By: Jennifer McDonald, Mobile County Master Gardener, www.mobilecountymastergardeners.org
Growing food is an increasingly popular pastime and even a way of life for many. There is nothing quite like biting into your first tomato sandwich of the season, made with your own warm and juicy homegrown tomatoes, or slicing up a fresh cucumber you picked in your own back yard. It’s easy to understand why so many new gardeners are looking forward to learning how to grow food for themselves, especially with the recent quarantine and brief period of empty store shelves.
Planning an edible garden can seem a little overwhelming at first, but a good plan will go a long way in increasing the odds of your success. No matter how large or small your undertaking, the efficiency and enjoyment of your garden can improve dramatically with careful planning. The work you put in today will affect your garden months in the future.
1. Make a realistic assessment of your general goals. Will this be a fun experiment that shouldn’t take up much time, or are you hoping to cut ties with the grocery store? How much time and money are you prepared to spend? Are you aiming for maximum nutritional variety or mostly just a few favorites? Having a realistic idea of what you want and how hard you’re willing to work can help guide you through the planning process.
2. Make a realistic assessment of your space as you work towards sketching out the dimensions of your garden. How much of your yard are you willing to devote to a garden? What areas in your yard receive full sun? What areas have easy access to water? When settling on the right size for your garden, you’ll also need to consider the time and energy you’ll spend preparing and tending your chosen space.
3. Make a list of the foods you would like to grow, ideally. Research and investigate each plant to determine if that particular food usually grows well in your area, when it should be planted, how much space it requires, and how long it will take to harvest. Also, try to determine how many of each plant you’ll need to meet your goals. You might have to make some sacrifices later as you negotiate your space and determine your priorities.
When determining appropriate planting times, it’s important to remember that the dates on the seed packets are sometimes not ideal given the quirks of our local climate. We recommend downloading the SOW app for your phone (https://www.mobilecountymastergardeners.org/sow-app), which will show you appropriate planting times for your area and help you organize your garden schedule.
4. Once you have narrowed your choices, organize your list according to planting times. This will help you determine which plants will be growing at the same time and which ones will overlap with new plantings. Make sure to account for plants that have more than one planting window or need to be planted in succession (e.g. two weeks apart) for continued production through the season.
5. Sketch the shape of your garden bed and label the dimensions, broken down into feet if possible, to help you organize the space. It’s helpful to create a basic template of your garden layout and make copies to use later for organizing future plantings. Using all the information that you have compiled, begin to add rows to your sketch depending on the space needs for each plant. Pay close attention to timing overlaps so that you leave enough space to start new crops in the future.
You may end up making some tough decisions depending on your goals and available space. With a little practice and experience you’ll learn lots of tricks to maximize your space.
Once your garden space is sketched out, you can start preparing your soil and getting ready to plant your chosen seeds and seedlings. Creating a planting schedule for the year will help you stay organized and update your sketch as needed. As you move through the seasons, each crop that you plant will be considered with an eye toward the future. Later you’ll need to allow for crop rotation, making sure you don’t plant the same variety in the same spot every year.
Most garden plans improve over the years as gardeners accumulate experience and learn what works best for their space, soil, and sunlight situation. If you’re new to gardening, starting small and simple is usually best, concentrating on one or two plants while you get the hang of it. If you’re in a hurry to get started, right now is a great time for okra and Southern peas!