How to Plan a Successful Food Garden (3 Steps)
Growing a garden is a lot like playing the stock market.
You could go in blind and — with crossed fingers and a prayer — invest in random businesses. With this approach, you might get lucky. You might also lose a lot of money.
Your odds are much better if you first identify your goals and study the market before strategically selecting the most promising stocks, all the while assessing risk and considering your overall portfolio, current events, and other key factors.
In other words, a little planning goes a long way to ensure a positive return on your investments. And gardening is no different.
(Of course, things can still be unpredictable sometimes — both in your garden and the stock market. But that’s just part of the fun, right?)
To give you the best chance of reaping a bountiful return on your investment, this guide covers the basics of crafting a solid garden plan. Specifically, we’ll look at three factors that deserve your attention: your garden’s placement, your local climate, and (of course) the plants you’ll grow.
Why do you want to grow your own food?
As I mentioned, a key component — the foundation, even — of a good strategy is a clear goal. Taking a moment to acknowledge why you really want a garden in the first place helps direct your decisions. For example:
- Do you want to encourage healthy habits in your children while teaching them where food comes from? These kid-friendly crops should be at the top of your “what to grow” list.
- Do you want to control what goes in (and on) the food that you eat? You’ll likely want to use natural pest control methods.
- Do you want to save money at the market? It’s smart to invest in a garden that will ultimately pay for itself over time.
- Do you want to have easy, reliable access to your favorite produce? Growing indoors would allow you to have fresh ingredients just steps away from your kitchen year-round.
With your gardening goal in mind (and I’d love to hear what it is in the comments!), let’s move on to step one of your plan.
1. Find a favorable place to grow.
To determine the best location for your garden, it’s wise to consider light, space, proximity to your home, and access to resources (such as water).
Light should be your primary concern when deciding where to grow your garden. All plants (and especially the edible kind) need it. They essentially starve without it because the process of photosynthesis — through which plants make their own food — requires light.
How much light is enough?
Most fruit and vegetable crops will produce meager yields (if they produce any at all) without at least six hours of direct sunlight. They’ll also be weaker, which makes them more susceptible to pests.
But if you’re stuck with a shady space, certain leafy greens and herbs — such as those listed here — don’t need as much fun in the sun. That being said, you might get the best results growing indoors instead.
How much space you need to grow a garden depends on what type of garden you grow.
I’d argue that the most efficient soil-based design is what’s known as square foot gardening. (You can find a detailed explanation, plus pros and cons, here.) But even this approach is limiting because you’re growing on a horizontal plane only.
By growing up, however, you can make better use of vertical space. That’s one thing I enjoy about Tower Garden — it measures less than three square feet, yet allows me to grow 10x as many plants as I’d be able to with a soil garden of the same size.
Regardless of what gardening method you use, I recommend selecting a flat growing area. Most gardens grow best on a level surface, which prevents uneven water distribution (and leaks, in the case of Tower Garden).
Have multiple sun-drenched, flat spots to choose from? Lucky you! I’d opt for the one closest to your home.
A garden hidden away in the corner of a backyard is easily forgotten. But if your garden is, say, on your back patio, you’ll likely use its yields and tend to it more often, making for happier, healthier plants.
Access to Resources
A final garden placement-related detail to think about is access to resources. For a traditional, soil-based garden, you may want to invest in an irrigation system for easier, consistent watering.
If you’re growing a Tower Garden, you’ll need only to be able to fill the reservoir every week or so. Then, a timer and pump will handle the rest. (Speaking of which, Tower Garden requires an electrical outlet, too.)
OK, have an ideal location in mind? Let’s move on to the second part of your garden plan.
2. Consider your climate.
Where you live has a pretty significant impact on both what you can grow and when. (That’s why you don’t see many palm trees in Alaska.) In fact, the USDA created a special map of growing zones to help gardeners navigate the horticultural effects of climate.
With this section, I aim to do the same.
In the world of growing food, seasons are a big deal — not only because of temperature, but also because of daylight hours. As days get shorter and colder, some plants slow their growth, preparing for hibernation mode, while others begin blooming and producing seeds.
So to maximize your garden’s productivity, it’s helpful to know about plants’ seasonal preferences.
For example, as I write this, we’re gearing up for spring. And that means it’s a good time to start hardier greens, such as kale and spinach, because they can tolerate cooler — even frosty — temperatures.
But it won’t be long before I’m starting seeds for summer crops, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and more. (To lengthen my growing season, I usually germinate these indoors around March — while it’s still too cold for them outside. Then I move them out once temperatures remain above 50˚F.)
To determine your own planting schedule, reference this tool from The Old Farmer’s Almanac. It suggests dates for seeding, transplanting, and harvesting based on your location. It can also be helpful to know when your first and last frost dates typically are (assuming you have frosts where you live). You can find those over at Dave’s Garden.
Your exact planting dates may differ from mine. But on a more general level, the following seasonal crop list is pretty applicable regardless of where you live.
If you have a short summer or simply want to grow for longer in the fall and spring, there are a few ways to extend your growing season. These include the following:
- Growing in a greenhouse or, for soil-based gardens, a cold frame
- Covering your crops to protect them from light frosts
- Placing a water heater in the reservoir (for Tower Garden, specifically)
And now, with LED Grow Lights, growing food indoors with Tower Garden is easier than ever — so the growing season never has to end.
3. Pick your plants!
You may already have an idea of the crops you’d like to grow — perhaps based on what you like to eat. And we just covered which plants would likely do well depending on where you live and the time of year. So you should have a working list of options.
But the following elements can help you form the ultimate plant list.
For healthy development, all plants require 20 macro- and micronutrients — these are minerals, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
With a traditional garden, this can be problematic because most backyard soil doesn’t provide all of these nutrients. Or at least not adequate amounts of them. Plus, pH and soil type play important roles, too. You don’t want it to have too much sand or clay. (Plants are a little like Goldilocks — things have to be just right.)
You can amend your soil with compost and fertilizers, but achieving the correct balance is a bit of an art and a science. And an over-application of any one mineral can be just as harmful as a deficiency.
Did you know that some plants contain natural substances that attract or repel certain insects (very useful for natural pest control) and can even enhance the flavor or growth rate of surrounding plants?
Strategically selecting crop combinations to make the most of these special properties is called “companion planting.” And it can be pretty helpful when trying to decide what to grow.
Here’s rather comprehensive infographic to help you discern which plants make good partners.
Infographic courtesy of Yard Surfer
For some crops, when you plant a single seed, you get a single harvest. Radishes, turnips, and head lettuce are a few examples of one-seed-one-harvest crops.
Other plants produce multiple harvests, despite coming from one seed. Most fruiting crops — tomatoes, peppers, and others — fall into this category. But even most leafy greens can provide continual yields for months when harvested properly.
So if you want a garden that produces the maximum amount of food with the minimum amount of work, plant mostly crops from the latter group.
Seed and Seedling Sources
I hope that by now you’ve figured out what you should grow. (If you like, you can download this planning sheet to document your choices.) But you may be wondering, “Where do I get my plants?”
One option is to purchase seedlings from a local nursery. If they’ll be going into a Tower Garden, be sure to wash the soil from the seedlings’ roots before transplanting. It is a soil-free system, after all.
Or better yet, you can order seedlings grown in rockwool from a Tower Farm — that way, there’s no soil to wash off.
You may also buy seeds and sprout your own seedlings. This offers many benefits over purchased seedlings, such as:
- Greater variety of plants to choose from
- Increased control over seedling quality
- Cost savings
And seeds are readily available online. But I encourage you to seek out local seeds.
Seeds that come from plants grown in your area will likely be more accustomed to your climate, meaning there’s a good chance they’ll be healthier and more productive than those that you order from a farm across the country. Here are a few ways to source seeds locally.
If you’ve ever picked up a seed catalog, the various terms and seed types might have left your head spinning. Let’s break things down.
Heirloom seeds come from plants that have been grown for multiple generations and propagated under controlled conditions (to ensure there’s no cross-breeding with other varieties). They’ve stood the test of time and usually have superior flavor and hardiness. But they often don’t store or travel well, which is why you don’t see many heirloom fruits and vegetables at the supermarket. If you grow heirloom, be sure to harvest and save your seeds for next year’s garden.
Organic seeds come from USDA Organic-certified produce. That means, for the most part, no synthetic pesticides were used on it.
Non-GMO seeds come from plants that haven’t been genetically tampered with by unnatural means. But it’s important to note that home gardeners cannot currently buy GMO seeds — only commercial growers can.
Hybrids come from the intentional cross-pollination of two different plant varieties with the goal of creating a crop with positive attributes of both parents. Most grocery store produce grows from hybrid seeds.
Over to You
Whew! This planning guide wasn’t for the faint of heart. But I hope it helps you achieve a satisfying and successful garden.
Ultimately, just remember to keep it simple and fun, and you’ll be fine.
Do you have any garden planning tips or questions about this guide? Let’s continue the conversation in the comments below.
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