The calendar flips to the new year and my thoughts turn to planting the garden and looking into things to grow for the upcoming season. And as winter turns to spring, the gardening itch gets a little more serious and I order the seeds I need based on what I have decided to grow. But deciding what I want to grow means that I have to do some sort of garden planning to make it happen. And then, before I know it, it is seed starting time for the upcoming garden. But how do I decide what and how much to plant or seed start?
Yard planning zones
The approach to garden planning can take on many different styles, different types and purposes, depending on what your main purpose for gardening is. But regardless of the purpose, how much space that can be dedicated to this venture will need to be decided upon. A portion of garden space can be carved out of your existing yard keeping hardscapes and functionality in mind, or, a decision can be made what, and how much, you want to grow and then dedicating the space to accomplish that goal. Although putting the yard plans to paper in a to-scale plan is a tremendous help when implementing, even drawing a yard plan that is not to scale will be a tremendous asset towards implementation. Having the vision on paper will allow for drilling down into the specifics of the yard plan for an orchard plan, garden plan or flower bed plan.
When I moved onto this property over 30 years ago, I drew out a aerial yard plan of what I wanted the yard to be so that I could assess the wind, how much sun everything got, and the flow of the yard. At that time, I did not know about Permaculture Design and designed things by what made the most sense whilst trying to landscape with nature. Although I felt I had done a reasonable job, sometimes nature has a different plan and so I have had to modify my original plan to accommodate as I explored in On the farm - Planning out the 80 acres.
Little did I know that with my initial plan I was actually following the six zones of Permaculture design as identified in the article Organizing Your Property’s Permaculture Zones. Only in recent years has the permaculture design zones included the house as zone 0 to make for a more holistic approach to land management. But by designing my homestead as I did, I also made mistakes that have cost me some time and money in my homesteading journey. As the article Permaculture Design + Mistakes to Avoid When Designing Your Permaculture Homestead identifies, if I would have looked into some things a little bit more, I could have possibly avoided some of the issues. But as with all plans, including continual assessment into the overall plan design is all part of a successful plan, and part of the Permaculture Design Principles. It has certainly been a journey but I have also learned a lot about my property as well.
Although the concepts of Permaculture design address how a yard or homestead should function in cooperation with the natural world around me, I feel it is important to consider how to include the spiritual, health and natural elements to the design. A holistic approach to life on my place. As The Sound Farmer, a graduate of the Savory Institute of Holistic Management identifies in the course I took, Holistic Management, “Holistic Management enables us to manage complexity – which is managing people, money, and the environment at the same time while working toward desired outcomes that are in line with what we value most deeply.”.
Although all of this is a very big picture type thinking to managing the property I own, the need of being able to feed myself whilst trying to landscape with nature is an integral part of the equation. And although each of the big picture type plans has smaller multi tiered, more specific plan(s), they all work together. One of which is the garden plan. Out of all the plans, the garden plan is a great place to start because it is easy to change if necessary, it is motivational and it feeds the body and the soul.
All one has to do is type “garden planning” into the search bar and a plethora of articles on how to plan your garden will show up. You will find articles on planting methods, garden design, companion planting, permaculture design, etc. to read, learn and decide which one will work for you. But with there being so many options out there, the information can become somewhat overwhelming and many questions as to personal application arise. It is great information, but how can I make it work for me.
I have researched a number of the methods over the years and always come back to my personal circumstances to direct my garden implementation. Things such as, what do I have time to do, what resources do I have access to, how much room do I have and ultimately why am I growing a garden in the first place.
Each gardening method has it's own attributes but because my reasonings for growing a garden are rooted in growing the most food I can, I am not prepared to convert my garden to one specific way or another. But rather, because I like to experiment in the garden, if I have the time, I have the materials I need and I have the space, I will often try one method or another in a part of the garden. That way if it doesn't work well, my main focus is still on growing as much food as I can.
But here is the thing too. Gardens do not have to be an all or nothing style or purpose. There is nothing wrong with implementing facets of each garden planning method, gardening styles or other gardening focuses, such as flowers, into an overall garden design. And in fact I would encourage it whilst staying true to your primary focus. And over time, as happened with me, a method that works for me has emerged.
Because of my primary focus for gardening is to grow food for fresh eating and food preservation, I have developed a method that works for me which is a cross between square foot gardening, companion planting and row cropping. To further explain, the rows in my garden are planted close enough so that at plant maturity the plants are almost touching. This then causes the soil to be covered to prevent moisture loss and prevent weed growth. Coupled with this is companion planting which is planting rows beside each other with plants that will get along well such as cucumbers beside corn or dill in the squash patch. Interspersed amongst the entire garden are various flowers to help attract pollinators and simply to add some colorful beauty to my approximately 0.14 acre (6,440 square feet or 598 square meters) vegetable garden.
Although my garden has some size to it, there are a few things that I don't grow in the in-ground garden. Instead, as I explored in How to container garden, I have three raised beds, two large containers and cover my veranda with a number of pots. This method of gardening allows me to raise things like herbs, strawberries and greens without taking up valuable real-estate in the in-ground garden and also helps to eliminate the continual competition from tree roots. With some color from added flowers of course.
Although I have successfully grown hard necked garlic in my raised beds, the space I needed to grow a sizeable crop of it could not be fulfilled in the raised beds. As I explored in Growing Garlic In Raised Bed Garden For Culinary and Medicinal Use, for the 2023 garlic harvest I decided to mound the soil into a raised bed garden row similar to a market style garden and layer a number of nitrogen sources on the beds similar to how Simple Living Alaska established their lasagna garden beds in Turning this Bare Land into a Garden or Homesteading Family No-till market style beds described in No-Till Gardening – Is It Right For You?. To help with moisture retention, weed suppression and erosion I topped the row with a shallow layer of hardwood mulch.
But the garlic bed is not the only application for the hardwood mulch, derived from the chipping of whole live trees, as I explored in Achieving a Permaculture Design Principle with the Back to Eden Gardening method.
As one can imagine, there can be a number of weeds and invasive grasses that can affect what one harvests from the garden. And although I like to keep ahead of things, as I explored in In the garden - When Garden Planning does Not go as Planned sometimes it just does not go right. But in an effort to maintain the garden, I experimented with using a homemade woven weed fabric as I explored in Woven Landscape Fabric - A Homemade Woven Weed Fabric DIY project. Because I noticed a difference in weed pressure with the use of the homemade woven weed fabric, I have decided to try another section of my garden being converted over to using a commercially produced Woven Ground cover I bought from Growers Solution and recommended by Living Traditions Homestead.
Gardening is not all about only growing one particular thing or doing it in one particular method. It can be a multitude of different methods all working together to achieve the goal that one sets for growing a garden. Although chatting with gardeners in your area can prove beneficial, experimentation is also key to figuring out what works for you, or so I have found. But one needs to realize that it takes time, sometimes years to figure out what works for a specific gardener in a specific location. And yes, as in my garden, it can include many styles and methods of gardening and garden planning.
Garden planning how many plants per person
Whether I decide to design the garden and then decide on what to plant or vice versa, at some point I need to decide on what and how much of everything I am going to plant. Although the “what to plant” is easily addressed by answering the question “what do I eat or want to eat”, the “how much to plant” becomes a little more complicated.
Although there are many articles that can be researched that will state how many of each type of vegetable or fruit a person should plant, in my opinion they are fundamentally flawed in their approach because their suggestions are based solely on a perfect scenario of what one person needs of a specific plant to feed them for a year. It does not take into account uses in various food preservation, frost free days, crop failures, insect damage, drought, fluctuating diets, rodent pressure or other environmental factors. All of which can affect the amount that one needs to plant in a given year. Unfortunately, I can't help think that the modernistic shopping mentality coupled with underlying concern that is omnipresent in society today has creeped into garden planning and it is reflected in these types of recommendations.
Despite my opinions, I will also agree that these recommendations may be a good place to start if a person is starting out, But I can't help think that if a person is adopting gardening and food preservation as part of their lifestyle, they will soon realize the error of this planning methodology and adjust to more of a reactionary, long term, holistic garden planning mentality for determining how much to plant. One that adjusts for growing season and is based on how much a person uses a specific plant, how much was used in the year previous from what was preserved or eaten fresh, and preserving extra when there is plenty. Coupled with this mindset shift is giving oneself grace should you misjudge how much to plant and end up running out of something or need to ration it. It is not a big deal. At least you tried, fed your family for a time and next year you can adjust.
Gardening and garden planning is not an exact science and it should not be viewed that way. Rather, it is an ever changing yearly journey that may or may not succeed. But along the journey, I enjoy the process and realize that I am trying. And should it fail or I run out of something, how I react to it is up to me. I can rush out and buy everything, I can do without or I can adjust and plan for next year.
As I mentioned earlier, my primary focus for gardening is to produce and preserve as much food as I can to ensure that I have enough food for at least a year, but preferably two years. Having the extra canning in the pantry gives me the luxury to not plant a garden one year if I choose, but also ensures that I have a supply should a hail storm, drought, insects or poor garden management ravage my garden in a given year. I do ensure that I rotate the canning to ensure I am using the oldest first. Additionally, if there is a bumper crop of something, I will also preserve it up knowing full well that it will be fine for much more than one or two years. I will simply adjust how much I plant and preserve in subsequent years to get me closer to the one or two year rotation whilst I use up the bounty. Sometimes it can take up to five years or more to do so.
Granted food nutrients and quality are reduced as time goes by and this is why most people recommend an expiry date of one year and design their planting to provide for that one year. As the article Just How Nutritious are Home Canned Foods? from Healthy Canning identifies, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that “Many vegetables begin losing some of their vitamins when harvested. Nearly half the vitamins may be lost within a few days unless the fresh produce is cooled or preserved. Within 1 to 2 weeks, even refrigerated produce loses half or more of some of its vitamins. The heating process during canning destroys from one-third to one-half of vitamins A and C, thiamin, and riboflavin. Once canned, additional losses of these sensitive vitamins are from 5 to 20 percent each year. The amounts of other vitamins, however, are only slightly lower in canned compared with fresh food. If vegetables are handled properly and canned promptly after harvest, they can be more nutritious than fresh produce sold in local stores.”. It is certainly not a one year and done for home canned and preserved foods as my pantry can attest.
Although the environmental and management factors attribute to why I like to maintain a two year inventory of preserved food, the fall and spring inventories have the most direct impact into my decisions on how much to plant. If I am low or out of something in the pantry, I will plant extra to allow me to take inventories back up to a one or two year level. If I have more than enough, I will plant less as I will not need to can as much, if at all. And over time, the inventory of canned foods will fluctuate and as a result the garden plan will reflect that fluctuation to the point where I am annually adjusting the garden plan and am planting a “few more”, a “few less”, “some more”, “lots less” or “about the same” each year. Which can then be loosely translated into how many plants I put in. It certainly does not have to be an exact science but I find that doing the inventories along with keeping a diary or my old garden plans, even a rough one, really help to direct how much of everything I plant each year.
If I am not sure how much to plant of something because I have not grown it before I typically use the rule of some, few or a bit which typically translates into a minimum of six to 12 plants. After all, I have to start somewhere. And in the end, if I have too many I can always gift it, sell it, can extra, feed it to the animals or return it to the earth from which it came.
Like the homestead/farm plan, the yard plan, the orchard plan and the garden plan, I also add another level of planning that I do when I need to decide how things will be done. With the very large collection of seeds that I have purchased or seed saved, I need to be able to keep track of them.Although this collection includes seeds for things that can be direct sown into the garden in locations identified in the garden plan, there is a number of these seeds that will need to be started indoors to ensure that I will get a harvest. I used to write everything in my calendar but over the years as I started more seeds indoors, I found that I was missing the window for starting certain plants. To alleviate this problem I started writing down everything I need to start indoors, with it's recommended time of start and when I actually started the seedling indoors. Being I have used it over a couple years, I have a reference for seed starting in the new year. My seed starting plan has saved me many a minute looking through seed packets for what needs to be started.
With the seed starting plan in place, I can gather everything I need to start the seeds. Seed starting does not need to involve anything fancy. For years, I reused old four and six cell packs I had collected from buying bedding plants over the years and anything that will hold soil and has drainage holes. But this year I decided because my cell packs were getting fewer and flimsy, I would invest in some new 2.5 inch pots made by Bootstrap Farmer. The pots and trays had come highly recommended by Roots & Refuge and although I was unable to get any from Bootstrap Farmer themselves, I was able to find them through a Canadian supplier, Valley Indoor. To say I am happy with the product would be an understatement.
Although it is possible to use garden soil that has been amended with compost to seed start my own seeds, the garden is frozen and therefore I use commercial mixes to start my seeds. I have used various organic seed starting mixes in the past but have found that being they are soilless, I spent too much time watering and found that they did not have enough soil nutrients to sustain the seedlings . Although it can be done using the seed starting mixes, this year I decided to use an organic potting mix. I am quite happy with the results. There is less potting up, less watering and less fertilizing being done.
Light is a crucial factor when starting your seeds indoors and although a sunny window, preferably south, can work, a set of grow lights can be a valuable tool when starting a number of seeds. For years I used a desk top grow light (top of shelving) to start the seeds until the sun intensity increased in my south facing windows. I did have some leggy seedlings at times but nothing that I couldn't work with. But this year with the increased number of seedlings I am starting I decided to invest in some 250 W Monios-L T8 LED Grow Light 4FT as recommended by Little Mountain Ranch in the video Indoor Grow Room | Dinah's Piglets are Here | Dad's Mac 'n Cheese. As my first seedlings were started the end of February, these lights have afforded me the opportunity to grow in my spare bedroom before moving out to my south facing windows in the living room.
But inevitably, I ran out of room in the bedroom and so I had to move out to one of the two south facing windows in my living room where I am growing peppers, ginger, turmeric indoors and have potted up dahlia's and canna lilies for spring planting.
And of course I had to dig out my old plant starting table for the other south facing window. I still have some more seeds to start for the four to six weeks before last frost date, so this will fill up in short order.
Bottom line is that seed starting can be as large or small, complex or easy, cheap or expensive, as a person wants it to be. For me, because of my primary reason for planting a garden, the lack of seedling varieties coupled with the cost of buying all these seedlings, I choose to start what I need. But that said, I could and would buy from a nursery if needed. It is a personal choice. There is nothing wrong with doing either.
The thing about gardening is that it can be done at any scale, in many fashions and with a level of complexity that can vary from easy to complex. All the garden planning that I do (some do more than this) serves only to make things a little easier during one of the busiest times of the homesteading year, keeps me organized and helps me to ensure I maximize the space I have. It works for me. The next person's garden plan and seed starting may look drastically different. But also, don't be discouraged. Give garden planning and gardening a try and remember that the bottom line is, as long as you supply plants with light, soil and water, they will grow. They want to grow.
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Thank you for joining me on the front porch of My Boreal Homestead Life as we explore this Homegrown, Homestead life, In a Modern World.
- Almanac - 20 Vegetable Garden Layout Ideas for Any Size Backyard
- The Spruce - How Much to Plant Per Person in the Vegetable Garden
- Melissa K Norris - How Much to Plant Per Person for a Year’s Worth of Food
- The Prairie Homestead - How Much to Plant Per Person in the Garden
- Roots & Refuge - Starting Seeds Indoors in 6 Easy Steps (+ Tips for Success)
- Homesteading Family - Learn How To Start Seeds Indoors (What, When, Why & How)
- Living Traditions Homestead - Your Seeds Will Never Fail with This System! EVERYONE Can Have a Green Thumb.