Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Garden Planning for Geeks

I have a confession to make.

I've already got a rough draft of my garden plan for next year. Yes, that's right, a rough draft. You see, I am a giant nerd. I love spreadsheets and research, puzzles and planning. This post might not be for everyone. If spreadsheets cause your blood pressure to rise, if the thought of planning next year's garden before you've even put this year's to bed doesn't appeal, well, you might want to move on along. But if you're a garden geek like me, here's how I plan our vegetable garden:

The Layout


For the past two years, we've had a smallish kitchen garden lining the driveway, no more than 4 4x8 beds. It's pretty much enough for fresh eating for two people, but it's not enough for storage crops or the amount of diversity we'd like to have. So, we asked ourselves a few questions to determine the size and location of our garden expansion:

Q: What's the maximum size we have available?

A: We measured the space in the yard we had in mind, and discovered it was 1500 square feet. I spent about an hour wildly daydreaming about my new mini-farm, and then reality sunk in. Can we really handle that much annual vegetable garden?

I went to the forums, and the consensus was that while it was possible, it would likely be quite a lot of work if we only planted vegetables. But, if we planted a substantial portion in carbon crops for building compost, 1500 square feet might be feasible.

Q: How much square footage do we think a two-person household needs?

A: For this one, I got to do one of my favorite things: RESEARCH! (Garden geek, remember?) I pulled out my copy of How to Grow More Vegetables , and turned first to its sample garden plans, then to its copious charts, which include information about how much yield you can expect per square foot of every imaginable vegetable, with options for beginner, intermediate, and advanced.

The sample plans only helped so much--they included fruit trees and perennial vegetables that I already have sites for elsewhere in my yard. But the largest garden plan they had was only 1300 square feet for a family of four. This told me I was probably going overboard. We decided to start with a little more than half that amount for next year, with the possibility of expanding in the future. So, a 720 sq. ft. garden it will be!

Q: Where will the garden be located?

A: We didn't have too many options for this. It needed to be a reasonable distance from the spigot, and from the back door, with good sunlight. We picked the part of the backyard closest to the end of the driveway. Once this is installed, you will have to walk through the vegetable garden to access the rear third of the yard. We hope this will encourage us to pay attention to all of the goings on in the garden throughout the season. Because our lot is fairly narrow (78' wide, with trees and bushes along the perimeter), this 24 x 30 foot garden will span most of the useable part of the yard.


 Preparing the garden (sheet mulching)


There are many things I love about gardening. Digging new beds is not one of them. So, as soon as we started planning a garden for next year, I started thinking about how we could start the beds this fall, with sheet mulching. Sheet mulching is the process of covering existing vegetation with thick layers of newspaper or cardboard, compost, and leaves or straw. Sheet mulching builds soil because you never disturb the soil structure underneath, and you add all that goodness on top. You can plant directly into the compost layer immediately after sheet mulching, but I like to give it a winter to kill the grass and further decompose.

Not only is sheet mulching better for the soil than traditional methods, it's A LOT less work (more on sheet mulching in a forthcoming post). Suffice to say, we scrounged our materials and threw them on the ground, and come spring we'll have 720 sq. ft. of good soil ready to plant. Easy!

The Plan


So I've figured out how big and roughly what shape my garden is going to be. After further research I decide to try relatively skinny beds: 3x8, with 18" paths and bigger, wheelbarrow-sized ones dividing the garden into quadrants. It looks like this:

I picked the skinny beds because it should make it easier to install a drip irrigation system with one line per bed, which will save us money. So, I've got 24 beds, each 24 sq. ft.

What will I plant in them?


Ok, here's where I broke out the crazy lists and spreadsheets.

Step 1: Brainstorm a list of all of the crops we want to grow next year

Step 2: Estimate desired yield, in pounds, per crop. There's lots of guesswork involved here, but I based as much as I could on records we've kept of past yields. For example, we grew 60 lbs of potatoes last year, and that lasted us awhile, but we'd like to increase our yield to 80 lbs for next year.

Step 3: Use the crazy charts in How to Grow More Vegetables to estimate yield per 100 sq ft for each crop. I used the "beginner" yields, figuring I'd rather be pleasantly surprised at my skillz than disappointed at my yields. (Note: This book has some problems, so I don't recommend it wholesale. It seems pseudo-sciency at times, and there is data in their charts that compares apples and oranges. For example, the charts include a column of "Average U.S. consumption per year," but I doubt that any vegetable grower eats anwhere near the low amount of vegetables consumed by the "average" American.)

Step 4: Math time! Determine how many beds are required to get the desired yield for each crop. So, if bush beans yield 30 lbs/100 sq.ft. and I want 7 lbs of beans, that's 23.3 sq.ft. Round it up to 24 and that's 1bed o' beans.

Step 5: Here's where things get tricky. Will I have enough space for all the things? I noted the growing season for each crop, roughly: spring, summer, fall, winter or any combination thereof. Then, I opened up another sheet and got to work.

I started by assigning beds to things that took up entire beds over most of the season. Things like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and hot peppers. Then I looked for holes and snuck in as many crops as I could. For things that took up partial beds, I looked for things that would make good buddies, trying to avoid pairings that would mess up a crop rotation (like putting nightshades and brassicas in one bed). I'm not gonna lie--this part took some time. If you like puzzles, you'll love this step. 

Here's what I ended up with (I had to relegate a few things to auxiliary garden spaces to make everything fit). It's still a draft, and I'd love to hear from you in the comments if you see anything that looks wrong. I'm in zone 6a:

Step 6: Assign the beds to the physical plan

I haven't finished this step yet, but this is where I will try to group the quadrants into reasonable, rotate-able chunks. I don't want to get too complex with having to remember what goes where each year, and would prefer to stick to a basic rotation, like so:

So, in this step I'll try to group my beds as best I can.


 Hurry up and wait


As winter approaches, I know I'll have many months to gaze longingly at this plan, revising and scouring seed catalogs for the perfect varieties to plant. How will you spend your winter? Will you try my crazy method, or do you prefer a more relaxed approach?


Pam R. said...

One thing I learned over the years as there's no such thing as too much room. The more room a plant has, the better it does.

Have you soil tested your garden? I'd strongly recommend it, and put down such amendments that will not leach over the winter.

I use Logan Labs because they test for micro nutrients also. The micros are as crucial as macros for good plant health and nutrient density.

But remember, for ease of harvest and plant health, more room is better.

Pam R. said...

Oh, I forgot to add, I use this plan, as I've found it of huge value: