add in some veggies drawings with colored pencils when finished if you want to add some pizzazz 🙂
- Sketch your beds. On a piece of graph paper sketch each bed and note the dimensions, I prefer graph paper and pencil so I can make my sketch to size and erase when needed. Pull out last year’s map for reference so you can make sure you rotate your crops correctly.
- Decide on Plants & Know Their Spacing. Refer to your plant list, decide roughly how many of each plant you’d like and begin arranging the crops in the garden map.
- Place Priority Plants. Once your boxes are sketched and you have your list, sketch in the plants most important to you. Make sure to place them with the correct spacing and proper placement for sunlight (north vs. south side of the bed). For me, this is tomatoes, peppers and root veggies. These are plotted first on my garden map to ensure there is plenty of room to grow enough.
- Place the Climbers. Next sketch in those climbing plants, the ones that need trellis support. Peas, pole beans, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, etc. Put these at the north side of your boxes to ensure they do not shade your other crops when they grow tall.
- Place the Short-Season Plants. After the priority and the climbing plants are set, sketch in where seasonal plants will go. These are the quick-to-harvest plants that you will be succession planting so you can get several harvests through out the season (crops like lettuces, radishes, arugula and spinach).
- Extras Crops. Once all the vegetables have been mapped out go ahead and see how much space you have left. If you still have room you can sketch in some extras like companion plants – your herbs and even some cut flowers!
- Month by Month Plan. For more advanced gardeners, you can sketch your map month by month starting with your earliest plantings and ending in the fall. This will allow you to plan out succession seeding, planting and harvesting tasks ahead of time and also allow you to work in crop rotation and any cover crops planned!
1. Get Outside and Physically Define Your Site
After your map is created, it’s time to physically lay out your site.
This is exciting because the garden is starting to come to life! Mark it out with stakes and flags if you are planting directly in the ground, or, if you’re building your own raised beds, check out my quick DIY Tutorial HERE.
This is also the time when you will want to physically mark out and put up any fencing for the garden. We put up deer fencing every year because I swear our property is a deer thruway and they would decimate our beds!
2. Amend Your Soil & Prep Beds
Here are my tips/reminders for amending your soil to get it where it needs to be:
First, remember everything begins and ends with soil, you get what you give. Flowers and veggie plants vigorously suck the nutrients out of the soil so I can’t stress enough that your soil has to be healthy and nutrient dense from the start.
- Utilize compost – Can’t speak highly enough of this stuff! Compost is king! It improves soil structure, provides essential nutrients and enhances fertility. It makes sandy soil retain water better and it makes clay soil drain better, like magic! You can find compost at your local garden center, either by the bag or by the yard.
- Follow soil test recc’s – Lucky for you if you got your soil tested! You can follow their super helpful recommendations on exactly what to do to amend your soil.
- Spring vs. Fall. I amend our soil just before we plant in the early spring by mixing in compost – about 4 bags per 4’x8′ bed. But this is also a task you could do the leg work for in Autumn. After cleaning out your beds in the fall get a head start for next year by adding that compost or simply the fallen leaves that are starting to rot.
- Consider beneficial nematodes and earth worm castings. Both carry essential nutrients to keep your soil strong AND they deter harmful pests that could come to attack your plants later in the season!
3. Watering & Organic Weed Management Plan
Before actually planting you’re going to want to think about your plan for watering and weed management.
Drip irrigation or even soaker hoses are a great option for two reasons – less work for you (YES!) and the water is delivered directly to the plants’ roots which means less water on the foliage. They are pretty easy to set up with the right materials but can get clogged easily, especially in clay soils, definitely still worth considering though!
The next best option is watering by hand with a garden hose or watering can. Again it is best to deliver water directly into the soil because plants drink through their roots, try your best not to wet the plants’ foliage when watering. Wet foliage, especially prolonged wetness, invites fungus. Think of plants like people, when we’re thirsty we don’t take a shower, we drink through our mouths!
Sprinklers are the very last thing I would recommend for the same reason as above, plants don’t need showers, and consistency wetting their foliage is a sure initiation for pests.
Watering Tip: Water in the morning! Plants like to hydrate throughout the hot, sunny days (much like humans!). Watering at night can cause rot and invite harmful fungi and diseases!
Whether you are using irrigation, a garden hose, a watering can or sprinkler, just make sure you have your plan set.
As for organic weed management, my recommendations depend on garden size. Because we grow organically we do not use harmful chemicals in our garden. Our garden is relatively small so I weed by hand or use my good old collinear hoe to physically remove them. Remember, you’ll probably have to weed weekly this way!
Mulching is another great organic method for weed suppression in any size bed. Types of mulch include traditional, rotted leaves, straw or dried grass. Note that old hay is not good for mulch because it may harbor weed seeds.
4. Fertility & Pest Control Plan
I always like to have at least a basic idea of what my fertility plan for the green will be at the start of each season. This means soil health, fertilizer additives, organic pesticides and possibly the use of beneficial insects. I know especially pest control isn’t the most exciting thing to think about but you’ll be happy to at least have some ideas in place not if, but when, an insect or fungus starts attacking your crops!
I am constantly learning more and more each year about what’s best and how some plants require different nutrient balances. But a great place to start, as was stated above, is adding compost, manure and worm castings to your beds. These are naturally-occurring rockstar soil additives that literally make your soil do magical things for your plants’ root systems.
Additionally, we fertilize with fish emulsion every 7-10 days and recently I’ve been loving compost tea, we prefer to do a monthly application with this. If you’re not big into either of those, below I’ve inked my other preferred veggie and herb fertilizers!
Pest & Fungus Control
I always say the best thing you can do to prevent insect and disease attacks in the garden is to start with and KEEP your plants healthy. More often than not, pests attack weak plants. So this circles back to the above about proper watering techniques, sunlight and soil fertility. A happy and healthy plant won’t be a pest’s first target because it’s easier to attack plants that are already in a decline.
That said, even with doing everything perfect health-wise for your garden, I guarantee you will encounter something at some stage of gardening and it will be extremely frustrating.
To start, I suggest adding beneficial nematodes to your soil early in the season. They may sound icky but they’re not and they do SO MUCH good for the health of your plants by killing harmful insect pests in their larval stage at the soil level.
I would also look into adding the larvae of beneficial predator insects to your garden – things like lady bugs, praying mantis lacewings and assassin bugs! They take care of certain infestations by preying on the larvae, pupil or adult pest insects, it’s awesome!
This site is where I purchased our beneficial nematodes and insects for this year if you want to give it a try!
Besides beneficial insects, my top insecticidal/fungicidal organic pest controls I recommend having on hand are neem oil, insecticidal soap, horticultural oil and copper. These are both organic and work wonders for most fungi and insect pests. I also make a DIY preventative spray with my essential oils (peppermint and clove) to help deter insects and even small animals!
Pest Tip: Make sure to check your plants daily for signs of pests and disease! You would be amaze what even just a few days of neglect can do to the garden.
It is also important to research and know exactly what fungi or insect is attacking your plants in order to properly treat it. For example with the ever-dreaded squash vine borer, sprays won’t do a thing, you’ll have to preform surgery on the stems of your plants and physically remove the insects (gross, but necessary). And some sprays work better than others on certain fungi and insects.
For me what usually works is a quick google search of something like “white spots on zucchini leaves” or “large holes on lower leaves of cabbage” or even a more broad search like: “common tomato plant diseases/insect pests.” It’s easy to identify and learn the specific recommended treatment that way!
I also purchased this bug ID chart from amazon (they have one for every region of the US!), it has been SUPER helpful in identifying insect pests in the garden.
Lastly, I want to note that more and more I’m seeing “fungus-resistant” veggie plants on the market and I think that’s great. Of course these are new, hybrid varieties and there are moral values to consider there, (namely are they still beneficial for pollinators?) but as far as ease of controlling pests in the garden these new varieties would definitely be the way to go!
5. Time to Plant!
Yay! Time to plant and watch your garden flourish! Here are my quick tips for planting:
- A butter knife works great for digging in small seedlings or use a small hand trowel for digging in bigger plants.
- After planting, water seedlings in deeply to avoid shock from the transplanting and sprinkle new plantings with some mycorrhizal fungi. It’s a beneficial fungi combo that plants roots and continues to physically help strengthen their root systems.
- Apply a weekly application of liquid fish emulsion for the first 6-8 weeks (until the plants look lush, green, bushy and healthy). Our favorite brand for seaweed fertilizer and fish emulsion is Neptune’s Harvest, just follow the instructions on the labels.
- We also apply compost tea once a month, this stuff is a game changer.
Tomato Planting Tip: When planting tomato starts remove the lower leaves so you have about 4-6″ of bare stem. Dig your hole extra deep and bury that bare stem leaving just a couple inches above ground. This will make for a MUCH stronger tomato plant because it’s stem actually has the abilities to grow roots when buried under ground like that!
My last reminder… think of you plants as living, breathing life. Similarly to humans and animals, the better the plants are cared for in the beginning the better they’ll be for life.
PHEW! Thank you for bearing with me through that post! I strongly urge you to take gardening mapping and planning seriously as the few hours of time investment on the front end will save you countless hours of headache on the back end! You will be so happy to have a point of reference for the season as well as a great plan to look back on and learn from once the season is over!
As always I LOVE to hear from you all so leave me a comment below with your tips and tricks for garden mapping, or simply just tot say hi!
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