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January is for garden planning. I always get so excited this time of year (winter) as things slow down post-holidays and I get to dream about the garden and brainstorm plans. Before you rush off and start buying all the seeds be sure you take the time in planning and mapping out your vegetable 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 for Mapping Out Your Vegetable Garden
(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 to consider and questions to ask yourself when first sitting down to set your plan and before mapping out your vegetable garden.
- 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? What vegetables and flowers do you actually enjoy eating/arranging with? 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 ideally? 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 Thoughtfully & Know Your Hardiness Zone
Growing vegetables requires ample sunlight; the bare minimum is 6 hours of direct sun, but 8-10 is best. Ideally, your garden will also be away from standing water, rock outcroppings, 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 to Grow & Purchase Seeds and/or Starts
The low down on seed starting: Click Here for my Full Seed Starting Guide
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
- Baker Creek – best source for rare, pure, heirloom seeds
- Botanical Interests – Long-standing and reliable seed retailing company, they also sell a wide variety of garden tool sand supplies
Not into seeds? Seeming too overwhelming?? No problem, 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.
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.
Pros and Cons of Seeds vs. Starts:
- Pros for SEEDS: save money, option to grow way more varieties
- Cons for SEEDS: takes more time, bigger investment of time, work and research, germination is hard for some seeds which can be frustrating
- Pros for STARTS: takes the guess work and time-commitment out of seed starting, instant gratification, less frustration for beginners
- Cons for STARTS: higher cost and less varieties available (you’re at the mercy of the varieties the nurseries have chosen to sell)
REMINDER: NOT ALL SEEDS WANT TO BE STARTED INDOORS, SOME PREFER TO BE DIRECTLY SOWN
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. Just something to keep in mind!
4. Know Your 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! I am working on a post/guide for square foot gardening, it’s the easiest and most intuitive method I’ve found!! In the mean time I highly suggest getting this book: Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew.
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 or gets super tall such as peas, pole beans, zucchini, cucumbers and tomatoes.
This is to ensure these plants do not shade the other plants and block them from getting the proper sunlight that they need.
Shorter plants like greens and herbs 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 and flowers 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 have a few different crop timings and can get several harvests during one season. It is helpful to do this with “determinate” crops, or crops that just produce edibles one time. By planning all this out in advance it helps to really maximize bed production.
That said, if you are a beginner don’t go crazy with succession planting, it can become hard to manage and plan for!
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 accordingly.
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 biweekly from April through May and then August through September.
For flowers think one and done/single stem types like sunflowers, gladiolus, lillies and nigella.
Important factors to consider for succession planting:
- How long does it take that plant to reach maturity (harvestable point)? The quicker the better for succession planting.
- How many days until your first frost? Stop planting when the days to maturity surpass the days to first frost.
- Is the plant a one and done type or indeterminate/cut and come again? You’ll want to plant more successions of one and done types.
8. Seasonal Plantings
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 vegetable garden is the seasonality of different crops. Some veggies and flowers 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 Plant 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 when you’re mapping out your vegetable garden!
Plant Families by Name
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.
10. Where to Record Your Plans & Seeding Schedule
Everyone has such different methods of recording plans, notes and schedules so it’s truly what feels best to you! For me I like writing my seeding schedule on a big wall calendar, I literally just write down what needs to be seeded week to week and hang this in my kitchen so it’s always in my face!
For actually sketching and mapping out your vegetable garden I like hand-drawing with pencil on graph paper (scroll down for the step by step!).
And for notes I just have a little notebook for each year/season, nothing fancy at all!
Some other ways people like to record and plan are with actual gardening journals that give you prompts (search amazon), garden layout planning apps/software, excel spreadsheets for seeding and planting schedules or setting alarms and reminders in your phone. Do whatever works best for you!
Maybe I’m old fashioned but I love a good hand-drawn garden sketch for mapping out your vegetable garden. You can get fancy and download garden plotting apps but for me I’ll aways be a pencil and paper girl!
This is the part where we put all your research to paper, you’ll need some graph paper, a ruler and a pencil! Add in some veggie 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! I like doing it this way and corresponding the drawings to my monthly task list and seeding schedule.
I hope these steps are helpful in mapping out your vegetable garden!
After you’ve planned and mapped your garden click here for the next step — 5 Tips for Planting a Vegetable Garden. I include how to physically define your site on the ground, a DIY raised bed tutorial, how to amend/prep your soil for planting, how to make a watering, weed, pest and fertilizer management plan and then of course how to physically get down and dirty and plant your plant babies!
Super 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.
- Wet the soil slightly so it holds your holes better.
- 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.
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.
Ok, let’s get growing!
PHEW! Thank you for bearing with me through this post! I strongly urge you to take garden 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! Let me know your tips and tricks for planning and mapping out your garden, or simply just say hi!
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