The winter is such a great time to start planning our gardens. It gives us a little bit of hope that this blanket of snow will eventually retreat. I always like to try one or two new thing in the garden just to have inspiration and learning a part of every season, but I find that as the years go on, you can reduce a lot of harvest time work and stress if you focus on your garden goals from the start. Here are some basic tips for planning this years edibles.
Look at what you did last year
Taking stock of what you did last year is a good way to learn the lessons of the past. Having an early first frost compared to the rest of north America, there is ample time to forget the lessons of last season. So that I don't repeat the mistakes of the past, I like to quickly look at my old planting plans (no matter how tattered they are) to get a refresher on what works and what doesn't where I am. I find that making notes while you are in the season is a great way to keep the flashes of inspiration fresh in the middle of January. If you didn't write out a plan last year, try and capture on paper what you did do as best you can so you can use it for reference this year and in the future. On last year's plan try to capture notes of what worked and if anything wasn't successful, why you think that was. On a new sheet of paper (or multiple papers) create a sketch of where you want to plant this year. It is useful to have approximate measurements. Think about things such as if you are going to expand your garden, if you are going to plant in raised beds, planters, or a typical row garden.
Think about what you and your family likes to eat
Write out what your family eats on a regular basis, look through your favourite recipes and brainstorm those items you tend to buy regularly each week during groceries. A look through your fridge and cupboards is also useful to get an idea of what you like to eat regularly. Do you have lots of pickles in your fridge? Maybe you should plant cucumbers, garlic and dill. Do you have a large Italian recipe collection? Consider planting tomatoes, basil and oregano. Are you regularly buying jam at the grocery store? Think about putting in a small raspberry or strawberry patch.
Think about volume
Give some thought to how much you and your family will consume. For most families one zucchini plant will suffice but for others who have zucchini relish (or zucchini cake) as a staple, they may need multiple plants. You can find a approximate yield for each crop online.
Think about your variety characteristics
Do you want all of your tomatoes at the same time for canning sauce or do you want to have small cherry tomatoes for your summer salads or do you want some of both? Cultivars can vary greatly in maturity dates, size, taste, colour, harvest dates and suitability for cooking or processing. While looking through catalogues keep your ideal characteristics in mind.
Rotate your crops
Crop rotation is the practice of changing where you plant each annual crop in subsequent years. It is one of those practices that you don't really see a benefit unless you don't do it and by then its too late. Crop rotation helps especially when you garden on a larger scale but it is helpful in all gardens, even if you plant everything in pots. It reduces pests and helps to balance the organic matter in soils. There are some general guidelines that you can find online as to what is best planted after each crop to manage nutrients and organic matter and to reduce weeds, pests and disease
Companion plant your crops
When I first started a vegetable garden I always did look at what they were planted near. Knowing how important crop rotation is, it made sense to me that in season it made a difference what was neighbouring each crop. After a few years of a fairly successful garden (and likely short on time in the planning stages), I planted a few crops that were beside things that were not good companions. Since those tough lessons I have since gone back to being really careful with what I planted and where. The resources I use most is Wikipedia's List of Companion Plants and the book Carrots love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte. Sometimes it takes a little juggling, but once you get a system, it can be fairly straightforward year after year.
Think about timing of planting and harvesting
Cool season crops versus warm season crops have different planting dates. Different varieties of the same species can have a wide range of harvest dates. If you will be doing any processing, you may want to time the harvest (and by extension the planting dates) to reflect when you have time to can, blanch, dehydrate etc. You may also want a series of harvests. As an example radishes, carrots, lettuce and beets can be harvested throughout the season with a series of plantings. Try to group plantings where possible by planting dates. I've learned that I can start earlier than one thinks in our climate if you look at frost tolerances of the cool season crops.
Think about how you are going to manage your garden
Similar to planting and harvesting, think of how you are going to water, weed and harvest your crops. I too often have made the mistake of planting too close, completely annoyed with my spring self when I'm trying to harvest all of the produce. If you're going to use a rototiller or wheel hoe for weeding will impact your row spacing (if you're doing a row garden. Are you using drip irrigation or sprinkler to water? If you're planting an organic garden, you will need to be careful on the management but also the seeds you purchase. If you have had problems with certain pests in the past, there are also non organic varieties that through selective breeding are resistant to various pests.
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