It’s Time to Plan Your Spring Garden

Seed companies are sending out their catalogs, which is winter’s reminder that you need to figure out what to grow next year.

(Photo: Flickr)

Jan 14, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

Im getting tons of seed catalogs in the mail. Whats the best way to go about planning a vegetable garden for the summer? Also, why not just buy seedlings in the spring?

Tyler Higgins

Dreaming over a slew of seed catalogs is the way many of us make it through the winter. The great thing about mail-ordering seeds is that by the time you get them, you’ve usually forgotten what you’ve asked for—it’s like Christmas all over again! On the downside, however, it’s all too easy to overreach and order absolutely everything that catches your fancy. Some people get carried away by the photographs, but I’m a sucker for the cultivar names. Take the flat-podded beans sold by Johnny’s Selected Seeds: Dragon’s Tongue is hard to resist, but what about Northeaster or Marvel of Venice? Having a garden plan at the ready keeps ambition in check and financial damage to a minimum. (Full disclosure: I’m going with Northeaster, which promises to be early maturing and “extra vigorous in the seedling stage with strong vine growth.” Oh, OK, and Dragon’s Tongue too—“tender and sweet and good in salads or cooked.”)

Whether you have a dedicated kitchen garden, a raised bed or two, or a deck or patio you can fill with containers, you can grow a range of vegetables and other edibles for the table. Most so-called fruiting vegetables—such as tomatoes, chile peppers, melons, and squash—need about eight hours of direct sun a day for best results; leafy greens and root crops can flourish with a little less. If you’re sizing up potential growing spots this winter, keep in mind that trees that are deciduous (i.e., leafless now) will cast shadows as the growing season lengthens. Maximize garden space by sowing seeds in succession. The kale I planted in a grow box very late last summer is a bit worse for wear this week—we’ve had snow and below-freezing temps here in New York—and not only is it persevering, but it’s sweeter and more delicious than ever.

Planning a garden isn’t difficult—all you need are a piece of graph paper (each square of the grid representing one square foot) and a pencil—but there are also numerous helpful (and fun) computer planners that allow you to experiment with garden bed designs and plant placement. Among them are the Maine-based Kitchen Gardeners International Garden Planner, the Vegetable Garden Planner from Mother Earth News (which also has smartphone and tablet apps for garden planning, when to plant what, and how to choose which of its 333 tomato varieties are right for you), and Garden Plan Pro, from Growing Interactive. They all include a variety of other features, such as finding the average first and last frost dates for your area—a key consideration for every gardener.

No matter what form your garden plan takes, do as the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Gardening Guide recommends and “add notes as your garden progresses. A full and accurate garden record is as essential a tool as a spade or trowel.” Take the time to research the vegetables you’re interested in (and you and/or your family enjoys eating), and think about how you’d like to use your crops. Is your aim to simply enjoy fresh tomatoes on the table during the summer, for instance, or do you also want enough bounty to can or make into a winter’s worth of pasta sauce?

You also might want to think about shoehorning a few flowers into corners here and there. Nasturtiums, for example, are beautiful (and edible) in salads, and many old-fashioned ornamental varieties attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to the garden.

Seeds or Seedlings?

When you’ve decided which vegetables you want to plant, you’ll need to figure out when to get started, and that depends on whether you want to germinate seed indoors, sow seed directly in the ground, or start from seedlings purchased at a nursery. According to HGTV, there are two things that will help you make that decision.

The length of your growing season “Some plants need several months to mature. If you live in an area that doesn’t really warm up until May or June, you won’t have a long enough growing season to grow slow-maturing plants like tomatoes if you sow the seeds directly.”

How well the vegetable transplants “Some veggies, like peppers and broccoli, can be easily moved from inside your house to the ground—but others, like carrots, peas, and lettuce do not withstand transplanting well, so seeds are generally directly sowed into the ground.”

If the vegetables you’re interested in cultivating transplant well and need a longer growing season than is found in your area, HGTV suggests you either start your seeds indoors or purchase seedlings to plant.

The most economical option is starting from seed. “Seed catalogs offer a dizzying array of options. However, starting from seed requires an investment of time and supplies,” and you’ll need to get started soon. I’d like to add to this that you also need a dedicated space indoors, one with plenty of sun or a fluorescent light fixture.

Purchasing seedlings from a nursery is an easier option. “You’ll be able to pick and choose healthy plants and then put them in the ground soon after. But buying plants is more expensive, and you’ll have fewer options than if you started your own seeds.” Also, you can procrastinate longer before deciding on what to grow.

Some plants dont start from seed at all but are grown from roots. Bare-root vegetables include asparagus and rhubarb.