Garden Planning for Maximum Yield

Garden Planning for Maximum Yield

Hi geeks & green-nerds, it’s your friendly neighbourhood gardener Yavanna here. It's well into winter time, but that doesn't mean there's no work for your green thumb! Matter of fact, planning out my garden for the new year is one of my favourite things about gardening. Here are some of the basics for garden planning and some beginner mistakes.

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Drawing out your plot

No matter how small or big your plot is, it's always a good idea to draw it out. I use my iPad to draw my garden, but simple paper and pencil or any digital drawing program will suffice. There are also some websites and apps that can help you with this, like Garden Planner

Measure your garden plot, keeping notes of things like paths, buildings, borders, trees and bushes, and other permanent items. Draw out the basic layout of your garden including permanent items with a neutral colour. 

Now the fun part begins. When you start to plan your garden you can use pencils with different colours to indicate different aspects:

  • Ground covering, like wood chips and paths (I often use a brown colour)
  • Your plants! (I often use a pink colour)
  • Moveable raised beds or large pots (I often use an orange colour)

Here is an example of my planning for this year, in an overview of how the garden will look like divided up into sectors for varieties of plants.           

    

Hey, I never said it was going to be pretty. Left: 2022 with plants. Right: structures, perennials and paths only.

Basic planning: what goes where?

Sure by now you're wondering, but how do I decide which plants go where? There are a couple of basic things to keep in mind: sunlight and shade, soil, support needs, intercropping and companion planting, root growth and plant size, and crop rotation. We'll discuss the latter in the next mini chapter.

Sunlight and shade

Some plants require more, others less shade. Usually your seed pack will indicate the plant's needs. First thing to do when planning for your crops is to be aware of the orientation of the sun over your garden during the day and where shade is created. But it's also important to keep in mind that, when you plant certain vegetables, they will grow to create shade. So when you plant corn, the plants behind your rows of corn may suddenly find themselves in the shade as your corn plants grow taller and taller. The advice is therefore to place high growing plants in the back of your garden or near borders, and low growing plants in the front, unless they are shade-loving

  • Find the orientation of the sun: does it rise behind a building that casts shade, giving the plants in front of that building only afternoon sunlight? Plan accordingly! At the very beginning of my garden planning, I observed and drew out the shade of our back garden during the day to tell exactly how many hours of sun each garden section received.
  • Find shading elements, like buildings, benches, or trees.
  • Divide your garden up in sections that get less than 6 hours, about 6 hours or more than 6 hours sunlight.
  • Keep in mind that high growing plants will create more shade over their growth.

Soil

When planning, it's good to know that some plants thrive in specific soil. Like raspberries and blueberries, which do well in acidic soil, asparagus, which prefers a sandy, permeable soil, and root vegetables like carrots, which prefer loose soil. But take yourself a cabbage or zucchini, and you'll find they perform well on clay, highly nutritious soils. 

Our garden is clay, so for root vegetables we've created raised beds from driftwood that we fill with fresh, loose soil each year. Our fruits get fertilizers that help with acidity, and as of yet we haven't had any luck with asparagus on our very, very clayish soil. 

Support needs

Climbing plants like peas and cucumbers will need some support to grow. When planning your garden, keep in mind to place climbing plants somewhere where their shade won't stunt other plants' growth. We have one large trellis that we use for climbing squash, cucumbers, peas and beans each year, and then we have tall bamboo sticks which we use to build a new trellis system depending on our yearly needs!

Intercropping and companion planting

Oh boy, I could (and probably should) write a whole article about this! But for now, I will focus on some basics: not all plants are friends. But some plants definitely are. Some are so friendly that you can plant them together. You may have heard that tomatoes grow tastier near basil, or you've heard about the Golden Circle of corn, squash and beans. But did you know that squash and potatoes don't go well together? Or beans and beets? But then again, some plants (especially herbs and flowers) can help you mitigate pests and improve your soil. I've added this amazing blog by Mygardenlife for an overview.

My shortlist for companion planting and intercropping:

  • Corn, squash and beans go well together.
  • Beans in general improve the soil by returning nitrogen.
  • Dill and nasturtium help with many pests that plague cabbages. I really go overboard and create a flowerbed to put my cabbages in, because we have a lot of cabbage pest issues.
  • Peppers are solitary creatures and prefer to be placed together and away from other plants.
  • Intercrop basil and tomatoes for a better tasting crop.
  • Keep in mind growing stages, so that when you plant your shade-loving arugula in between your tomato crop, it benefits most from the shade. But your sun loving basil, on the other hand, should probably be planted aimed at the sun and closer to the earlier growing stages.

Root growth and plant size

A very basic tip for planning your garden is to follow the instructions on your seed packet for plant size and plant distance. Broccoli, for example, grows a very solid root system that can inhibit the growth of other plants if cropped too tightly, and a row of broccoli plant might compete with each other for nutrients, leaving you with no broccoli at all! Squash and pumpkins can grow huge, which is why the Atlantic Giant variety of pumpkin needs 1x2 meters of land to grow. But since most of that is above ground, you may be able to intercrop some beans.

Your seed packet can give you two measures: row distance and plant distance. Plant distance is most commonly used for larger plants like squash, where they simply tell you that the plant requires a field of 1x1, or 1x2, or 0.5x0.5 meters. Row and plant distance combined are common for smaller plants like leafy greens or root vegetables that you can plant in a row. In this case, you may create rows 30 cms apart, but within the rows, plants only have 10 cms distance between each other.   

Crop rotation

The previous mini chapter gave some very basic information about planning. But if you're planning to garden for more than one year, crop rotation becomes a very important topic. Rotation deals with the needs and requirements of your soil as well as susceptibility of plants to blights, like the dreaded Phytophtora in the nightshade family, like tomatoes and potatoes. 

Crop rotation basically means that, if you planted a crop in one section in year 1, you may need to plant a different crop in year 2. Not all plants drain the soil or create vulnerabilities. Most herbs, most perennials, and leafy greens tend to do well whenever, wherever. But cabbages, squash and pumpkins, tomatoes and potatoes are essential to rotate. Here's why!

Cabbages

  • Are heavy feeders and drain the soil from nutrients.
  • Are very susceptible to pests.
  • Some varieties, like red cabbage, are susceptible to a specific disease. Keep red cabbages max 1 year on the same bed, and then rotate in a 4-year schedule.

Tomatoes & potatoes

  • Are heavy feeders and drain the soil from nutrients.
  • Are susceptible to Phytophthora, a fungus that remains in the soil.

Squash and pumpkins

  • Are very heavy feeders and drain the soil from nutrients.

Bonus: legumes, beans, peas, but also many lettuce types and flowers, and even some root vegetables, actually help improve the nutrients in the soils. Which is why after a heavy cabbage crop I like to plant beans or lettuce the next year.


Section

1

2

3

4

5

Year 1

Legumes

Fruiting

Roots

Cabbages

Perennial

Year 2

Cabbages

Legumes

Fruiting

Roots

Perennial

Year 3

Roots

Cabbages

Legumes

Fruiting

Perennial

Year 4

Fruiting

Roots

Cabbages

Legumes

Perennial

 Example of a common 4-year crop rotation, dividing the garden up in five sections: perennials include asparagus, rhubarb and strawberry; fruiting plants include squashes and tomatoes; legumes include beans and peas; cabbages include, well, cabbages; and roots include carrot, leeks, and lettuces. In all fairness, I combine my legumes with my fruits, and have a 3 year crop rotation.

Sowing schedule

Finally, we get to the actual planning! I create my sowing planning in Trello, but you can make your own whichever way you like. I like Trello because I can reuse it each year, but check off to-do items as I go along. The main thing is to look at all the plants you want to grow throughout the year and write down:

  • When they need to be sown or presown;
  • When they need to be split (if you presowed in pots and there are too many babies);
  • When they need to planted outside;
  • When they need to be harvested.

Then order all these per month so you have a to-do list every month. This really, really helps you keep track of everything and do things right! In my to-do, I also include things like pruning and removing side-shoots. Lastly, I add my projects (like building a new strawberry bed), buying necessary items (like manure) and yearly to-do's like loosening the soil and adding fertilisers. I cannot stress enough how wonderful it is to just have these tasks in a month-by-month overview, where you can just run your checklist every month and see if you're on track!

This absolutely amazing PDF by when2plant gives a great overview of when, where and what to sow, including some companion plant information. There are also sowing calendars for sale that show you when to sow what. 

Beginner mistakes

Here are some things to watch out for when planning your garden:

  • Planning too much

I always want to grow everything. But sometimes I plan for so many things that it's too much work for me to actually keep up with all the plants during the high season. Especially very demanding plants, like tomatoes, can make what should be a fun hobby more of a job. So go for easier plant varieties and consider moving that exciting new project to next year!

  • Sowing more than you planned for

Whoops, I planned for 4 pepper varieties and then sowed 20. Where am I going to place all these plants? Unfortunately, this often leads to planting them too closely to each other, which stunts their growth. Really, it's better to murder a few plant babies, or give them away, then plant them anyway and hope for the best.

  • Failing to rotate crops

Fail to rotate your tomatoes and they'll die, it's that easy. 

  • Not keeping an overview of what grew where, when

It's easy to fail rotation if you've never written down or drawn up what you've planted where and when; and kept some administration of it. But even without rotation, sometimes you just sow something outside without putting down a label of what it was. This is a horrid mistake. Don't think you can just plant it and remember. Trust me, you will forget. 

  • Sowing or planting too close to each other

I've mentioned this before, but not keeping plant size and root systems in mind will ruin everything. If you have too many plants, kill them or give them away. Because they will compete for nutrients, make weaker roots, get in each other's way and give you zero yield. We all prefer one beautiful broccoli head over 5 sickly and non-producing plants.

  • Not keeping notes on what worked, and what didn't

This is something I learned recently. Write down which plants produced, which didn't, which grew well, which didn't and why. Were there pests? Diseases? Trouble with the soil? Weak roots? All this is super relevant! When planning for the new year, you'll thank previous you for reminding you that your soil really doesn't allow for Chinese cabbage, no matter how much you love yourself some kimchi. Instead of planning space for plants that aren't going to be fun to grow, or that are going to wither and die, you'll learn which plants work the best for your plot so you can enjoy a fun growing season and a lovely, plentiful harvest.

I hope this helps you with preparing for this year's garden! By now, I've already started propagating my peppers and I'm super excited to see the first shoots come up. And as always, I've sown too much of them! Beginner mistake. ;)


Happy gardening!


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