Crop Planning: Part 2
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
Welcome to part 2! You should already have a garden map completed before you start this part. You should also have thumbed through some seed catalogs or some seed store websites to pick out some favourite varieties of the vegetables in your garden map. See Crop Planning: Part 1 if you haven't done this yet. Today, we are going to create a vegetable garden spreadsheet. It will make figuring out when to do everything in your veggie garden a snap! It will also streamline your seed purchasing and hopefully save you some money by using some of those leftover seeds from last year. Are you ready? Let's get growing!
We are going to jump right into this whole spreadsheet thing. By doing this right off the bat, you will see if the varieties you have chosen are appropriate for your growing zone and you will also see where you have gaps in the harvest season. It is easy to switch out varieties or alter how you succession plant to fix these issues now, before you have spent money on seeds or touched the soil.
Before we start, I am going to assume you have a very basic understanding of either Excel or Google Sheets. We are not going to get crazy here, but you will need to know how to orientate yourself around the program. See the Reference section below for a couple good YouTube tutorials if you need. Good to go? We will start with some general information about our spreadsheet. In future years, you will only have to adjust these 4 variables, and the rest of the spreadsheet will automatically update to the current year. We will put these in the top left hand corner of the sheet. You will need:
the current year,
your first frost date (FFD),
your last frost date (LFD),
and the date of the first Monday in March.
I like to organize planting and my subsequent schedule in weekly increments. My summer is super busy, and I can spread those tasks out over a week long period or get them done on whichever days I have available during that week. I have chosen Mondays as the indicator for my week, but you can choose whatever works for you. By starting in March we ensure that the entire growing season is covered.
Next we will need our column headings (don't worry, we will go through what all of these mean shortly):
vegetable - variety
days to maturity
transplant (TP) seed start date
first planting date (either direct seeded outside or transplanted outside)
first harvest date
number of squares to plant
number of plants per square
total number of plants
total seeds required
number of successions
And finally, we need to create our time line by listing our growing season dates by week. The first cell will be the first Monday in March so we set it to equal the cell where we entered that date for this year (cell E3 in my example sheet). Formulas use the equal sign, so my first date cell (cell K4 outlined in green) is "=B3". The second cell (cell L4 outlined in blue) will be the previous cell plus 7 days (1 week); therefore its formula will be "=K4 +7" as shown in the formula bar up top. Here's a little tip for you. If you hover your mouse over the bottom right corner of a cell and drag it to other cells, that formula will copy over. I have done that to give me dates all the way to November 1st (the very end of our growing season). By using formulas that all depend on that one cell E3 (the first Monday in March of that year) we only have to update that one cell to update all the dates in the spreadsheet in the following years. I added the month within merged cells above just to make it easier to read and pretty it up a bit.
Now for the fun part! Get out your garden map and under the column for Vegetable-Variety, start entering all your veggies. Then go to your seed catalogs and websites and give each variety of vegetable you want to grow its own row. Varieties may have very different properties so we need to deal with each one separately. I have grouped mine into vegetable families (see Crop Planning: Part 1 for details) and filled each group of cells with a different colour. This will help later on with identifying harvest gaps. I have also added the seed company in brackets after the variety name so I know where I found those particular seeds. You can see my completed list of varieties to the right.
Entering variety data
Now we need to pull out those seed catalogs or seed company websites again. It's time to start filling in some information on our varieties. This is a great way to learn about the vegetables you are going to grow! It also only needs to be done once for each variety; it will update automatically next year. Let's go through what goes under each heading.
Days to maturity: Get this directly from your seed catalog or website. Keep in mind this will be from date of germination (for direct seeded plants) or from date of transplant into the garden (for plants started indoors and transplanted outside).
TP seed start: use a formula here to relate this date to your LFD. For example on my spreadsheet it is "=E3-49" for tomatoes which need to be started 7 weeks before my LFD, which is found in cell E3. If you don't know when your plants need to be started, see the Seeding and Transplanting Times section below for a guide.
First planted: this will be either when you first direct seed outside or when you transplant your starts (purchased or grown inside by you) to the outdoors. Once again, use a formula to relate to your LFD. For example on my spreadsheet it is "=E3-14" for kohlrabi which can be direct seeded into the garden 2 weeks before my LFD found in cell E3. Check out the Seeding and Transplanting Times section below if you don't know when that is for your vegetables.
First harvest: this will be when your variety is first planted plus the days to maturity. For example, Scarlett Nantes carrots are first planted April 25 (cell D5) and take 70 days to mature (cell B5) therefore this cell will have the formula "=D5+B5". Copy this formula down the entire column so you only have to type it in once.
# squares to plant: Check out your garden map and count the squares you have for this vegetable. If you have more than one variety of this vegetable, you will need to divide up the total number between your varieties. For example, I have 8 total squares of Swiss chard to plant, as shown by my garden map. I want to grow 2 varieties so I give Peppermint 2 squares (just to try out this new variety) and Kaleidoscope 6 squares (an old faithful for me), for a total of 8 squares.
# plants per square: This is based on the spacing between plants found on the seed package. Use the chart from Crop Planning: Part 1 to determine this. For vegetables that are broadcast seeded use 250 seeds per square foot. These are thickly sown seeds that are harvested very young, like some leaf lettuces and arugula.
# of successions: I know this is out of order, but do this column first. For now, put a 1 in this column for everything. You are going to determine if you can get more than one succession once we fill in our timelines, which we will do in one sec.
total # plants: yep, another calculation. Number of squares times the number of plants per square times the number of successions. If we update the number of successions in the future, this formula will automatically update as well. Yay spreadsheets! For example, Scarlett Nantes carrots I have 16 plants per square (cell G5) and 56 squares to plant (cell F5) and 1 succession (cell J5), so this cell will have a formula of "=F5*G5*J5". And copy it down the column.
total seed req'd: Because there are many seeds that are super tiny and because many seeds are sold by weight and not exact numbers of seeds, we always order a bit more than we actually need. For those tiny seeds (carrots and lettuce definitely) or seeds that we need less than 10 total of, I like to purchase double the amount of seeds needed. For everything else, I purchase 1.5 times as many seeds as needed. This will allow for lost seed, multiple seeds in a hole and less than perfect germination. Remember, seeds will keep for more than one year so leftovers are okay! For this cell we use total number of plants times 1.5 (or 2 depending on seed type and number). For our carrot example, that is 896 (cell H5) times 2 or "=H5*2". I know 1792 seeds sounds like a lot. But keep in mind, most carrot seed is sold in packages of 500 or 1000. And know that I plant a wack ton of carrots. My family loves them.
Timeline for each variety
The next step is to fill in our planting and harvesting timeline for each variety. Let's look at spinach as an example. It is first planted April 26th, so we put a "DS" (for direct seed) under that week and we fill in the cell with a nice, noticeable yellow colour. The first harvest for spinach is on June 7th. Fill that cell in with a nice green colour. Now, fill in the cells between these two dates with more yellow. This yellow indicates the growing time for spinach. We could harvest all of our spinach in one go, but that's a lot of spinach at one time. Instead, we can gradually harvest over a few weeks. See the section on Harvest Period below to see how long each vegetable should be harvested for (and why) before pulling it up completely. Why would we want to remove them from the garden at all? So we can get in another planting before the end of the season, of course! That's called succession planting. Let's keep looking at spinach. I gave it 3 weeks of harvest time (3 total cells of green fill) and then it's time to pull it. I make sure to direct seed more spinach immediately after this. On our spreadsheet, we add another "DS" on June 28th (after our 3 weeks of harvest). Add in another 43 days of growing time (in yellow fill) and another 3 weeks of harvest time (green fill). You can easily copy the first block of yellow and green cells and paste them right after that last harvest date to make it easier. We are now at August 30th. Do we have room for another succession? Try it and see! Paste in that block of yellow and green cells. That will bring our third harvest completion to October 25th. Hmmm … my average first frost date is September 15th, but spinach is fairly frost tolerant, and I can always put a row cover on late in the season if I need. Some years this works and some it doesn't, but it is worth a try. Let's go for it. That is 3 successions of spinach all in the same spot! Not too shabby. Don't forget to put a 3 in the cell for # of successions (J9 for my spinach example) so that our number of seeds required updates.
Do this for all the rest of your varieties, adding the DS for when you need to direct seed and a SS for when you need to seed start your transplants indoors. I have outlined the weeks for my last frost date (LFD) and first frost date (FFD) in red (using the borders function), just to make them very noticeable for me, but this is optional. If you notice that the harvest period for a variety occurs past your average first frost date for warm season vegetables, like tomatoes or squash, then it is time to switch this variety out for one with a shorter days to maturity.
Taking an overall look at your spreadsheet
I know that took some time, especially if you are new to spreadsheets, but you are pretty much done! Just one more quick thing. We need to look for harvest gaps. The goal is to have a variety of root veggies, greens and fruiting veggies available to be harvested at all times throughout the season. Take a look at your timeline and scan down the column for each week to see what is green filled. For example, during the weeks of June 14th and 21st I have a lot of greens that can be harvested (spinach, Asian greens and lettuces), but not a lot else. I specifically added a very early variety of storage radish (Minowase Summer Cross) to my veggie selection so that I had some root vegetables during this period. Go through week by week and see what you have to harvest. Consider adding varieties that are earlier or later season if needed to fill in any gaps.
You can also easily see when a square becomes empty for the remainder of the season. Are there super quick cool season vegetables you can sneak in here (looking at you radish!)? I notice there is a huge gap of empty space in the garlic location once it is pulled for the season. There is definitely time for radish here! A few weeks at the end of the season is also prime space for cover crops. These are fast growing crops that are tilled back into the soil to add nutrients and organic matter for future use. They also protect the soil from erosion and prevent weed growth. Many attract beneficial insects as well. West Coast Seeds has a good article on cover crops (see link here) if you would like to learn more. My favourite is buckwheat for fall planting in my vegetable garden.
A note on succession planting
I have mentioned succession planting a few times now, so I think we should do a quick review on the different types you can utilize in your garden. All of them provide different ways you can get more vegetables in the same amount of space.
Staggered planting: waiting (usually 2-3 weeks) to plant a section of a specific vegetable so that it is mature later than the original planting. You can see this with how I plant my spinach. I have 8 total squares to plant. 4 of those squares I plant as soon as I can, and the remaining 4 squares I plant 2 weeks later. The harvest and replanting of these squares are also staggered. I have two separate rows in my spreadsheet to differentiate the two plantings.
Succession of vegetables in the same spot: this can be a fast growing cool season crop, followed by a warm season crop and then followed by another fast growing cool season crop or a cover crop. I do this with radish, followed by tomatoes, followed by buckwheat, all in the same spot. It can also be planting a quick growing crop, harvesting it and then replanting the same crop, as many times as you can before the season ends. I do this with most of my greens (lettuces, bok choi and spinach).
Multiple varieties with varying days to maturity: although all varieties of one vegetable can usually be planted at the same time, if they have different days to maturity, when they are harvested will be different. This, in effect, extends your harvest of that particular type of vegetable. For example, I have five different types of lettuce: a small head lettuce, a red leaf lettuce, a baby leaf lettuce blend, stir-fry greens and celtuce. They all have the same first planted date, however they all have different days to maturity. As a result, they are all harvested at different times. I have at least one that can be harvested from June 7th right to the end of the season.
Time to buy seeds
It's time to take advantage of one of the great things about spreadsheets: all that computing power! All the math is done for you. Once you are happy with the selections you have chosen and with the number of successions for each, we can move on to purchasing seeds. Take a look at that column entitled "Total seeds required". All you need to do is pull out your seeds that are left over from last year and see what you already have. Please don't forget to use those left over seeds! Many of them will last for far longer than one additional year if kept in the right conditions. I like to use a cardboard shoe box kept in a cool basement room to store my seeds. See below for a list of how long seeds will typically last for.
Seed life when stored properly (ie. cool and dry)
5 + years: Brassicas (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, collards, kohlrabi…) the chicory group (endive, escarole, radicchio), cucumber, kale, lettuce, melons, summer squash, winter squash, mustards, radish, rutabaga, turnips, basil, sunflower
4-5 years: beets, Swiss chard, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, celery, salsify
3-4 years: beans, carrot, peas
2-3 years: asparagus, okra, parsley, chive, dahlia, marigold
1-2 years: corn, leek, onion, parsnip, spinach, salvia
Once you have determined what you can still use, all you need to do is see what you still need to purchase and make a list. Don't forget to include seed amounts! Go to your seed catalogs or websites and carefully read how many seeds are in each package you want to purchase. They can range from 6 seeds per package to 1000 seeds per package. That's a big difference, so be sure you check first! Seeds for the new year usually start appearing in gardening stores and online seed companies some time in December, so now is the time to start collecting. Be aware that some varieties sell out quickly, so the earlier you purchase, the better. This is another good reason to figure all this out ahead of time, rather than just before you begin planting.
Seeding and transplanting times
Use this to determine the transplant seed start dates, first planting dates and first harvest dates in your spreadsheet. All dates are relative to the LFD so that this listing can be used in any growing zone.
11 weeks before LFD (Beginning of March in Calgary)
Transplant start indoors: most perennials, peppers, parsley, leeks, onions from seed, pansy, petunia
7 weeks before LFD (Beginning of April in Calgary)
Transplant start indoors: tomatoes, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, melon, cabbage, celery, fennel, basil, oregano, marigold, (kale, kohlrabi and lettuce can be started indoors at this time or direct seeded outdoors later)
4 weeks before LFD (as soon as soil can be worked- not frozen or sloppy wet)
Direct seed: carrot, Asian greens, peas, radish, spinach
3 weeks before LFD (Beginning of May in Calgary)
Transplant start indoors: Brussel sprouts, pumpkin, (cucumber and squash can be started indoors at this time or direct seeded outdoors later)
2 weeks before LFD (cool season crops)
Direct seed: turnip, kohlrabi, kale, cabbage, lettuce, Swiss chard, beets, parsley, potatoes, borage, calendula, bachelor’s button, larkspur, California poppy, sunflower, sweet pea, Lavatera, forget-me-not, black eyed Susan
Transplant outside: broccoli, cabbage, parsnip, leek, kale, parsley
1 weeks after LFD (after any chance of night time frost)
Direct seed: bean, corn, cucumber, cauliflower, onion sets, cilantro, nasturtium
Transplant outside: beans, cucumber, cauliflower, onion from seed, snapdragon, ornamental kale, dusty miller, Dracaena, pinks (dianthus), stocks, Osteospernum, phlox, pansy (Viola), petunia
2 weeks after LFD (Warmer night time temperatures)
Direct seed: Zucchini, storage turnips/rutabaga
Transplant outside: tomatoes, peppers, summer and winter squash, melons, eggplant, herbs, marigolds, most annual flowers, most perennials
5 weeks after FFD (in the fall, before the ground is frozen)
Direct seed: hardneck garlic cloves
We don't really want to harvest our entire crop of vegetables all at once do we? What are you going to suddenly do with 12 heads of cauliflower? That's why we spread out the harvest. One way to do this is to gradually pick from a mature crop. Different vegetables will stay fresh on the plant for varying periods of time once they mature. Some plants will bolt (start to flower and become more bitter tasting) if not harvested fairly quickly after maturing, while others can stay in the ground for weeks, or even months, after maturing with no ill effects (pretty much all root vegetables). We can also succession plant (see the section above) so that all our vegetables aren't mature at the same time by staggering our planting or having multiple varieties. Or we can harvest quickly and remove the entire plant to free up that space to plant another round of vegetables, another type of succession planting. Using the chart below as a guide, lets translate the harvest period into your spreadsheet to optimize your planting space.
harvest for 3 weeks then pull up if you have time to fit in another crop
otherwise they can be left in the ground until just before hard frost (light frost will sweeten them up)
harvest for 2-3 weeks then pull up if you have time to fit in another crop
if they begin to bolt (start to flower), pull up immediately (cilantro is a particularly fast bolter and why I only give it one week before pulling)
otherwise they can be left in the ground until just before frost (light frost will sweeten up greens in the brassica family such as kale so they can be kept in longer)
Peas and beans
harvest until frost or until they stop producing
pick frequently! the more you pick, the more they will produce
Onions and garlic
harvest when 1/3 of the leaves turn brown, usually late summer
Squash family, Tomato family and herbs
harvest until frost (if a light, short frost you can cover with frost cloth then remove when risk is over)
Phew! All Done!
Don't forget to save!
Now, take a moment and pat yourself on the back. Great job!! Next year, when it takes you only 5 minutes to update this spreadsheet, you will be thanking yourself for all this hard work.
You now have an easy-to-reference map of your vegetable garden, a time line of planting and harvesting for each vegetable variety in your garden, as well as a list of exactly which seeds you need to buy and how many. Hopefully, you also learned some useful information about the vegetables you are about to plant this year. Bravo!
Yes, that was a long one, but we only have a short bit left to go. In part 3 of crop planning we are going to take this time line and add it to your schedule so that you have a week by week plan of what needs to be done for your most productive and least stressful vegetable garden ever!
Yummy gardening everyone!
Crop Planning: An Introduction
Companion Planting for the Veggie Garden
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.
Watts, Melanie J. "Growing Food in a Short Season" 2014, Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., Madeira Park, BC, Canada
West Coast Seeds: Green Manure Cover Crops (https://www.westcoastseeds.com/blogs/garden-wisdom/green-manure-cover-crops)
Beginner's Guide to Excel- Excel Basics Tutorial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwbho0CgEAE) by Technology for Teachers and Students, Apr 24, 2017
Google Sheets Tutorial for Beginners (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIkZ1sPmKNw) by Railsware, Apr 2, 2019