Plotting for 2018: Veggies, Herbs, and Wedding Flowers + 8 Beginner’s Design Tips!
For most of the year, my garden is my life’s blood.
Every spring I delight in layering my beds with compost and pushing seeds into the earth. In the summer, I spend at least a few hours each day tending, watering, weeding, and watching living organisms appear seemingly from thin air. The fall is probably my favorite though, when I get to enjoy the fruits of my labor, and tuck my beds away to rest after another season well done.
But even in the coldest, darkest days of the winter, I am scheming and dreaming of next year’s garden; pondering which new cultivars to try and which crops to rotate, babying artichoke, pepper and tomato seedlings, and keeping a close eye on the overwinter snowfall. In the words of the American botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey, “A garden is half-made when it is well planned. The best gardener is the one who does the most gardening by the winter fire.” I haven’t had nearly enough fires yet this winter, but ‘tis the season of planning, and I am excited to be underway.
This year, my garden will look a little different than usual. The change is entirely due to my increased need for space for my home-grown wedding bouquets and decorations. Most noticeably, my tomatoes are getting the boot from their usual greenhouse beds in lieu of bushy Café au Lait Dahlias, which will require guaranteed shelter from hailstorms and surprise frosts. I am excited at the prospect of trying out a variety of new flowering plants and greenery, but will be undoubtedly miss harvesting and canning those big juicy Beefsteak Toms. I will endeavor to get my fill from my parents garden across town!
My new-year’s garden planing ritual begins with digging out my box of seed packets from the garage, blowing off the dust, and taking stock of what was left over from the previous summer. After determining what needs to be replenished, I browse my stockpile of seed catalogues and write up a wish list of all the things I would like to try and grow for the upcoming season. I then start to craft my plans for each bed, planter and pot in my yard. This, in all honesty, is a bit of a chaotic process. Sun exposure, wall support, plant size and life cycle, soil quality, intended yield, companion planting, and pest resistance all come into play when deciding where to put what. My garden plan changes every year as lessons are learned and my gardening know-how evolves.
I am fortunate to have honed much of this knowledge from an exercised background in permaculture design. Becoming increasingly mainstream, permaculture stems from a series of principles focused on integrating sustainable, regenerative methods and technologies in our agricultural, living, and social systems. It involves working with nature; taking, but always giving back. It is the design of synergy in our outdoor environment, in our homes, and in ourselves. Truthfully, I find that when I am trying to explain it, my words often fall short and come across as airy-fairy, hippy-dippy fluff, but permaculture has provided me with a wealth of applicable knowledge and skills to respond to many of the global issues we face today, on my own scale.
I would like to take this opportunity to encourage and invite you, dear reader, to grow your very own garden. If that sounds intimidating, you can always start with a small herb box in your kitchen window; every effort is a learning experience! Large scale food production is not for everyone, but with a little effort, just about anyone can stick some seeds in the dirt and watch them grow. Local food production increases both the resilience and the vitality of communities, plus delicious fresh food at your doorstep. With incentive like this, what are you waiting for?
My Top 8 Beginner’s Vegetable Garden Design Tips:
If you are thinking you would like to try and plan out your garden for this summer, now is the time! You can use this list as a basic set of guidelines, and as inspiration to get you started.
1. Observe, and plan for the space you have. The first, and most important step of garden design should always be observation. This means that you should literally go out and spend some time in the area that you wish to plant. Study it closely. If you have a bright southern facing 5th floor balcony, you might try sun-loving plants that can live happily in small pots. Alternatively, if your yard consists of a marshy ditch shaded from the sun for most of the day, you would do well to look into growing shade-tolerant cultivars that don’t mind getting their roots wet (or maybe invest in a plot at the closest community garden). Every plant species has its own needs and preferences for sun, nutrients, temperature, drainage, and growing room, and it will take time to come to know these. The good news is that there is something to plant for just about every space; pairing your flora with the most beneficial conditions will provide you with greatest success!
2. Grow what you like to eat. This seems like common sense, but don’t bother planting things that you simply won’t use. I absolutely loathe the taste of cucumber, but that didn’t stop me from growing a whole wall of them (with the intention of turning them into pickles, which I do enjoy) a few summers ago. I didn’t have any desire to taste-test my cukes as they grew, which eventually resulted in overgrown, woody vegetables. My subsequent pickles were absolutely horrid, and I was left disappointed with the wasted time, space and effort. I am now committed to buying my pickles at the farmers market.
3. Start a Seed Journal. This is absolutely critical if you want to start your plants from seed. A seed journal helps you to track successes, failures, and all aspects of the germination cycle. I have been keeping my own journal since 2013, and damned if it hasn’t saved my butt half a dozen times from planting my artichoke seeds in the wrong starter pots (FYI – artichokes like to put down deep roots and hate being moved. If you want to try starting artichoke from seed, start them indoors in February in deep pots. They should only be moved once….when you transplant them outdoors for the summer!).
4. Include plants OTHER than vegetables in your vegetable garden.
When faced with the endless selection of foods to grow, why bother with anything but? The answer becomes clear when you begin to look at your entire garden as a living, thriving ecosystem, made up of many interacting parts. Growing non-edible plants like flowers or ornamental shrubbery, or allowing cover crops to take over a portion of your yard can actually provide a variety of benefits. Flowers for instance, may attract bees and other insects to pollinate your vegetable plants, while simultaneously warding off unwanted pests. Ornamental shrubbery and trees can provide an excellent wind-break and shade over smaller, sensitive plants. Cover crops can help to distribute nutrients and prevent malicious weed growth over otherwise unused spaces. There are literally hundreds of thousands of symbiotic relationships like these in healthy ecosystems, so don’t forget to include beneficial non-edible elements when planning out your garden.
5. Amend your soil.
Not necessarily a design tip, but soil amendment should almost be a commandment. The health of your soil will greatly influence the health of your plants, and carefully cared for soil results in beautiful, nutrient-rich produce. Planning out how to prepare and maintain your soil seasons in advance will ensure a long-term, sustainable medium in which your garden will grow. If you have yard trimmings, food scraps and a bit of space, you already have everything you need for simple on-site composting. Please check out the amazing New Zealand based Kiss the Ground collective to lean all about the benefits of healthy soil, including agricultural resilience and regeneration, water storage and most importantly, carbon sequestration!
6. Consider your waste.
This tip loops back into our soil-commandment; that is, if it can be composted, compost it. If it can be reused, reuse it! If it can be recycled….well this is a somewhat unsustainable option, at least in North America where we are increasingly facing challenges with how to manage our recyclables. We are living in an era where it is necessary to take into consideration if you really NEED recyclable and/or one-use-only items, or if you can do without. In my own garden, I am consistently reevaluating my need for starter plants sold in cheap plastic pots. Even if you reuse them, the pots pile up quickly and take up valuable storage space. I am attempting to combat such purchases (and their associated waste products) by starting as much as I can from seed, and by trading plants with neighbors and friends, rather than purchasing from stores. Take your waste into account from the design stage, and you will be better prepared to manage it in the thick of your growing season.
7. Utilize your edges.
I’m straight up swiping this thought-provoking permaculture principle and passing it along to you, because it’s simply a fantastic design tip. Utilizing the edge is all about dancing along the borders of colliding ecosystems, zones, and individual species. Overlapping boundaries, such as the edging along your garden beds and lawn, or the margin between your property and the neighboring ravine, present a unique opportunity for biodiversity and exchange of nutrients. Think of the sense of security provided by the shade of a tree while a chickadee picks along your lawn for his dinner, or where your runner beans reach out over the edge of your raised bed to capitalize on that extra patch of sunlight. When in the planning phase, consider what sort of edges will exist in your garden. Can you use them to encourage greater biodiversity in and around your growing zones?
8. Try something new! Will watermelons grow in the prairies? What is lasagna gardening anyways? What does a quinoa plant even look like? If you don’t know, why not try? One of the most rewarding experiences of growing your own vegetable garden is the humility! Include at least one unexplored element in your design for an ever evolving "growing" experience.
Do you have any gardening design tips you would like to share? As always, leave your comments, questions and stories below!