Ah, spontaneity. The sweet spice of life. For me, it’s binging on a new order of super fun Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds on a Tuesday. Or making a burrito for breakfast instead of a smoothie (fun stuff!) But when it comes to garden planning… spontaneity doesn’t have much of a place in my regimen. Planning a successful garden for the long term takes time, careful thought, and patience that comes with lots of change along the way. (Please note that affiliate links present in this post, which means if you click on a link and buy something I’ll get like 4 cents for it. All recommendations are very much my own!)
Not to discourage you from the garden planning process! I want to set you up for success. Planning is one of the most fun aspects of having a garden. It’s where we can let our creative juices flow freely and dreams abound!
I’ve planned lots of garden layouts and crop plans – well over 100 – and here I share with you my top 5 things to consider when planning your new organic food garden.
1. Determine Your Sun Exposure (8-10 Hours Ideally, But No Less Than 6)
- The bottom line for growing a successful edible garden, above all else, is putting it where the sun shines. You could do everything else perfectly (watering, building soil fertility, seeding and transplanting on time, keeping pests at bay) but without sunlight for photosynthesis your edibles will not grow into strong, healthy plants.
- The biggest mistake people make in garden planning is not realizing the true sun exposure of their space. Even a tree 20 yards away from where you want to grow your garden can block hours of primetime sunlight, depending on its location. A very easy and costly mistake to make!
- So, how exactly to measure the sun exposure in your yard? The easiest way is to use a tool – the Solar Pathfinder is easy to use and totally accurate. But if having a fancy garden gadget isn’t in your budget, here are some other easy ways to determine your sun exposure:
- Step 1: Take note of the obstacles in your and your neighbors’ yards – these could be houses and garages, trees, flagpoles, heavy fencing, and even lower-growing shrubs. What is their N-S-E-W orientation? You want as much southern sun exposure as possible. This means that most of your tall obstacles should be on the north side of your yard. If you have big obstacles due south of your growing space, you most likely will have a hard time growing food here.
- Step 2: Spend time in your space at different times of the day. You can discover your sun pattern a few ways:
- If you can be home all day – Go out to your space during each hour of the day and either take a picture of the sun pattern on the ground, or label the pattern with sticks (fun to do with kids!) Be sure to label the sticks with the time of day. It must be sunny with no cloud cover!
- If you can’t be home – Set up a camera and videotape the sun pattern. Fast forward through the tape later on to see the parts of the space that receive sunlight for how many hours. Again, make sure it’s sunny with no cloud cover.
- Really important note about trees in your yard: You must measure your sun exposure when the trees are leafed out. The very tiptops of tree branches will not cast a strong enough shadow on the ground for you to measure the full canopy if they are without leaves. If you do measure when the trees are bare, this could be a big disappointment in the summer when the trees leaf out and cast shade where you didn’t think they would.
- Step 3: After you roughly determine your sun exposure, draw a map of your yard on graph paper. Include your house and all other obstacles, and mark where the sun hits and for how many hours. I like using an architectural circle template to keep it neat and to scale. Color code it. Have fun! And make copies so you can scribble your future garden dreams all over it.
2. Determine Your Soil Needs
If you live in an urban area, I recommend sending a bit of your soil in to get it tested. It only costs about $15 for a toxicology and macronutrient report. Well worth it, as this will tell you whether your soil is contaminated, and will help you determine what nutrients your soil contains – good stuff to know for proper soil amendment and fertilization.
If you are in the suburbs or a rural area, you don’t necessarily have to get your soil tested, but if you are curious about the nutrient content of your soil then absolutely get it tested! To simply learn the physical composition of your soil, a DIY glass jar soil test is useful. This test will not offer you the chemical and nutrient makeup of your soil, but will tell you the ratio of sand to silt to clay – also important stuff. And it’s fun to do with kids!
Regardless of a test, take a dig down anywhere in your yard and analyze what your soil looks like for yourself. There are two major physical points of reference for healthy soil: Color and Texture. You want a dark (nearly black), loamy soil that feels about as wet as a wrung-out sponge. Hopefully there are earthworms and other arthropods (beetles, spiders, centipedes, etc) present – these bugs are evidence that your soil contains organic matter, healthy bacterial colonies and Soil Food Web activity. Not what you’re seeing? That’s okay. There are tons of ways we can work on it. More on how to build healthy soil here.
3. Determine How Big Your Garden Will Be
Before you get started tearing your yard apart and mapping out garden beds, you absolutely must think about how big you want your garden to be. The most beautiful, functional gardens are those that flow with the rest of a yard, so plan thoughtfully! Maybe your yard is completely full sun (homestead, what!) or maybe you just want a planter for herbs on your deck – I say both of these situations requires a plan. For a big garden, you’ll need to think in terms of seasons, building on new aspects of it year by year. For a small garden, just you wait. You may decide your garden is too small, and that you need a bigger one! You’ll be so glad you already considered space for it.
So, how big do you go? The size of your garden should be based on a few different factors:
- – Sun Exposure: The amount of sunlight your space receives (which you already discovered!) sets the physical limitations of your growing space. Maybe you only have enough sunlight to grow in a 4′ x 4′ square. Or maybe half your yard gets enough sun. Let this be your first step to figuring out the location of your garden, and its potential size.
- – Edible Yield: How much food do you really want to grow? Determining yield ahead of time is helpful in deciding the space you need to dedicate to growing your food. It will also help you in coming up with a crop plan. The yield you figure might depend on how many people live in your household, how often you cook with vegetables, and what types of vegetables you eat the most.
- – More Than a Garden: Will your garden be a multi-functional space? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a compost bin, perennial pollinator hedge, chicken run, fruit tree guild, veggie washing station, or kids’ mud kitchen inside or next to your garden space? Even if you don’t have the time or budget for it this year, make sure you include all of your grand ideas in your overall plan. Not everything requires sunlight like your vegetables do, so keep that in mind, too.
4. Determine Your Garden Budget
Perhaps one reason for growing your own food is to save money. It might seem counterintuitive to spend so much to set up your garden initially; however, if you start off strong using lasting materials, you will require much less maintenance (and replacements!) on your garden structure in the future. Just trust me on this one.
The biggest cost to you, when setting up a brand new edible garden, will be materials for constructing garden beds, fencing, and soil mixes to fill your beds. There is a never ending argument over in-ground gardens vs. raised bed gardens and which is better/easier/safer to grow food in. There is a misconception that raised beds drain water more efficiently and provide extra root growing space. Truth is, you can make an in-ground garden grow just as well, if not better, than a raised bed just by focusing on building healthy soil.
Side tip: I have created raised beds without building anything at all. Dig your pathways around your garden beds 4-6 inches deep. Pile the pathway soil on top of the beds. Add compost on top of that. Your sunken pathways can then be filled in with wood chips. Simple, free, easy as 1-2-3 raised beds without construction. It’s really a beautiful thing!
Moving on… Here is a comprehensive list of materials, tools and supplies you should consider when budgeting for your new garden:
- – Construction Materials for Raised Beds: Wood or Stone are the most obvious choices. When building with wood, you’ll want to use an untreated lumber, cedar being the best because it is naturally rot-resistant. Depending on the size of your beds, steel reinforcing bars may be needed (literally for reinforcement), along with lumber screws and tools to get the job done. Here is a good video to watch on building a raised bed using 6″x6″ cedar timbers.
- – Fencing Materials: Unless you’re planning to build raised beds 3 feet high, you will need to put up a fence to keep bunnies out. If deer might be a problem, your fence will need to be 6 feet high. You could use chicken wire, but it is flimsy and won’t last long, especially through rough winters. If you use a sturdier metal mesh it can also double as a vertical trellis for cucumbers, beans, peas, and other vining plants. I recommend using this strong wire mesh. Openings in your mesh should be no bigger than 1″ x 2″ for bunnies. Sink the mesh 6″ underground to prevent bunnies from burrowing underneath. If groundhogs are a problem, you’ll need to sink it 18″ underground.
- – Soil Mix and Compost: If you build raised beds, you will need to fill your beds with a mix of top soil and compost. For filling your beds, you can use more compost than top soil (to save money; buying compost in bulk is generally cheaper) – 70:30 is a good general ratio.
A great top soil on the market is Fox Farm Ocean Forest Soil, or for containers, Fox Farm Happy Frog Potting Soil. Both of these soils are full of micronutrients and contain mycorrhizal fungi; however, they are very expensive to use in a large space and are only sold in smaller, boutique garden centers. Alternatively, Home Depot sells Dr. Earth Home Grown Vegetable Planting Mix which I use in gardens with a lower budget.
For compost, try finding a local source – or better yet – make your own! Many landscape suppliers sell compost in bulk and will bag it up for you if you call ahead. Some municipalities even offer compost for free! Before you buy anything, check your city’s website for information. Alternatively, if you can’t find a local or free source of compost, Purple Cow Activated Compost is a good product and is sold in some smaller garden centers.
- – Irrigation – Another big question: How will you water your garden? It’s very important to have a watering system in place if your garden is large or in full sun. If you have grand daydreams of going out there with a hot cup of tea and your hose every morning at 5 am among birdsong, think again! Watering by hand is very time consuming and a ton of work. I recommend setting up an irrigation system – it doesn’t necessarily need to be an out-of-this-world sophisticated drip tube system, just something to get the job done effectively.
Quick walk-through: Attach the timer to a spigot on your house or garage. Timers are awesome because you can set them up to water your garden at the optimal time of day for the optimal amount of time and never have to worry about it again. Attach a hose to the end of the timer. Screw the splitter (which comes in 2-way or 4-way splits) into the end of the hose. The soaker hoses will then screw into the splitter and should be distributed throughout the garden beds. You should aim for a bit of soaker hose at the base of each plant.
– Tools – There are a few garden tools that will be necessary in your repertoire: a spade, a hard rake, a high-quality trowel or soil knife, a good pair of pruners, a compost fork (for those with a compost pile), and it’s always nice to have a tub trug or two! Remember, once you purchase these things, you will never have to again.
- – Transplants – Will you source your plants at a garden center or grow your own? Growing your own seedlings is cheaper in the long run for those with large gardens, but requires extra initial costs for grow lights, seeding pots and other materials. It also requires space and a learning curve! I will always say there is no shame at all in buying organic transplants from a local store.
- – Seeds – Seeds are relatively cheap. And if you’re an especially thrifty, Mother Earth-loving gardener, you will eventually learn how to save your own. For now, these are my favorite sources to purchase seeds: Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
- – Soil Amendments, Fertilizers and Other Supplies – Throughout the season, from soil prepping and planting to garden maintenance, you will need a variety of products along the way to help. Visit my Recommended Products Guide for advice on what you will need through every step so you can be prepared when the time comes!
It’s good practice to have a plan when gardening, but even better practice to take initiative! Please leave a comment if you need recommendations for other products, or have questions along the way. And post a picture of your beautiful space while you’re at it!