Planning your vegetable garden can seem like a daunting task. What should you plant where? When should I start my seeds? How much sun do my veggies need? Vegetable gardening takes practice, but there are some basic tips to lay the foundation for a successful harvest.
Starting Your Seeds
If you want to start your vegetables from seeds, picking the right time to start them is key. Knowing your gardening zone is important. Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to determine which plants can grow in your location and when you can plant them. For example, I garden in zone 7a in New Jersey, so our last frost is usually sometime in April (although the current climate has certainly messed with that a bit).
Figuring out when to start your seeds can be as simple as reading the seed packet. It may sound obvious, but so many people ask me questions that could be found right on the packet. The packet should say when to plant your seeds based on temperature. So if it has been a mild winter like we had this year, you can get away with starting things earlier.
If you opt to start your seeds inside under a grow light, then you can start them even sooner. For example, you could be starting your tomato seeds at the beginning of March inside your home. Then when things warm up in the summer, you can harden off your seedlings and get a head start on the season.
I start my seeds in a cold frame outside, but they can easily be started indoors in a sunny window, or under grow lights. Seeds started inside will have a jump start on the season and speed up your first harvest.
Planning Your Garden
Deciding what to plant where can be stressful. If you only have one vegetable bed, it’s important to try and optimize that space. If you plan to plant tomatoes, try planting some leafy greens early in the season. That way you can have a harvest of cooler crops like spinach, bok choy, or lettuce while you are waiting for the weather to warm up.
When planting, you also need to think about crop rotation. This means that you don’t want to plant the same type of vegetable in the same place each season. In a perfect world, you would plant legumes –>brassicas—>fruiting vegetables—>and then root vegetables.
Legumes are your beans and peas. They put nitrogen into the soil, which is why they make such a fabulous cover crop. Brassicas – spinach, kale, cauliflower, broccoli- always follow your legumes because they are heavy nitrogen feeders. Fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, and squash go next. And lastly, your root vegetables like carrots, onions, garlic, and beets because they are light feeders. Then you repeat the cycle and replenish the soil by planting legumes.
It might seem like a lot of hassle at first, but crop rotation is vital to healthy plants. For example, if you get onion worms one spring, they winter over in the soil. That means if you plant onions in that same bed next season, the worms will still be there waiting for their next oniony snack. I totally didn’t just make this mistake or anything…which is why I now write down what I plant in each bed.
I keep a journal of what I’ve planted where, so I don’t forget come next season. My notes are a bit of a mess!
This is something I am only finally getting the hang of. Last season I planted way too many tomato plants all at the same time. This resulted in a tomato explosion, and every person who came to my home left with giant bags of tomatoes. By planting a few and often, you can extend your harvest by weeks.
If you plant a row of spinach this week, plant another row in two weeks. When you finish harvesting your first row of spinach, your second row will follow it. If you follow this system with all of your vegetables, you will have a continuous harvest all season.
I harvest a few successions of radishes while I wait for my peas and beans to fill in and shade them out.
Utilizing the space in between your crops can easily more than double the size of your harvest. While you wait for your pole beans to grow, plant a few rows of radishes underneath them. You will harvest the radishes well before the climbing beans shade them out.
While you wait for your potatoes to start growing, plant a row of spinach or lettuce on their hills. You can enjoy a harvest or two before the potatoes eventually overtake the bed.
Onions can take months to grow. I’ve utilized the space between the rows by planting lettuce.
By combining the concepts of seed starting, crop rotation, succession planting, and interplanting, you will have a healthy and continuous harvest before you know it. I can’t believe how much of a difference interplanting and succession sowing has made in my garden. Seed starting is a process, not a one-time thing. I try to sow my next round of crops every 10-14 days. And so far this season we have been enjoying fresh-cooked meals every night!