This is the easiest time of year for many of us to plan next year’s garden. If you are in a hot climate zone, or the southern hemisphere, come back to this in six months!
The advantages of good planning are:
- Make the most productive use of your land.
- Use the growing season to do the planting and harvesting, without stopping to do calculations
- Pace yourself, enjoy your life!
- Reduce stress and confusion
- Become a better farmer – keep good records, learn from the experience.
- Invest in your future – Planning gets easier each year – just tweak last year’s plan.
- For commercial growers, good planning helps you earn a good income.
Design a planning and recordkeeping system you like, so you’ll use it. There are web-based tools, spreadsheets, worksheets and notebooks. Do you prefer clipboards, computers, or photos? Build in the ability to adapt the plan if conditions change.
Web-based systems like AgSquared, COG-Pro and the smaller-scale Gardenplanner.southernexposure.com and phone apps store a lot of information and let you make changes, which automatically transfer to other pages. But how good is your broadband service? Could you reliably enter and retrieve information when you need it? We often have outages, and this would be just too frustrating.
We use a lot of spreadsheets. You can make your own, or copy others. During the year we follow printed sheets on clipboards – we don’t often need the computer. The program does all the calculations. You can quickly sort out selected parts of the information and rearrange it. You can print out the sheets and hang them on clipboards for daily use.
Some people use worksheets – printed pages to provide the plan and for you to enter what you do. For the computer-averse, these are good, but leave you to do the arithmetic.Screenshot Crop Planning Cycle
The farming or gardening year is a cycle, with no beginning and no end. You can start doing better planning at any time of year, busting into the circle diagram below at any point, although I do recommend clarifying your goals before making any big changes. But the slowest season does offer the most time, and a natural break in the crops. Gather your records and notes, your seed catalogs, your maps, and all the schedules and spreadsheets you used this past year.
0. First, clarify your goals. Don’t plan a garden that is designed for someone else.
- The Money: If you are growing vegetables to earn a living, calculate how much money you need to support your household, and your farm.
- Markets: Figure how best to do that with the land and labor you have available. A CSA? Farmer’s market? Roadside stand? Restaurant sales? You’ll need an idea of prices, so do some research!
- Crops: Then decide which crops to grow. Choose vegetables based on demand balanced with the financial value of those crops and the practicalities of growing in your climate, with the land you have use of. I have written before about our process for deciding which crops to grow. Consider ease of growing, suitability for your farm, productivity, profitability, popularity. Provide critical mass for the whole season and a diversity of crops. Honor your crop rotation!
- Harvest Schedule: You might be surprised that it is recommended to next determine how much of which crop you want to harvest when. In other words, plan your Harvest Schedule before planning any planting schedules. List how much of each crop to have ready for harvest each week
- Planting quantities: Also calculate (from yield tables such as in Sustainable Market Farming) how much you need to plant to achieve your harvest goals. The average person eats 160-200 pounds of fresh vegetables per year (USDA); the average CSA share feeds 2 or 3 people; an annual share will need to include about 500 pounds of 40-50 different vegetables, distributed, say, once a week for 8 months and once a month for 4 months.
Add about 10%, perhaps, to allow for things not going as planned. This could lead to a surplus of some crops, which you might be able to substitute for the shortages. Consider crop spacings, as these will determine how much space each crop needs.
6. Field Planting Schedule: Next, calculate the planting dates that will lead to harvests on your desired dates. Pause to look at the work flow and reconsider if you have too much work in any given week, and if you could make a change to avoid that problem. Take into account Days to Maturity of the varieties you plan to grow, any slowing down or speeding up because of temperatures very different from the ideal spring temperatures the catalog writers had in mind when they came up with those numbers. Draw up your list of outdoor planting dates, along with varieties, row feet, spacing, notes and space to write down what you actually do.OPS
7. Seedlings Schedule: Decide which crops to direct sow and which to transplant. For all the crops you will transplant, prepare a schedule for growing the seedlings. Pause to make sure your growing space can accommodate the numbers of flats and pots you hope to grow.Seedlings Schedule
- Pros of direct seeding
- Less work than transplanting
- Less money compared to buying starts
- No need for a greenhouse and equipment
- Better drought tolerance – roots grow without damage
- Some crops don’t transplant easily
- Some crops have millions of plants! (Carrots)
- Cons of direct seeding
- Uses more seed
- Uses more time thinning
- Occupies the land longer
- Maybe harder to get started in cold (or hot) conditions
- Pros of transplanting
- Start earlier than outside, get earlier harvests
- Start seed in more ideal conditions in greenhouse, better germination, more fun!
- Easier to care for new seedlings in a greenhouse
- Protected plants grow quicker
- Select sturdiest plants, compost the rest
- More flexibility if weather turns bad. Plants still grow!
- Fit more crops into the season
- Use time windows for quick cover crops
- Save on seed costs
- Cons of transplanting
- Extra time caring for the starts
- Transplant shock can delay harvest
- Pros of direct seeding
More attention needed to watering new plants
8. Maps: Make scale maps and fill in the main crops to grow in each section, in keeping with your crop rotation. Fit the lesser crops in the spaces left.Map
9. Packing more in: If you want more than your space allows for, (including wanting to pack your crops in a smaller space, so you can grow more cover crops), then consider succession plantings, intercropping, relay planting and follow-on crops (removing an old crop and flipping the space for another crop in the remainder of the growing season). If you have plenty of growing space, including for cover crops, then you might go for an EXtensive rather than INtensive garden, and use equipment to deal with weeds.
10. Tweak Your Plan: look at the overview of your planning so far and especially look for ways to improve. Do you want to extend your season in either direction? It’s easier to get extra harvests for a month or two in fall from mature plants you already have, than it is to get harvests a week earlier in the spring. Keep your highest priorities in mind: crops for your best markets, the signature crops you are famous for, and food for your household. Perhaps an old crop is not worth keeping, if pulling it helps you establish a new crop in a timely way. Use all available space for food crops or cover crops. Be sure to transfer any changes made in one spreadsheet to the related ones.
11. Plan B: Write some notes on what you might do if something goes wrong. Keep lists of fast-growing crops, phone numbers of neighbors, articles about dealing with floods, etc. If something does go wrong, write down what happened and why, what you did and whether it was successful, and any ideas that might have worked better, so you are better prepared next year.
12. Record-keeping: be sure to keep good records so that in a year you can tweak your plan to make it better for next year. Make recording easy to do. Minimize the paperwork. Record your planting dates and harvest start and finish dates right on your planting schedule. Have a daily practice of writing down what was done that day: Planting dates, harvest start and end dates for each planting of each crop; the amount of work done on each crop; the amount harvested. Allow time to do that, without losing your lunch break! At the beginning of the winter, have a Crop Review Meeting, discuss and write up what worked and what didn’t, to learn from the experience and do better next year. If your records suggest adjusting a date next year, adjust it to halfway between last year’s plan and what seems ideal – gradually zero in on the likely date without wild pendulum swings based on variable weather.