Plan(t) Better with 7 Smart Garden Planning Tips

There is nothing tastier than a tomato, fresh off the vine, still warm from the sun. But to get those delicious tomatoes in June, you need to start planning months in advance. And you can get started today with these Smart Garden Planning Tips!

packets of pepper, tomato and other vegetable seeds

In January, our mailboxes become inundated with seed catalogs. It is the gardening version of spending time in a candy store. But there is more to planning your garden than just ordering seeds – especially if you are new to gardening.

Smart Garden Planning Tip #1 – Know Where You Can Grow

Long before you plant the first seedling, you need to find the best space possible to give your plants everything they need.

Plants need 4 things to survive:

  • Sunlight
  • Water
  • Optimal Growing Temperatures
  • Food

smart garden planning starts with choosing a sunny location for your garden

Sunlight

When you survey your area, you need to know not only where the sunniest patch is, but also the path of the sun. In the middle of the day, the spot you would like to plant your garden may be considered full sun. But if there are trees or other tall structures on the east or west side, you may not have full sun all day.

Instead, if your trees are on the east side, the sun may not clear those trees until 10 or 11 in the morning. If your trees are on the west side, your garden may be getting shady by 2 or 3 in the afternoon. That means your garden will only get the sunlight it needs for 3 to 4 hours, maybe 5.

Tomatoes, peppers, squash, and most vegetable plants require at least 8 hours of sunlight per day. Placing your garden in a spot that only receives sun part of that time will still produce, but not as well.

But don’t think this smart garden planning tip means you can’t garden. Even some of the vegetables that love warmer weather will appreciate a bit of shade during the hottest days of the year.

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Water

Once you choose what could possibly be a good spot, you then need to look around to find the easiest access to water. For most gardeners, that means a water spigot in close proximity.

It also means using water hoses. The closer your garden is to your spigot, the shorter and fewer hoses you will need. Although you can use longer, or more hoses connected together, keep in mind you still need to mow the area around the garden, which means having to move them. If your garden is on the other side of the house, that means more shifting and moving.

white pipe and soaker hoses in a garden

Sprinklers are a fairly popular way to water your garden. This is an option, but not the best one. First, some plants, such as tomatoes, don’t like being watered overhead. Wet leaves tend to burn in the sun. A second factor is you use more water trying to get the moisture level to reach the root system. The third consideration is evaporation. More water sits on the surface, and is then evaporated into the air, rather than reaching the roots of the plants.

For an inground garden, one smart garden planning tip is to use soaker hoses works best. Soaker hoses sit on the ground next to the plants. This allows the water to seep into the ground quicker and deeper than overhead watering.

If you add mulch, such as straw, leaves, or compost over the top of the soaker hoses, it not only helps curb the amount of evaporation, but you  can water deeper, which means watering a little less.

okra and squash seedling in cells

Optimal Growing Temperatures

If you are starting your plants from seed, most will not germinate if the soil is below 50 degrees. Some, such as cucumber and eggplant prefer a warmer soil at 60 degrees; lettuce likes it cooler, and can be planted as low as 35 degrees. However, this also needs to be regulated – a sudden drop in temperature for several days in a row may either delay the germination or stop it altogether.

Different plants love different daily temperatures and have different maturity dates. Where tomatoes and peppers required 70 to 90 days, lettuce takes 40 to 60, broccoli and squash take 50 to 65. However, each one of these requires different temperatures.

small yellow squash on the vine

Peppers love and thrive in hot weather. Lettuce and broccoli prefer it cooler. Even squash has two different preferred temperatures, depending on whether it is a Summer (crookneck, lemon, etc.) or Winter (acorn, butternut, etc.) type.

Two other differences between summer and winter squash is that summer squash can be harvested all summer long, and is best when picked young. These varieties are usually a bush type. Winter squash is usually harvested all at once, (60 to 110 days after planting), and is primarily a vining type. Both, however, will not produce in when temperatures are freezing.

Before you start your seeds and plant your garden, use this smart garden planning tip and be sure to check the thermometer and maturity dates. This will help you to get the best harvest from your plants.

Feeding Your Plants

green plastic milk crate filled with hay and vegetables scraps for compost

One of the best ways to have a healthy soil is by adding compost. If you have a space in your yard, you can build and maintain a compost bin as large as you have room.

However, some folks don’t have a hidden corner where they can start a compost pile. If that is the case, this smart garden planning tip my help: consider using mini compost bins. With these you can use small plastic milk crates. Keep in mind, the amount of compost you get with these is sufficient to supplement containers or a small garden area – not a huge garden.  

If you need more compost, you may consider searching nearby for companies who sell it by the yard or truck load.

For more on building your own larger compost bin, check in with Kathi at Oakhill Homestead for a smart garden planning tip on How to Build a Compost Pile in Your Backyard!

Smart Garden Planning Tip #2 – Know Your Zone

raised bed filled with triple curled parsley and a moose garden statue wearing blue overalls

A successfully productive garden is a matter of timing. Before you plant the first seed, you need to know the dates of your first and last frost. Using this smart garden planning tip, you can count backwards to determine when you need to start your seeds. You will also know the best dates to put your seedlings in the ground.

To get the dates for my area, I use the Farmers’ Almanac calculator. The Farmers’ Almanac is a trustworthy source for all your garden needs and is frequently used by all gardeners! Just put in your zip code and click. You will get your frost dates, as well as the length of your growing season.

Knowing your frost dates isn’t the only Zone information you need. There are some plants that simply cannot grow well, if at all, in your climate. This has to do with the number of days to harvest.

A good example of that is peppers. Peppers are a heat-loving plant and take 60 to 90 days from seed to produce. If you live in the North, these may be harder to grow.

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On the flip side, carrots, broccoli, and cabbage don’t mind colder weather. They won’t hold up under a freeze, but are cold-hardy plants. Since these vegetables turn starch into sugar to help protect them from frost, they also taste better.  

There are ways around what you plant and when. You can start your seeds in a greenhouse, and plant as soon as the soil is warm enough for the plant. You can also extend your growing season to some degree using a warming system, such as cloches and plant protectors. However, you may only want to use these to harvest those last few vegetables that are on the verge of ripening. They aren’t truly recommended for year-round gardening.

But for the most part, growing what you know grows well in your zone will save you time and effort.

Smart Garden Planning Tip #3 – Go ‘On Grid

notebook, pen, pile of seeds, stack of seed packets to use for smart garden planning

Going ‘off grid’ can be of interest to many people. Some of the benefits of this are considered to be better sustainability, a reduction in fossil fuels, and a way to fight climate control.

However, when you plan(t) your garden, you may want to consider this smart garden planning tip. Go ‘on grid’ – or rather, sketch out your garden using graph paper.

Once you know the size and location of your garden, sketch it out. This helps you to see what you are planting, where it will be planted, and proper spacing before you dig the first shovelful of soil.

A great way to do this is by using graph paper. Each square on this type of paper equals a certain size – most of them are 1/4″, but others come in 1/2”. Or, just use a piece of regular paper. Either way will help you visualize how you are going to lay out your garden.

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If you use graph paper, use the squares to draw your garden ‘to size’ (ex: one square = 1 foot).  Once you have the outline of your space, then you can fill in the grid with your plants. If you are planting in rows, it helps to draw a straight line for each one.

When designing a garden on paper, be sure to add the proper spacing between rows and plants. If you have an irrigation system, be sure you incorporate where the pipes, hoses and valves are as well.

Once you have the entire garden drawn out, it’s time to ‘add’ the plants. The easiest way to do this is to cut out circles, squares, or even rectangles (for trellises). This makes it easier to move your plants around, until you have the most satisfactory way to plant your garden.

Remember – for trellises and other tall plants, be sure to plant them in a space where they will not shade your other plants.

Here’s another smart garden planning tip:  Use color pencils or markers for each color plant. This allows you to see at a glance which circle is a tomato, and which one is a pepper.

Going ‘On Grid’ with Container Gardens

flower bed filled with assorted containers growing herbs

If you are only able to grow your plants in containers, you can still draw out your garden space. Measure your balcony, patio, or yard space. Once you have your measurements, put this size and shape on your graph paper.

From there, add in any furniture and other items that are normally used in that area. Once you have this basic plan on paper, you can begin to place your containers. You can more easily move ‘paper’ containers around than you can real ones filled with soil.

Measure each container, making sure you add any space between them, to allow for air circulation. Plants don’t just need light, water and food – they need to breathe!

large blue flower pot filled with yellow and orange marigolds

Once you have your grid laid out, you can then put your containers in place. If you aren’t 100% certain they will get enough light, place your empty containers in place for a few days or longer, and check the amount of sun that gets to them. Start timing it at sun up, and end at sundown. This will give you the best idea of where you containers should go.

Once you are satisfied of the best location, then you can begin filling your pots with soil. Doing it this way prevents struggling with the heavy pots.

Smart Garden Planning Tip #4 – Don’t Get TOO Ambitious

seed packets for peppers, tomatoes, beets, salad blend, cucumbers, and other vegetables

I am ‘one of those’ gardeners who just wants to plant everything! Unfortunately, I just don’t have the space to do it.

To have a productive garden means you need to care for it daily. This means providing water and food, weeding, pruning, and more. For many of us, that equates to time. Between working hours, chores, and other activities on our calendars, finding that time can be tricky.

The key to smart garden planning is to design a garden which can easily be cared for within the amount of time you have. From there, be sure to make notes on your calendar the dates you need to water, when to add a bit of food to your plants, and when to prune.

And be sure to keep an eye on those weeds! Unfortunately, weeds don’t grow on any given schedule. Instead, they seem to pop up out of nowhere on their own time. To keep a well-maintained garden, plan on spending time every day to pull out any weeds.

At the very least, set aside an hour or so every two to three days to clean up the unwanted sprouts. Just remember, a few minutes every day will keep weeds at bay. Wait a day or two, and they may just take over your garden and it could take hours, if not the entire day to get rid of them!

Smart Garden Planning Tip #5 – Rotation and Succession Planting

series of four raised bed gardens with trellises

Many people plant a garden in the spring. At that time, they put all the vegetable seedlings in the ground at once. When it comes to harvesting, everything is ready at one time, and there is not only more work to get them picked, but you also have more than you can eat.

If you can and preserve the harvest, you spend all day, almost every day, trying to process and put it all up at one time. Once your garden is over, you begin lamenting the fact you don’t have any more fresh vegetables to enjoy.

Smart garden planning will help you stretch your harvest out to better accommodate your enjoyment and time by using the Succession planting method. This means to stagger your planting times. Succession planting requires using plants that are at different growth stages. If you are starting with seeds, sow one-third to one-half of your seeds at a time, and space the next seed sowing time out by two weeks.

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When planting your garden, put in the oldest seedlings first. Two weeks later, put in the next batch, and then again in another two weeks. This means each set of plants will mature at different times, allowing you to enjoy them fresh, and to stretch out your canning time.

Keep in mind – no matter how you plant, different types of vegetables may mature at roughly the same time, no matter how you stagger the planting. Succession is still a great way to stretch your garden from one single harvest into several.

Using the Rotation gardening method is one of the best smart garden planning tips.  This gardening method ‘rotates’ the crops you plant. Each year, you would plant each item in a different location, or row.

tomato hornworm on a tomato plant

This prevents the depletion of nutrients that one plant loves and help to replenish it with a different crop. An example of this would be corn, rotated with beans the first year, and then wheat the second year. Corn is a heavy feeder and will deplete the soil of nitrogen. Beans have nitrogen-rich nodules on their roots, and that nitrogen is deposited into the soil.

Adding wheat to the rotation helps improve soil health and structure. Crop rotation is also beneficial as it breaks the cycle of detrimental insects. If vegetables are planted in the same place every year, it becomes easier for pests, such as tomato hornworms, to find the plants and have a feast.

Rotational gardening also limits diseases and actually helps with soil fertility.

Smart Garden Planning Tip #6 – Plan Ahead for Compost and Mulching Options

man in overalls tilling a garden layered with leaves

While you are strolling around your yard looking for the optimal space to plant, keep an eye out for a good spot to add a compost bin.

Smart garden planning means knowing that creating compost takes time. It requires building – which simply means adding the materials you need, from the greens and browns, and adding them in the correct ratio.

Compost piles also need to be managed, by turning them on a scheduled basis. It also helps to check the core temperature (compost needs heat to break down), and watch for mold and burrowing rodents (this usually occurs when the pile isn’t hot enough).

Having a compost pile can help with the nutrient levels of your garden, as well as help the soil be pliable or ‘fluffy’, which is the optimal growing conditions for a plant’s root system.

garden filled with tomatoes and other vegetables with straw mulch between rows

Smart garden planning also means using mulch your garden. Mulching helps to keep the weeds down and retain moisture. Some of the best mulches you can use are newspaper (just the plain newsprint, not the glossy color ads), cardboard, and wheat straw.

It isn’t the best option to use hay. It has too many seeds in it and create a bigger weed problem in your garden. Save the hay for your compost pile. The heat will kill the viability of the seeds in most cases.

But gathering enough mulch for your garden also means you need a place to store it. Cardboard sheets can be slipped into the back of a closet, and newspapers can be collected in boxes or garbage bags.

However, wheat straw and piles of mulch need to be stored outside. If you choose to keep mulch on hand, find a suitable place to keep it, such as a shady area behind a storage building, or under a shed. If it is exposed to the weather, be sure to cover it with a tarp to protect it as much as possible.

Smart Garden Planning Tip #6 – Start your ‘Hard’ Structures in Winter

two wooden garden trellises painted white with ceramic birds on top

For avid gardeners, we want to be digging in the dirt every day of the year. Unfortunately, that isn’t a possibility. Rainy days aside, we also have to deal with winter weather. Fortunately, there are things you can do to make those ‘off’ days beneficial to your gardening experience.

At the end of the season, you can spend your time cleaning and sharpening tools so they are ready to go to work. Next, you can clean your garden space, work on your compost, and do other off season chores.

Another thing you can do is work on your ‘hard’ structures. These are things such as making seed trays, trellises, and even row markers.

For some, seed trays can be as easy as washing down the plastic trays you get from the garden shop. For trellises and row markers, you can use wire pre-made trellises, cattle panels, or other simple system.

If you are a creative person, you may want to make these things yourself. If so, check out these posts to get your started!

Make Your Own Seed Tray

Get Creative in the Garden: Make your Own Trellis & Row Markers

Smart Garden Planning – Tip #7

pink clawfoot bathtub filled with growing carrots

Get your smart garden planning started! Grab your calendar, seed catalogs, a notebook and pen, and settle in for an Afternoon Tea break. Pour yourself a cup of hot chocolate, and maybe fill a plate with a few cookies. You will need that sustenance as you plan out your garden for this year.

And as you do your smart garden planning this year’s garden, go ahead and think about next year’s, too. This way, you will have your Rotations in place and be ready to start your garden as soon as your last frost date arrives.

And – to make it a bit easier for you, be sure to download the ‘My Garden Space’ freebie! This has a graph sheet, a page with circles, squares, and rectangles, and a Sunlight Chart ready to help you with your Smart Garden Planning for this year – and years to come!

Julie Murphree is a blogger, newspaper columnist, and speaker on all things ‘Living a Simple Life on the Farm’. She is the author of \\\'The Farm Wife – Living a Simple Life on the Farm. She and her husband have 60 acres in NW Louisiana where they actively work on living as sustainable as possible.

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