Now that the holidays are over, I start thinking about all of the beautiful things I want to grow in the garden this summer. We live in Brooklyn, NY, so optimizing space is always a concern, but you’d be surprised what can be packed into a NYC backyard with the right planning. I have also found that although there are a ton of plants I would love to grow, a bit of garden planning helps me figure out what is realistic. A lot of the things I’m going to talk about can be applied to any size garden, but as someone who’s a bit space-challenged, I definitely plan with that in mind.
For those that like to jump ahead or around…
- Starting New?…The Basics
- Last Year’s Garden
- Seeds vs Live Plants
- Laying Out The Garden
- Next Steps
Starting New?…The Basics
If this is the first time you’re putting in a garden, or a garden in this location, there are several things you’ll want to figure out to set yourself up for success. Plants require 3 basic things to survive: soil, sun, and water. I know I’m simplifying it, but given the right quantity and quality of each, plants are generally happy and successful, so it’s important to know what you are working with in your garden.
Let’s start with soil. Fertile soil that drains fairly well is what you’re looking for. If it’s too sandy or hard, roots have a hard time growing and the plants will lack nutrients. If you soil is not ideal, don’t worry. There are some options that can help. Organic matter, compost or manure, can be added to enrich the existing soil. You could also forgo planting directly in the ground and build raised beds or use containers for planting. We have a combination of all three in our backyard, in ground, raised beds, and containers.
Plants need sun, so it’s important to understand how much sun your garden gets. Full sun is considered 6 or more hours of direct unfiltered light whereas partial sun (or partial shade) is 3-6 hours per day. If you are unsure how much sun the various areas of your garden get, you can create a sun map (Here’s a super helpful how-to from Feathers In The Woods).
Aside from Mother Nature providing rain, you need to be able to access water fairly easily to water your plants. It could be through drip irrigation, a hose or even buckets. No matter what the method, keep in mind that you’ll need to water once a day or every other day during the peak growing season.
LAST YEAR’S GARDEN
When you’re planning for next summer’s garden, I always find it very useful looking to the gardens I’ve had in the past (assuming I’ve had one in this location). It’s a great place to start and tends to make the planning go a bit quicker.
What Grew Well?
First things first, what grew well in your garden last year? Were there some fruits and vegetables that definitely produced well or some flowers that bloomed a lot? When I’m planning for the upcoming spring/summer I always look back to the previous year and think about what went right and list what plants I want to repeat for this year. My cherry tomatoes, onions, and geraniums will most certainly make the cut. There may also be some plants that did well, but for whatever reason you may not want to grow again this year. For example, I grew Morning Glory 2 summers ago on the back wall of the yard and it nearly took over every plant back there along with self seeding everywhere, so last summer I was weeding out tons of seedlings. So grew well, yes! Want to replant, NO!
What Didn’t Grow Well?
Next, what plants didn’t do well in the garden last summer and why? My carrots, for example, didn’t do so great last year because I planted them in a spot where they didn’t get enough light. The previous year I had them in a better location and they were much happier. These types of plants I usually add back to the list with a ?. When I start laying out where everything will be planted, I may or may not have room for them to get the sun they need to be happy. If there are plants that didn’t do well, such as plants that like a ton of sun, but you have lots of trees, these plants might just not have a home in your garden. And that’s ok. There are many plants that are happy in sun, shade, dry, or wet gardens. Part of planning is figuring out what’s happy in your garden.
Which Foods Did You Eat/Not Eat?
Besides figuring out what plants grew/didn’t grow well, what fruits and veggies did you eat? What didn’t you eat? Our family eats tons of tomatoes, so it would be worth planting a few more this year. The beans, however, didn’t really get picked or eaten last year even though they grew fine, so it doesn’t make sense to grow them again and waste the food and garden space. Also, were there any plants that never produced enough to make more than a meal or not even a meal? Perhaps adding more plants OR giving up the soil to another valuable plant would be worth it.
Do You Have Little Kids Or Pets?
Due to my now running around little girl that puts EVERYTHING in her mouth, it’s extremely important to do a bit of research on any plants that will grow on your property. Some plants, while beautiful, are highly poisonous and can be extremely dangerous for humans and pets to ingest (and sometimes even touch). There are wonderful resources on the internet, so once you have a potential list of plants, do your homework and be safe.
Seeds vs Live Plants
A big reason for making a list of plants early is that this allows you time to figure out how you would like to grow them. Do you want to grow from seed or from live plants? There are benefits to both options and the earlier you plan, the more options you’ll have available to you.
- Cheaper than live plants
- A lot of more options/varieties available than for live (such as heirloom)
- Some seeds can be directly sown/planted outside
- Some warm weather plants, such as tomatoes, have to be grown from seed indoors before they can go outside. This takes additional time, effort, and space. Also additional cash to get some lights and growing setup.
- More delicate than live plants in that not all seedlings will survive, so many must be grown to get a few good plants
- Ready to plant outside
- Can be purchased later in the spring/summer
- Some plants take much longer to mature, such as rosemary or blueberry bushes, so this cuts years off the growing to maturity
- More expensive (sometimes much more!)
- Much smaller variety to choose from (ex. Tomatoes – 5-10 live options vs. +50 from seed)
- Some plants, flowers especially, are only available from seed, so limits to what you can put in your garden
Favorite Seed Companies
There are a lot of seed companies out there, but here are 3 of my favorites. The first two have tons of fruit, vegetable, and flower options and all of the seeds are non-GMO (Genetically Modified). The third one has a wonderful selection of beautiful flowers. As someone who’s very visual, I also really appreciate that all of the catalogs have color pictures for nearly every plant and a website that’s easy to navigate.
I will also peruse the farmers market and local home improvement store for additional plants and seeds, but I always start by looking through their catalogs first.
Laying Out The Garden
Once you have the must have and potential plants list for the garden it is a good idea to layout where you will potentially plant them. It may change based on what seeds actually grow or what live plant options you can find, but this usually helps firm up the shopping list.
Creating A Garden Layout
Garden layouts can be as simple or detailed as you like. I prefer a piece of graph paper and some colored pencils, but any paper and pencil/pen will do. Roughly draw out the shapes of where your plants will be grown. Once that is complete, there are a number of things you may want to consider when laying out the garden aside from the traditional ‘how much light will plants get in each area?’.
Sharing Space With Bulbs
If you are like me and a bit space-challenged, you may have planted bulbs in the fall that share some of the same dirt as your summer plants. With a bit of planning, sharing space shouldn’t be an issue. It is good, however, to take into account that these spring flowers may not be ready to die or come out of the ground when you are ready to start your summer garden planting. I usually plan to put plants that need the warmer nights (i.e. they can wait longer to be planted outside) in those shared spaces. I must admit, however, I have also been known to pull a tulip or two that lingered much longer than I had the patience for. Oops!
Since I’m always trying to optimize space I’m a big fan of plants that you can grow vertically. Typically, these are identified as pole, vine, or climbing and there are a lot of options in the vegetable and flower world. Most will need some sort of support to help them climb, such as a fence, trellis, or string, so keep that in mind when you’re putting together your layout. I use a trellis for my cucumbers which helps them grow and climb while offering shade to lettuce below (It’s one of my Favorite Tools). There are also vertical planters created to hold plants that do not climb on their own. While I am definitely a fan (there are tons of cool examples on Pinterest), I am not currently using any as I have been able to find space for all of my plants in the garden without one.
In addition to light and space, I like to look at which plants work the best or worst if grown next to one another. Known as companion planting (and there are many charts on Pinterest), some plants benefit from being grown next to one another while others will hinder growth. Some benefits can be deterring pests for another plant (nature’s pesticide) or plants sharing the same dirt because one has shallow, the other has deep roots. There aren’t really hard and fast rules, but some plants, such as those in the onions family, don’t work particularly well with a number of plants. So the extra few minutes to see what may be happier or not together, I find, is worth the effort. Anything to make gardening a bit easier is a good thing!
So now that you have a plan for this year’s garden, the next step is ordering seeds (if you are growing any plants from seed). I would suggest ordering sooner than later, even if you are going to directly sow them in the ground later this spring as the more popular seeds tend to sell out. TIP: If you want to grow plants such as lettuce that will be successively planted (i.e. planting at multiple times throughout the season), buy 2 packs of seeds now. It never fails that if I forget to buy the additional pack up front, when I need it later in the summer its either sold out or takes forever to get here and I miss most of the growing window.
Once you have your seeds (or while they’re on their way), you can get the supplies needed for planting indoors if you’ll be starting inside. To help guide you on supplies and the what, when, how of starting seeds indoors, take a look at this post:
What are you planting in your garden this summer? Let me know in the comments!