The best way to get started planning your vegetable garden is to make a list of all the vegetables you love to eat! Get excited to grow some of your own food and make a good plan with planting dates and spacing that is best for the particular plants you want to grow. An hour of planning is worth more than a day of hard work.
Start growing what you like, and by growing your own, you’ll find your favorite fruits and vegetables taste even better and have more intense flavors. Then, you can start to experiment with other vegetables even if you aren’t sure how much you like them. We try to grow a few new things each year and are usually glad we did. Beets, for example, we were never too fond of until we grew our own and now they have become a staple. The same goes for eggplant. They are delicious and ornamental as well; two of our favorite things in foodscaping. Don’t forget to plan on incorporating some flowers in your foodscape, to add beauty, biodiversity, and to attract beneficial insects.
We’ll start here with some basic, general recommendations, but read on for more planning and growing tips that can really ramp up production in small spaces. Before you get too far planning what vegetables to grow and when to plant them, make sure you have created an environment where they can thrive. A major focus should be establishing healthy soil with plenty of organic matter and considering how much direct sunlight your garden areas get.
After you have a list of the vegetables you’d like to grow, do a little research on each one to consider what time of year they grow best and how much space they require. USU Extension has a great website to start researching how to grow just about any fruit or vegetable. If you are using seeds, the information on the seed packet is also very useful. Pay special attention to the suggested planting times as well as the days-to-maturity information.
A simplified way to look at timing is to group vegetables into two categories: cool season versus warm season. Cool season crops include peas, spinach, lettuces, beets, broccoli, cabbage, etc. and warm season crops include tomatoes, peppers, corn, cucumber, eggplant, squash, pumpkin, etc.
A common mistake that many people make is planting all the vegetables they want to grow at the same time (in May, let’s say) without considering the best timing for the crop. In our climate, mid May is often a good time to plant tomatoes, for example, but not the best time to plant peas or spinach. Early summer is spinach’s flowering time so when planted in May, spinach tends to bolt quickly without giving you many leaves. Peas do not do well in the hot, dry weather of summer. They are much happier in the cool wetter weather of spring. We plant peas and spinach in March and by late spring we are finished harvesting them. Spinach also grows well in the cooler weather of the fall well after its flowering time has already past.
For those in Utah along the Wasatch Front and with similar climates, here’s a general example of planting dates for some of our favorite vegetables (USU has a great reference guide here):
- Early spring (March-early April): Peas, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, radish, turnip.
- Mid spring (mid March-April): Beets, lettuce, carrots, dill, parsley, potato, Swiss chard
- Late spring (after last frost, May): Beans, cucumber, summer squash, corn
- Two weeks later: Tomato, peppers, eggplant, winter squash
- Late Summer for Fall harvest (August-September): Carrots (Aug 1), lettuce, spinach, kale
Here’s a handy quick reference chart also from USU Extension:
For more introductory tips on growing vegetables, including timing, location, selecting transplants and watering, click here see our post and video. And to learn how to plan to get the most use out of your space and maximize production, continue reading here.
Frost dates & Microclimates
The second step is to more closely consider your climate conditions. Utah’s intermountain semi-arid climate poses some challenges, but overall it is an outstanding climate for growing vegetables. That said, climates vary greatly throughout the state. For readers in Utah as well as elsewhere, it is important to know when your average last frost date is, as many planting recommendations are calculated in terms of weeks before or after last frost. Our average last frost in Ogden, UT is around May 1st and our average first frost is Oct 17th, which gives us an average of 168 frost free days. That number often varies by a few weeks either way from year to year and keep in mind that cool season crops can handle some degree of frost depending on their hardiness. Another consideration is that spring tends to be cool, very variable, and wet and then summer quickly turns hot and very dry. By the beginning of June in Ogden we often have highs in the 90s, zero cloud cover, and no chance of precipitation.
When planning the location to plant different crops, it is also very useful to consider the different microclimates around your property. A full description on microclimates will require a future post, but when planing, keep in mind shadows, prevailing winds, proximity to buildings and slopes. Microclimates will change from spring to summer as well. For example, our frontyard foodscape is on the north side of our house. Because of a long shadow cast by our house and a slight north facing slope, it is the coldest, snowiest area of our property for much of the winter while our backyard enjoys lots of sun. However, by summer, the shadow from our house is very small and the entire front foodscape receives direct sunlight from dawn to dusk (12-15 hours of sun depending on the month). On the other hand, in our back foodscape our neighbors’ large deciduous tree provides a bit of late afternoon shade when leafed out. At the hottest time of year, some crops may benefit from late afternoon shade. Our asparagus and strawberry beds are in our back foodscape. Our little greenhouse is also in the backyard for a little shade in the summer and full sun in the winter.
Season Extension & Using Transplants
Many gardeners choose not to mess with season extension techniques. A lot of food can be successfully grown without them, and they take extra time and effort. That said, a few simple and relatively inexpensive techniques can make an enormous difference in the early spring and late fall when temperatures swing drastically and wind can take a toll. A simple $20 fleece floating row cover (or frost blanket) over plants can protect them and help warm soil temperatures for early harvest in spring and more production in the fall. A wall-o-water type cloche (3 for $20) can not only protect tomatoes and peppers from late spring frost but it can keep night-time soil temperatures warmer. Warm season crops don’t typically grow much in cool soils. In Utah, many people want to plant tomatoes in April, and even though they might miss late frosts and survive, they won’t really grow much until soil temperatures warm up. In our case, we like to plant some tomatoes early in April with protection from wall-o-waters or in low tunnels (mini greenhouses), but for others we wait to plant until later in May after soil temperatures have warmed on their own.
Planting from transplants as opposed to seeds can add weeks or more to your growing season. It’s also great to grow many vegetables by sowing seed directly, but many warm season crops, especially those like tomatoes and peppers, transplant well and the 5-6 week headstart really makes transplanting worth it. Growing your own transplants is a very useful skill, but one that takes some time to learn. When factoring in the time seed starting requires, transplants from local nurseries are really fairly inexpensive. Consider whether starting your own is worth the effort for your situation. We grow our own transplants for most of the vegetables and annual flowers that we grow. For us, the main disadvantages of purchasing transplants are selection and availability throughout the year. I often want to grow particular varieties and plant them as young healthy plants outside of their window of nursery availability. For example, we love to plant lettuce and spinach for cropping in the fall and winter but it’s difficult to find 3-week-old transplants in August or September.
Multicropping & Interplanting
Using transplants can often increase your harvest window considerably, which can allow for the harvesting of more than one crop in the same space over the course of the season. For example, squash grows well from seed, but having 2-3 week old squash transplants available in early June allows us to plant them after a cool season crop like peas or lettuce, adding weeks to the harvest window of both. We not only multicrop our beds in the sense of planting a new crop right when a mature one comes out, but we also have crops overlap in the same space by interplanting them. For example, we might sow bush bean seeds in between our onions and beets when they still have a couple weeks of harvesting left. Another way we interplant is by planting a fast maturing crop like radish, spinach or leaf lettuce along side a longer season crop. Radish inpterplanted with carrots, lettuce interplanted in our tomato bed, etc. The crops overlap in the space while the longer-to-harvest crop is small, which allows us to make use of the space in between them. By combining season extension, multicropping and interplanting, we actually plan two crops for almost every vegetable bed.
In general, our cool season crops are started in February, in the ground in March with protection, and then cropped until May or June. Mid May through June is our main transition period with young warm season crops in the ground and cool season crops finishing. We also plan particularly for fall harvest from late summer sowings, and even winter harvests from early fall plantings and by season extension. Here’s some examples that all have some time overlap through raising transplants and interplanting.
- Peas, spinach, lettuce before squash, peppers or beans
- Broccoli and beets before beans, okra or eggplant
- Carrots before arugula, mustard greens, Swiss chard
- Peas, radish and carrots before Bak Choy (Chinese cabbage)
- Onions before beans
- Fava (broad) beans before fall carrots
- Tomatoes before fall/winter lettuce and spinach
- Cucumber before fall/winter kale and mizuna (Japanese leafy mustard greens for salad)
For more on multicropping, see our multicropping video which features a demonstration of how to plant a squash transplant after peas and shows interplanting beans among finishing broccoli, cauliflower and beats.
Garden Planning Software
A lot of people wonder about the benefits of using a particular software or app to help plan. One web-based garden planner that I use and really like is the ‘Vegetable Garden Planner’ available through both Mother Earth News and growveg.com. It allows you to map your whole garden and has lots of information about anything you might grow including suggested timing, spacing, and it can be programmed to factor in your specific frost dates and season extension techniques. I have also done a lot of successful planning simply with paper and pencil. Drawing gardens and planning by hand can be therapeutic, especially in the middle of winter. I’m such a planning nerd that I often sketch garden designs and foodscapes by hand and then also use the online planner. My sketches help me visualize the esthetics of the design…the artistic side, and then the software helps me map it out and determine the planting schedule.
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