Tips for a Great Garden Plan, Part 1
In this 2 part blog series, I’d like to talk about making a great garden plan for your Spring garden.
Planning a garden in the dead of winter is almost like taking your mind into the setting of an idyllic fairy tale. Right about now, the seed catalogs are arriving at homes all over America.
You dream of what your garden could be, and sometimes make it a bit embellished with a touch of the impossible. It’s fun to think about Spring gardening, surely, during a less-desirable growing season for us like Winter, but I believe that one of the most important garden planning steps is to “reign it in” a little. Trust me, I’ve been there, got carried away, and wasted money on stuff I couldn’t plant. So I thought I’d help you a bit here with some tips about gardening, in any season.
Let’s get started!
#2: Review your garden area’s USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map
Almost all garden plants like vegetables, flowers, shrubs, and tree species have a USDA Zone rating. If you look in your seed catalogs, for example, most of them will say something like “hardy up to Zone 3” or “for growing in Zones 7-12 only” or “grows as an annual above Zone 6”. Ever wondered what that really means?
The USDA actively researches Plant Hardiness for all areas of the United States. This is based as much on the origin of the plants we like to grow as well as historical weather data. They have provided us a handy online tool for finding out what your Plant Hardiness Zone is. Here is the link: https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/
On that site you can see the colorful map of the zones, and if you look near the top left, there is a place to enter your garden area’s ZIP code. When you do that, you’ll get an answer as to what Zone you’re in (for example, Lutz ZIP code 33549 is in growing area 9b, as is the store’s ZIP code of 33612). You can also view state, regional, and national maps that you can print out if you like using the tabs at the top of that page. It’s pretty neat to look up different places and see what zone they’re in!(HINT: It’s a fun learning exercise for kids that ties meteorology and climate together with food production capability and geography).
Once you find out what Zone you’re in, then you will have more knowledge of what you can grow in your area. Here in the Tampa Bay area, that’s pretty easy – nearly everything will grow here! There are a few notable exceptions, but we will talk about that later.
#4: Figure out how much garden space you have – and where it’s at in relation to the Sun
Figuring out how much space you have will determine how much you can grow. You see, in most gardens, you need to give your plants space to spread out their roots to support themselves and gather nutrients effectively so that you get the produce you’re after. That is why seed packets have spacing instructions!
Mark out a space that gets a lot of Sun in the Spring. That may be a little difficult now, as the sun doesn’t climb as high in the sky during the Winter as it does in the Spring. But if you think about it, and remember sunny areas in your yard from the previous year, you can estimate the areas that will get the most sun. You can wait until end of February/beginning of March and do a Sun Map if you like, a couple of examples appear below:
Look at openings in the tree canopy (if you have mature trees; I know that many homes recently built do not have any trees to speak of), and know where the sun rises and sets in relation to the area you want to plant. That will mostly tell you if you’ll get the production you want.
You can get techie too! There is a google map overlay called SunCalc that allows you to see where the sun will be on a given day at a given time. It’s pretty nifty if you want to get all nerdy with it.
As an example, tomatoes need at least 8 hours of sun per day to produce fruit. Think of it like charging solar cells – the more sun you have, the more photosynthesis can happen, the more fruit you can get. So you’ll want to pick areas that get that kind of sunlight if you want to grow that kind of crop. Lettuce requires less hours of sun (4-6) so you can grow that in areas that may not have access to as much light. Your seed packets and catalogs will usually give you an idea of what kind of sun they need, and if not, the Extension service websites I gave you in Tip #3 should have what you’re looking for.
Feel free to mix it up! Build one raised bed and set other containers beside it, or have a section of Earthboxes and another in-ground bed. The great thing is, it’s all up to you, so be adventurous! Gardening is all about experimentation.
Alright, that’s quite a lot to consider already, and we’re only about halfway through this planning guide!
So, your homework, should you be so inspired, is to look at your garden space, decide where you want to plant, what you want to plant there, and to get your structure planned, and possibly built! In a couple of weeks we will explore Part 2 of Tips for a Great Garden Plan, and we’ll talk more about how to decide what to grow, how many to plant, soil amending, and more!
I highly suggest starting a Garden Journal. There are lots of them out there that are already created – just have to download them. Or you could just use a plain ol’ notebook or 3-ring binder. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but if you’re artistic, or a photographer, it’s a great opportunity to make drawings and store photos of your garden friends, year after year, like a scrapbook. Or you can make it more scientific-looking too.
Keep track of the season with a simple label for the top of each page, you can put the date if you like, but I also like to include “Spring 2019” in there. Sketch out your garden beds and/or container areas in relation to other landmarks in your yard, mark the sizes and shapes, and maybe some notes about why you put them there. If you’re going with containers, have an idea of what kind you want, as this will help you make your shopping list later. Start to list out the things you want to grow and eat and/or flowers for bouquets (and maybe throw in an area for a pollinator garden)! All of this will help in the steps we’ll talk about next time.
Until then…thanks for reading!
P.S. I hope you have fun with this – don’t stress! Especially if you’re a gardening newbie. This should be fun, not overwhelming. 🙂
P.P.S You can get an early start on your garden markers by getting some fun ideas from my last blog about DIY Garden Markers!
#1: Review the current year’s Almanac
We carry the Grier’s Almanac (FREE!) and Old Farmer’s Almanac (it’s $6.99) in our store. These quirky publications have a lot to offer for people who are planning on planting (with a little bit of patience and a good sense of humor) come the next growing season.
You see, quite a bit can be predicted from historical weather patterns. Also, the phases of the moon exert a large effect on the Earth – if you’re a weather watcher or a fisherman, you know the Earth’s highest and lowest tides are almost always when the moon is full or new. In Florida, our underground water aquifers are also affected by the moon (and also the sun and the weight of the atmosphere, but that’s another nerdy conversation for another day). My point is, Almanacs have gathered historical climatology information and combined it with sun and moon charts to give us the best days to plant seeds, harvest crops, and other information on garden care, throughout the whole year.
I do my best to incorporate this information into my garden planning, if at all possible. I find that when I follow the suggested dates, it makes positive difference in my results! And with the guide, you can schedule garden work into your busy lives by knowing what days it’s best to do everything that needs done in the garden!
#3: Decide what you like to eat (or what flowers to grow)
I know I mostly talk about vegetable gardening, because I’m a foodie at heart, but maybe you’re planning for a flower garden (and I highly recommend a good-sized patch of native wildflowers in any garden to help support local pollinators). “Flowers make the heart joyful, and the gardener humble” is something I once heard a relative of mine say. Whatever it is you’re wanting to plant, take the Zone information from Tip #2 above and make sure that what you want to grow will survive here.
Also, there are certain times of the year to plant certain things. Our Shell’s Feed Garden Guide can help you with that. It’s free in the store when you stop by We publish one for every 2 months of the year pretty much with instructions on what to plant, and caring for your entire lawn and landscape. On the back of each one is a guide showing when to plant what, and it includes the most commonly grown veggies for Florida gardens. You can also find more information at the University of Florida’s IFAS website if you have specific questions about a particular type of vegetable or flower. Try this to start: https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/lawn-and-garden/florida-gardening-calendar/ You can also contact our local Hillsborough County IFAS extension office – it’s in Seffner. https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/hillsborough/
#5 Decide what the basic structure of your garden will be.
There are lots of options when you want to create your garden beds. Traditional farming plants the same crops in large, long rows, and rotates the crops around the field to minimize soil depletion. Most of us in urban areas don’t have the luxury of many acres, so we have to go with other methods.
Raised beds are very popular in Florida because they offer great drainage and a chance to amend our native soil with lots of organic material like compost, mulched leaves, earthworm castings, chicken/rabbit manure, and more. You’ll be able to keep the soil from compacting and your root crops like carrots and parsnips will grow longer and better. They can be custom built to your space and therefore can come in many shapes and sizes. My best recommendation for you is to not build them so wide that you cannot easily reach the center of the bed while standing or kneeling at the edge – you’ll need to weed periodically and you don’t want to walk inside your garden bed to do it.
If you have a small space, or no space except a patio, then your volume of production may be limited. But don’t let that discourage you – apartment and condo dwellers can still grow food on their patios and balconies. I highly recommend Earthboxes for maximum production in the least amount of space; just ask our Earthbox class teacher Susan Roghair – she does EVERYTHING in Earthboxes pretty much, and she has a small backyard that is mostly paved. (Classes for Spring 2019 coming up February 16 and March 9 – click those dates for your tickets and reserve them today!)
You can, of course, grow food in other containers, and we have all kinds of sizes, from large to small, as well as all the soil and fertilizer you’ll need to make that happen. Container growing (outside of an Earthbox) takes a little extra care to ensure that you get the production you want, and I covered some of that in a previous blog article here, and also how to prep containers here, so check them out for more information!
If you have a larger back yard, even just a quarter of an acre, you can pretty much grow whatever you like and really bolster your grocery budget and feed your family. As with raised beds, just make sure you can easily get to all areas of your planned garden without having to walk on your planting soil (or make a paver or mulch path through so that you can weed and thin and fertilize easily throughout the season).
There are also ideas like Square Foot Gardening, on which there are many publications available, that incorporate a specific plan for your raised beds. I won’t go into it here, but know that it exists and may be a good option for you. Also, Haybale gardening is increasing in popularity (and it’s something I’m thinking of trying this year!) – no containers, just a completely compostable hay bale that you plant starter plants in!
Marissa – Writer for Shell's Feed & Garden Supply
I'm an over-educated, passionate, gardening and pet enthusiast, and I have found the perfect job! My writing is based on my studies in Biology and Health, and my experiences from gardening with my family as a child.
The great thing about gardening is that it is a life-long learning process. The many blunders and successes of my own gardening projects over the years have been invaluable to me. The late, great, J.C. Raulston once said, "If you're not killing plants, you're not stretching yourself as a gardener." Learn by doing, gain knowledge from the failures, but more importantly, relish the successes, (because they're delicious!) Thanks for reading!
Special thank you to Abby's Farms, where the photo on the left was taken. Shell's Feed & Garden Supply sponsors the chickens and chicken coops there. Visit their website here.