Your seed catalogs are well-thumbed by now. You have all your favorite varieties flagged, along with some new offerings you’re eager to try. After months of indoor weather, the gardening urge is looming large. It’s tempting to go overboard, and order every seed listed. Making a vegetable garden plan will help keep your cravings in proportion to your needs.
Even if you’re not much of a planner, some simple steps now will pay off in fewer problems and less work as the season progresses. I’ll start at the beginning: how big a garden should you grow? Cultivating more veggies than you can use increases your expenses, your work load, and your need for compost, water, and pest control.
Begin by making a list of vegetables you like. Include one or two new ones you may want to try. Don’t get taken in by the glossy photos in the catalog. It sounds obvious, but there’s no reason to grow beets if no one in your family eats them.
Now, determine how many servings of each vegetable you intend to eat during the growing season. Do you have salad every day? How often will you prepare eggplant, or green beans? Do you want enough to preserve for later? While you can’t figure exact amounts, you can get an approximation. It helps to realize that you probably don’t need all of the 150 cabbages that would result if you planted an entire packet of seeds!
Finally, decide how many plants you need to grow to meet your needs. In some cases, we eat the entire plant. When you seed carrots or set out lettuce seedlings, you can tell exactly how many heads (excepting hail, rabbits, and other hazards) you can expect to harvest. In crops where we eat the fruit (such as peppers), seed pods (as in green beans), or seeds (peas), estimating your harvest is a little trickier. Iowa State University has published a very useful guide giving the average yields (per 10 feet of row) of common crops. Garden Gate Magazine has their own list. Both these sites assume you plant your crops in rows rather than beds. While I don’t recommend growing most crops in rows (we’ll get to that later), you can use a little math to get an idea of how much each plant will yield.
If you don’t have much space, you may have some decisions to make. Perhaps you’ll want to concentrate on growing just your favorite veggies. Or, you can grow the varieties that cost the most at the market. Many gardeners grow crops like tomatoes because homegrown ones taste so much better.
If you have plenty of space, perhaps you now realize that you don’t need to plant every square inch. Just think of all the digging, watering, and weeding you can avoid. Plus, your neighbors will be much happier to see you without those armloads of extra zucchini.
Now that you have a basic understanding of your needs, you can order your seeds with some degree of sanity. And if one or two extra packets seem to “slip in,” well, I understand. After all, I’m a gardener too.