Crop Planning: Part 1
Updated: Feb 2, 2021
This is the first article in a three part series where we dive deep into crop planning. Today we are going to determine exactly what we are going to grow and where it will all go in our garden. Part 2 will look at timing for planting, transplanting and harvesting and part 3 will go into putting it all into an easy schedule for you to follow. While all this will take some time the first year you do it, the intention is to make this a template that you can easily update with new vegetables or adjust for your specific growing conditions in future years. This will save you oodles of time in the garden and ensure you maximize your growing space, making growing vegetables a more enjoyable and less stressful activity.
Make A Wish List
First things first: I want you to make a list of all the vegetables you would like to grow. Don't worry if your list is too long and don't worry about varieties yet. Just get it all down. There are a couple of things to keep in mind while you are creating this list. Make sure you include all your favourite things to eat! Trust me, they will taste even better when they come straight from your garden. (It will be blatantly obvious in a couple minutes that carrots are one of our favourites.) Conversely, if there is a vegetable that nobody in your family is going to eat, don't bother putting it on there. No matter how much you want your kids to eat mustard greens, if they don't like them, planting them is a waste. Also, think about adding vegetables to your list that are expensive to buy! For example, many herbs are pricey in the stores, but quite cheap to grow. These make good economic sense to include. The opposite is also true. Some things are so cheap to grab at the grocery store, they may not be worth the garden space to you. Lastly, think about adding vegetables that are hard to find in stores, such as specialty or ethnic vegetables.
Got your list? The next step is to find a relaxing spot with a warm drink and a cozy fire if you can. Then plant yourself in front of it (pun intended) and peruse your seed catalogs or websites. (See the article Late Fall To Do: Season Review for a list of seed companies that have catalogs and/or websites.) Flip through and find some things that would be super cool to grow! Take note of the vegetables on your wish list and try to identify varieties of those vegetables that look good to you. They could be old faithful's that you have grown before and loved, or new varieties with different colours, shapes, flavours, pest resistance or earliness. You may even find a completely new vegetable that you either haven't eaten or grown before. Add a couple of those new vegetables to your wish list; I am a firm believer that you must try at least one new thing a year! You will use your vegetable wish list to populate your garden map. The varieties you have flagged for each of those vegetables, we will come back to a bit later, in Part 2.
Make A Garden Map
While looking through seed catalogs is great for those really cold winter days, there is some work that needs to be done on those balmy days too. You need to make a map of your vegetable garden space. Using a measuring tape and graph paper, get outside and start measuring the space you have for your annual veggies. Try to be as accurate as you possibly can. Translate that onto your graph paper to scale. For example, you could use one square equal to one square foot of garden space, but this will depend on the size of your garden space. Make sure to include a north arrow on your map. This will help with determining the position of any trellises or tall versus short plants later on. Make a note of any areas of your garden that are shady as this will greatly influence what you can plant there. Note that what is in shade during the winter may not necessarily be in shade during the summer. Look back at summer photos if you need to or remember to take note of this during the coming growing season.
Before we get to filling in this blank garden map, we need to quickly talk about crop rotation because it will greatly affect where you place your veggies. Crop rotation is essentially moving the location that we grow a specific vegetable from year to year. We do this for two main reasons. Firstly, pests such as insects, fungal disease and viruses tend to overwinter in the soil. They also tend to be specific to a vegetable family. If we continue to grow vegetables that are closely related in the same spot year after year, those pest populations will build up and get progressively worse. If we instead plant a completely different family of vegetables in that spot, those pests will have a hard time finding their preferred food source or host and their numbers will be greatly reduced. The second reason we rotate crops is because different families of vegetables have varying nutritional needs. Some are really heavy feeders and need lots of nutrients in the soil. Others need a lot less. And still others, such as nitrogen fixers like peas and beans, replenish some of those nutrients in the soil.
The challenge is incorporating crop rotation into your specific garden map. Not to worry, there is a way to make this a straightforward and simple process! The first step is dividing your garden up into 3 or 4 approximately equal parts, allowing for a 3 or 4 year rotation. These can be different raised beds or just sections of one large garden plot, depending on what your personal veggie garden looks like. A four year rotation is better than three (which is the minimum), but do what makes sense for your garden. Next, take at look at the plant families shown below. You want to take these 9 plant families and arrange them into 3 or 4 groups (whichever number of sections you have divided your garden into). Which families you decide to group together will depend on the relative amounts of each that you want to plant. You are going for equal sized groups here in terms of space used. Start by dividing up the families you are going to plant the most of, and then fit in all the other plant families where there is room for them. Try to keep each family together within one section. Don't let this process stress you out! You can easily make adjustments to these groupings as you start to fit plants into your plan. Remember, which families you group together is not the most important thing. What is most important, is that those groupings remain consistent from year to year. Once you have established a firm grouping plan, it is just a matter of rotating each group from one garden section to another every year.
So, what does this look like in real life? Below is an example from my garden plan. I have a 3 year rotation, as I have three large raised beds (A, B and C). A couple notes on my rotation:
The two small beds (D and E) I reserve for mostly lettuces as they are quite shady and are therefore inappropriate for most other vegetables (that all need full sun), so I don't include them in the rotation.
Bed F is also not included in the rotation as it is in a separate part of the yard, along a fence and also does not get tons sunlight. I reserve this for peas (I have a trellis up against the fence). Every year I switch up what I grow in front of them.
Although root vegetables (beet and carrot families) don't take up a lot of real estate per plant, we do plant a lot of them, so I have an entire bed of just them. I plant both fresh eating and storage varieties to last through the winter.
My brassicas are usually the hardest hit by insects (cabbage moths/worms and flea beetles) so I group them together with my alliums, which are good companion plants for reducing those specific pests. See the article on Companion Planting for more good combinations.
I plant my tomato and squash families together in one group because they they are all hot season crops that don't go into the ground until a bit later in the season. This allows me to get a quick crop like radish in and harvested before I plant those heat loving plants (we will go into this more in part 2). It also allows me some time to throw some compost on this bed (if I didn't get to it in the fall) for the extra hungry plants in these two families.
I have also thought about the order the beds are placed in. The families that have lower nutritional needs (beet and carrots families) are in the bed just before the tomato and squash one. This way each bed has heavy feeders (with compost added before planting) one year, light feeders the next year, and then the nitrogen fixers the third year to help replenish the soil before those heavy feeders again.
Note that one of my three main beds is also smaller than the other two (bed B). Whichever grouping has the small bed in a year, I just plant less of. So for example, two out of every three years I plant lots of tomatoes and can enough tomato sauce to make up for the one year that I have less tomato plants in the smaller bed. I also take the opportunity to experiment with additional varieties in years where I have the space for it. This year we are trying out quite a few bean varieties!
Populating Your Garden Map
Once you have figured out where each plant family is going, it is time to starting placing individual vegetables into your garden map. We are going to follow an intensive planting plan for your garden because that is, by far, the most efficient way to plant and the way to get the largest amount of produce from your space. The article A Practical Guide To Raised Beds goes into more details on exactly why. For my garden, I prefer to use the square foot planting method as I find that the easiest to plan for spacing. For each vegetable, I know exactly how many plants fit into one square foot. I just designate each square foot of my garden plan to a specific vegetable. It makes calculating absolutely everything so much easier, as you just need to count the squares. You can also plant in rows if that is your preference. However, to keep this as simple and easy as possible, we are going to concentrate on growing within the square foot pattern.
Before you start
Make sure you have a couple copies of your blank garden plan, a pencil and eraser. It's also a good idea to review the article on companion planting (link here) to see which of the vegetables you want to grow should (and should not) be planted beside each other. Also, take note of which annual flowers you might want to interplant to attract pollinators and which plants might be effective as pest deterrents or pest distractors. For your garden map, you are going to work with vegetable types, not varieties. We will look at choosing specific varieties in Crop Planning: Part 2. Now it's time to pull out that wish list you made earlier.
Start with one bed or section and begin with the largest vegetables first (see the square foot spacing chart above). Decide how many you want to plant and colour in the corresponding number of squares. How much of each vegetable you plant will change from year to year as you learn how much your family will eat. If you have notes from previous years, refer to them now when deciding quantities. If you are starting from scratch, this chart from Prairie Homestead is a great place to begin (link is also in further reading below). Next, start filling in your must have plants. And lastly, fit in the rest of your wish list in the remaining spaces. Don't forget about your companion plants! They can either be added as one plant in a single square of good companions (such as a single bitter red lettuce plant in the center of each square of bok choy ), or a whole square checkerboarded into a group of squares of a particular companion (such as a whole square of borage centered in the middle of a swath of pepper plants). This will take a bit of fandangling and will definitely require the use of that eraser. Take your time and adjust amounts until you get all the vegetables you really want to grow this year. Know that your space is not unlimited and you may have to make some cuts to that wish list. There is always next year! If you have a plan from previous years, you have already thought through all of these things, and only need to make minor adjustments for planting amounts and maybe a few vegetable additions or deletions. Don't forget, you also need to rotate your crops from the previous year!
Don't forget to add something new! This year we are trying out strawberry spinach (click on the picture to visit Baker Creek Seeds) and Yellowstone Carrots (click the picture to visit West Coast Seeds).
It can be hard to visualize this process so here, step by step, is how I decide where everything goes. If you have never put together an annual vegetable garden plan before, it may help to follow along with my thought process. Note that I constantly think about companion planting when placing my vegetables. Refer to my completed planting plan photo below as you read along.
I start with my tomato bed first (bed B this year):
I want as many vine tomatoes as I can get, so they go in a single long line on the north side of the bed where they won't shade anything else. I can also easily install a trellis along this side. I will interplant basil at their base to improve tomato flavour.
Winter squash goes on the west end of the bed as it is the sunniest. Plus there is lots of space for it to overflow into my mulch area. These take up a lot of room so I am only planting one in this smaller bed.
Zucchini can handle a tad less heat/sun so it goes on the east side. I am also running dangerously low on zucchini relish so I will plant 2 of them this year, instead of just one.
I need 2 bush type plum tomatoes for sauce.
I know from previous years that 6 pepper plants will be sufficient.
These are all fruiting plants that need pollinators, so I need to add some pollinator attracting flowers. Borage will go by the squash (as it improves the flavour) and marigolds will nestle in with the peppers.
I will also seed super fast radishes in the bed in early spring and hope they mature before the tomatoes, peppers and squash need to go in. Some years this works, and some it doesn't. It is a good thing radish seed is cheap!
No room for cucumbers, so I will try to squeeze them into bed C. Same with ground cherries which may go in bed A.
All done bed B! On to bed C:
I planted hardneck garlic in the late fall, so it is where it already is. I purposefully spread them out a bit so I can plant around them. They are also in some of the harder to reach areas as they need zero maintenance until being harvested.
Cabbage will go around the garlic for pest protection (cabbage moths), but also all together in one bunch so that they fit under one row cover. I want to try an additional variety to my standard this year, so I am upping the number of squares I planted previously.
We eat lots of kale (plus it is super frost tolerant and lasts well into winter) so I give it lots of real estate. It is also close to the cabbage so it can be included in that row cover if needed. It's also by the garlic for pest (cabbage worm) protection.
Onions go around kale for even more pest protection.
Asian veggies are located on the east side as they can take more shade. I interplant red bitter lettuce within each square for pest deterrence (flea beetles). These are very fast to mature and can therefore be succession planted. As a result, they don't need much square footage. We will go into succession planting more in Part 2.
Culinary herbs on the NW corner as this is closest to my kitchen door and also kind of close to the cabbage (more pest deterrence).
Nasturtium is far from the cabbages (it is a trap crop for cabbage moths) but improves the flavour of cucumbers. So cucumbers are on a small angled trellis over the nasturtium.
Celery is by the cabbage to help with scaring off those moths.
The hottest remaining part of the bed (more westerly side) will go mostly to beans. We want to try lots of new types this year, so I am giving them lots of space.
Turnip will go by the garlic and onion to help with reducing root maggots.
Kohlrabi is all that is left. I also added in some marigolds for attracting pest predators, to add some colour and to give good smells!
On to bed A:
Going to sneak the ground cherry in the the hottest, sunniest spot which is the NW corner.
Likewise, spinach goes in the shadiest spot, the SE corner.
Carrots also need a fair amount of sun (more than beets anyways), but I also don't want a huge swath of them (too easy for pests to find a smorgasbord) so I break them up with the beets.
Strawberry spinach is new to us this year, but it is a close relative of beets and swiss chard so I am giving them the same growing conditions and only 2 squares for a trial.
Celtuce is a type of lettuce but it gets pretty big, so I am putting it in this bed instead of with the other lettuces. It was our trial plant last year that we are keeping in the rotation because we loved it.
Swiss chard and storage radish (daikon type) go in what is left.
Bed F is along a fence with a trellis and is a tad shady, so it always gets peas. Carrots will go in front this year, as I can always use more carrots! I have added a few squares of marigolds for smell and colour, but also to try and deter rodents that sometimes like to dig under the fence here. Beds D and E are reserved for lettuces and stir fry greens, as they are the shadiest parts of my vegetable garden. Cilantro goes here as well, as it bolts like crazy with too much heat. Mint goes in containers so it doesn't take over the world and perennial vegetables are interspersed throughout my food forest garden.
I hope that follow along was helpful to you! By now, you should have a beautiful garden map that you will use throughout the season, especially during planting. So, are we done? Well, not quite yet. In part 2 we are going to look at all the numbers. How many seeds we need as well as dates for planting, transplanting and harvesting. We are going to make our gardens as efficient and foolproof as possible (or at least as much as Mother Nature will let us)!
Yummy gardening everyone!
Late Fall To Do: Season Review (for a list of seed companies with websites and/or catalogs)
Bartholemew, Mel "All New Square Foot Gardening" 1981, Cool Springs Press, Franklin, Tennessee, USA. For charts on germination times and temperatures, percentage germination, days to maturity, planting schedules, seed storage, and most vegetables, herbs and annual flowers.
Stacey Murphy (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCK8WWphD0zYS4c5jsLOOOmg) for lots of videos on everything to do with growing food.
West Coast Seeds (www.westcoastseeds.com) for vegetable, herb and fruit seeds. Also lots of vegetable gardening guides and information for Canadian gardens.
T & T Seeds (https://ttseeds.com/) Longstanding Manitoba company with a huge variety of seeds as well as trees, shrubs, perennials and gardening accessories.
Veseys Seeds (https://www.veseys.com/ca/) Canadian company selling a huge variety of vegetable, herb and fruit seeds.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (https://www.rareseeds.com/) for specialty and hard to find heirloom seeds. Note this is an American company so check hardiness zones and days to maturity before selecting seeds.
The Prairie Homestead (https://www.theprairiehomestead.com/2018/03/how-much-to-plant-per-person-garden.html) for a great chart on how much to plant of each vegetable per person.
Watts, Melanie J. "Growing Food in a Short Season" 2014, Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., Madeira Park, BC, Canada