How to Plan for the Most Productive Garden

plan a productive garden

Planning a Productive Garden!

Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned gardener, there’s always something new to learn about how to plan a more productive garden! Every year I try a different technique, companion plant pairing, or new varieties of seeds. I love learning new ways to plant and plan my garden!

In this article, I’d like to share some insight into planning your most productive garden, saving space, reducing pests and disease, rotating crops, mulching, fertilizing, extending your season, and planting in succession. Whew! I know it’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started.

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Choose the best spot for your garden

Get Your Garden Off to a Great Start

If you are starting a garden from scratch, there are a few things to keep in mind. Choose a location that is easy to get to, has plenty of sunlight, and be sure to check out the soil. Here are the basics to look for in a great garden spot:

  • 8 hours of sun a day (or more)
  • Well-drained soil
  • Close to house and water source
  • Micro-climates

Sunlight for a Productive Garden

If you live in an area with wicked hot afternoons, garden space with eastern exposure and a bit of afternoon shade is best. For gardeners with short seasons, an area that has a southern exposure and sun all day will be more productive.

Most fruits and vegetables need at least 8 hours of sun a day to produce food for your table. There are exceptions, of course!

If you only have a shady spot to plant your garden, try raising lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, collards, peas, and other cool-season crops.

Full sun is necessary to maximize production for many fruiting plants such as tomatoes, peppers, corn, sunflowers, beans, eggplants, and melons.

Check the Soil

Choose a well-drained spot with good soil for your garden whenever possible. Heavy clay soil stays wet and can cause problems with root rot and other fungal diseases. Sandy soil drains very quickly and will require more water. The perfect soil is loamy with plenty of humus. Here are instructions for determining your soil type.

Since most of us are not blessed with perfect soil, we either need to amend what we have or build a raised bed garden and fill it with great soil. More about raised beds in a moment.

Test the pH of your soil before you begin planting. You can purchase a soil tester or send your soil in for testing. Check with your local Extension Office. They have soil testing services that are reasonably priced.

If your soil is alkaline or acid, do a bit of research into the best crops for your soil type. If necessary, amend the soil to balance the pH before you begin the garden season. Composted oak leaves and pine needles help to acidify alkaline soil. Garden lime makes soil more alkaline.

At the beginning of each season, work well-rotted manure or compost into your garden soil to increase fertility and hold moisture. Loose, friable soil is the stuff garden dreams are made of and adding humus to your soil every year will increase production in the future!

Best Location for Your Garden

Many new gardeners make the mistake of choosing a location way in the very back of their yard. I think a lot of people don’t think of vegetable gardens as being an attractive feature in their landscape. The biggest problem with this mindset is that more remote the location, the more your garden is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’

Whenever possible, choose a location that is close to the house to make watering, weeding, and harvesting easier. Place a bench in your garden and enjoy it! We’ll also talk a bit about making your vegetable garden beautiful in this article!

Best Microclimates for Your Garden

Microclimates are areas of your property where the conditions are quite a bit different from your general growing zone. For example, I live in zone 5b but I have several spots on my homestead where the high and low temperatures differ significantly from those of my plant zone.

In some areas of my homestead, I have pockets that have full southern exposure and are protected from wind. These areas are great for starting my cool season crops because they warm up earlier in the spring. I also use straw bale cold frames to extend my season in those areas in the fall. Win Win!

On the other hand, I have a large open garden space that is in a low spot. The soil is fairly high in clay content and holds moisture. This is where I grow my main garden crops such as tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, pumpkins, etc. They receive at least 12 hours of sunlight a day, the wind cools things down a bit, and the soil holds water longer than other areas. This makes for a more productive garden space for heat-loving crops.

Look around your property for potential microclimates with conditions that are warmer or cooler than surrounding areas. Cool areas may be planted with lettuce and other crops that bolt in the heat. Warm spots may be perfect for your heat-loving peppers!

How to Plan Ahead for Productive Garden

Spending some time planning ahead will help you increase production and reduce problems in your garden.

  • Make a Garden Plan on Paper
  • Check out Square Foot Gardening
  • Think about Raised Beds
  • Use Companion Planting to Your Advantage
  • Attract Beneficial Insects and Birds
  • Rotate Your Crops
  • Plant in Succession
  • Extend Your Season

Plan Your Garden on Paper

The offseason is a great time to sit down and put your garden plans on paper. It gives you time to play with the placement of your crops and make changes before you grab your trowel and seeds.

There is no ‘best’ way to plan and plant a productive garden. Design the garden to fit your space and growing conditions. Plant crops you love to eat and preserve for winter. Allow for walkways, fences, a trellis, seating areas, wildlife plantings, birdbaths, or any other features you wish to incorporate into the garden plan.

Use sheets of graph paper to lay out your plans. If you already have a garden and intend to keep the overall layout the same, make a master plan that you can re-use each year.

Save your garden design and note any changes made, total harvests, thoughts about companion planting experiments, or any other important information. Keep your design and notes in a garden journal to refer to when planning your garden for the following year.

This will make it much easier to plan for crop rotation, ordering the same or new varieties of seed, or plan for future changes.

Free Garden Planning Downloads!

Here are some free downloads to help you plan your garden and take notes on seed varieties, crop rotation, companion planting, or your ideas for future plans. You are welcome to print these out and keep them on hand.

Square Foot Gardening

Square Foot Gardening was introduced by Mel Bartholomew in the 1970s so this isn’t ‘groundbreaking’ news. However, this garden method withstands the test of time and is a great way to grow a lot of food in a small space.

Square foot gardening is practiced in raised beds. However, you can use the same spacing methods in a regular garden bed To begin, you’ll need to measure out each garden bed into one square foot increments.

Each garden bed should 4 feet wide. You can make the bed as long as you like (using 1′ increments). But if you create a bed wider than 4 feet you will have trouble planting, weeding, and harvesting the area in the center.

I suggest making the bed 4′ x 4′, 4′ x 8′, or 4′ x 12’…this will make caring for the bed easy. Beds that are super long may seem great on paper, but it can be cumbersome to walk around to the other side.

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Square Foot Planting Guide

Measure each bed into 1 square foot planting blocks. Each block will provide the growing space for a certain number of crops:

  • 16 extra small plants (carrots, chives, radish, green onions)
  • 9 small plants (leaf lettuce, spinach, beets, turnips)
  • 4 medium plants (basil, celery, corn, strawberries, head lettuce, storage onions)
  • 1 large plant (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, sage, oregano)
  • Extra-large plants will need more than 1 square (pumpkins, winter squash, etc may be grown up a trellis to save space or plan to plant them in their own bed)

Square foot gardening is an expensive method to use when planting a large garden if you create raised beds and fill them with the potting mix used by the proponents of this method. The potting mix also uses peat moss and vermiculite … ingredients that have a negative impact on the environment. Keep reading for tips on saving money and the planet if you wish to create raised beds!

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Raised Bed Gardening

Raised beds are a great way to create a garden bed when your soil is too rocky, sandy, poorly drained, or high in clay content. Many raised bed designs call for building with untreated lumber, such as cypress or cedar. While these are both rot resistant, they are pricey and also harvested from old growth forests.

So let’s look at some other solutions for creating raised beds. You may be able to score some materials for free from Craigslist or Freecycle, or maybe you have these at home:

  • Concrete block (alkaline)
  • Rocks
  • Logs
  • Stock tanks
  • Straw bales

Concrete blocks will make the soil around them more alkaline, so it’s important to test your soil. Use this resource with acid soil or plants that prefer alkaline soil, or line the interior of the blocks with plastic or another material.

Rocks or small boulders will last forever and make a great raised bed. If you have these laying around you can build your beds for free! Of course, this is pretty labor intensive.

Medium sized logs may be used to create raised beds and will last for quite a few years. You could also cut saplings and use several for each side of the bed. Use stakes at the corners to keep the saplings in place.

Old stock tanks with holes in the bottom make great raised beds. Farmers may sell these cheap or you might even get them for free.

Filling Raised Beds with Free Soil

It can be expensive to fill your raised beds with soil or potting mix. Fortunately there may be some good alternatives.

  • Topsoil
  • Compost
  • Leaf litter
  • Well rotted manure
  • Grass clippings

To make sure that your beds drain well, put down an inch or two of gravel or small stones before adding soil. If you have them, use topsoil, compost, mulched leaves, manure, or clean composted grass clippings to fill your beds. A combination of all of these makes great raised bed soil!

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Companion Planting

Companion planting is the art of interplanting 2 or more crops for a variety of reasons. A well thought out planting will provide one or more of these benefits:

  • Make better use of garden space
  • Repel pests and prevent disease
  • Provide better nutrient uptake for plants
  • Provide mutually beneficial conditions for companion plants

By interplanting crops that grow tall with low growing plants that like shade, you will reduce weeding and make better use of garden space. The low growing plants will be shaded by the taller plants and will, in turn, act as a living mulch. Example: Tomatoes interplanted with leaf lettuce or nasturtiums provide shade for the lettuce and prevents weed and loss of moisture for the tomatoes.

Some crops repel pests particularly well and protect their neighbors from infestation. Example: Garlic interplanted with cabbage, collards, or broccoli repels cabbage moths.

The Three Sisters (or Four Sisters) planting combination provides mutual benefits for each crop. Corn grows tall and uses a lot of nitrogen. Beans grow up the corn and produce nitrogen. Squash uses a lot of nitrogen and provides shade for the roots of their companion plants. Sunflowers (for the fourth sister) also provides a structure for the beans to grow up and attract pollinators for the beans and squash.

Here are some charts you might find helpful when planning for companion planting. These contain anecdotal information about companion planting and plants that repel pests from the Cornell University Cooperative Extension in Chemung County

Take notes every year on your experience with interplanting crops. Over the years you may discover new companion plant pairings that work well or you may debunk some claims!

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Attract pollinators to increase garden production

Attracting Beneficial Insects & Pollinators

Including crops that attract beneficial insects and pollinators to your garden is a great idea for several reasons. Besides the obvious benefit of attracting your own little army of good insects, you’ll enjoy the natural beauty and a more productive garden!

Interplant your vegetables with herbs and flowers that provide nectar for adults and food plants for larvae of beneficial creatures such as butterflies, praying mantis, ladybugs, green lacewings, wolf spiders, parasitic wasps, native species of bees, honey bees, hummingbirds, and song birds.

A border planting of perennial herbs and flowers will provide overwintering habitat and food plants for the early and late season when your garden has little to offer.

Provide mud puddles for insects such as butterflies and bird baths for songbirds to drink. Trees and shrubs offer nesting places, food, and habitat for many species. If possible, put up birdhouses and bat houses to help reduce nuisance insects like mosquitoes.

Not only will you increase the biodiversity of your landscape and the beauty of your surroundings, but you’ll see increased productivity when you invite pollinators and other beneficial insects to your garden.

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garden rows
Rotate crops each year to reduce disease and pests and make the best use of soil nutrients.

Crop Rotation

Practicing crop rotation reduces soilborne disease and fertilizer application in your garden. In general, you never want to plant the same crop in a garden bed each year. Instead, move your vegetables to a new spot each season and after 3 or 4 years you may start all over again.

To make the best use of nutrients in your soil, follow this plan:

  • Year 1 – plant nitrogen fixing crops such as beans, peas, alfalfa, or clover
  • Year 2 – plant crops that need plenty of nitrogen such as leafy greens and corn
  • Year 3 – plant flowering and fruiting crops that need phosphorus such as tomatoes, peppers, melons, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and sunflowers
  • Year 4 – plant root crops that need the least amount of nitrogen and plenty of potassium such as potatoes, beets, turnips, parsnips, and carrots
  • Year 5 – start the rotation over again with nitrogen fixing crops

Another way to increase fertility in your garden soil is to plant cover crops that fix nitrogen and then till them under at the end of the growing season.

Raise a more productive garden by planning for crop rotation each year!

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spring greens
Rows of cabbages.

Succession Planting

Some crops grow best in the cool spring or fall weather while others love the heat and humidity of summer. With some forethought, you can reap the benefits of succession planting and grow a more productive garden with less space!

Common Cool Season Crops:
  • lettuce
  • peas
  • spinach
  • cilantro
  • broccoli
  • pak choi
  • collards
  • green onions
  • beets
  • cabbage
  • cauliflower
  • turnips
  • rutabaga
  • broccoli raab

Plant these crops early in the season with some protection from frost and harvest your first salads, peas, and roots for fresh eating. When the weather warms up many of these will bolt (start to flower) or the roots will get tough and woody. Pull them up, amend the soil, and transplant the warm-season vegetables that you started indoors in their place.

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Succession planting allows you to grow a more productive garden ... warm season crops
Common Warm Season Crops:
  • tomatoes
  • peppers
  • corn
  • sunflowers
  • squash
  • cucumbers
  • pumpkins
  • beans
  • eggplant
  • basil
  • summer savory
  • melons

With a bit more planning you can plant and harvest cool season crops again in fall. For cool season crops that need 3 months to mature, start early under lights in your basement. The cool temperature is idea for your little seedlings. Start seeds in July and transplant them into the garden toward the end of August or in September. This will allow harvests before the winter sets in.

For gardeners in Southern climates, you’ll need to plan your succession crops much differently. Many crops have trouble with the extreme heat in summer throughout the southern states. With afternoon shade and additional water, you can baby some crops through the heat.

Plan your main crops to mature before the heatwave begins or plant in fall. Cool-season crops do well over the winter when my area is under a foot of snow! (PS: I’m a bit jealous.)

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Cold frames extend your growing season for a more productive garden
Straw Bale Cold Frame.

Extending the Season

Grow a more productive garden by extending your growing season with cold frames, a greenhouse, or by gardening indoors.

Each year I start cool-season crops in straw bale cold frames to get an early start on my garden and to grow an extra harvest in fall. This allows me to get three plantings from one garden bed each year.

I also have a small greenhouse, but I don’t provide supplemental heat. So it is used mainly for moving seedlings out of my indoor starting area early and for transitioning potted plants to come indoors in fall. I have set up strawbale code frames inside the greenhouse with good results too.

Other ways to extend your season include using floating row covers to protect plants from a late frost in spring, or an early frost in fall. Cloches and ‘wall of water’ protect individual plants. You can even save plastic milk jugs, cut the bottoms out, and cover plants for frugal frost protection.

Indoor gardening is a whole topic in itself! Try growing sprouts and microgreens or using aquaculture for an indoor garden all year.

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Plan ahead for a productive garden this year!
A tub trug full of root veggies.

Plan Ahead for a Productive Harvest!

Plan ahead for a more productive garden for your needs this year. Find out what fruits and vegetables your family likes best and plant your favorites. If space is limited, grow the foods you eat most.

Are juicy vine-ripened tomatoes your passion? Plant several varieties and have a taste testing in summer. Maybe you love making fresh salsa. Plant a salsa garden with tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, cilantro, and onions. Try your hand at pressure canning homegrown salsa.

Use time-saving tips to reduce your workload in the garden. Mulch between beds with hay or straw, use judicious watering and fertilizing to reduce weeds.

There is an almost unlimited number of plans and designs for your vegetable garden. Get some ideas from the Old Farmer’s Almanac!

Do you have your garden all planned for this year? Leave a comment!

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