Garden Planning

It’s never too early to start planning the garden.

It’s late February and there’s still at least 2 ft of snow on the ground. It feels early, but yesterday I started planning our spring garden. We have a pretty short growing season here (USDA Zone 5), so we have to begin now. I start seedlings indoors in starter trays then transplant them into the greenhouse once the “serious freezing” has passed. That could be anywhere from late March to mid-April. Once summer begins, I transplant some of those greenhouse starters into the field.

Starter Tray

Our farm is 60 acres; the land is fenced and cross-fenced (meaning divided into separate areas). We utilize about 10 acres, so far, for our home, barn, and gardens. Last year we planted a small garden about 10′ x 10′ in the field. It was only our second summer (and our first garden here) so much of what we tried was experimental. It’s a good thing, too, because we had a few surprises.

Early summer 2021

In June I transplanted some squash, arugula and a few herbs from the greenhouse into the field. Later that same night, it snowed. No joke, it snowed in JUNE. Obviously, the plants all froze and died. So, as you see, we’re still learning about our mountain and its little surprises.

A week or so later, I planted more squash transplants, along with corn, potatoes, arugula, pumpkins, cucumbers and carrots in the field. It was wonderful to watch our little garden take off! Unfortunately, as the summer wore on, the deer picked these off at their leisure. And what the deer didn’t eat, the grasshoppers devoured.

Garden before the deer and grasshoppers.

This spring, we’ll build a second greenhouse and add deer fencing around a 150′ x 150′ garden area. That should help. I’m still not sure what to do about the plague of grasshoppers. Suggestions, anyone? Last summer, we adopted our German Shepherd puppy, Henry. He absolutely loved chasing and eating all the grasshoppers he could catch, but I don’t think that’s a long-term solution.

Henry, 2021

So, this year I’m planning for two greenhouses and a much larger garden. I’m using companion planting for the greenhouses (for instance, onions and carrots love each other; radishes and turnips don’t like each other at all). They say that planting “friends” together increases the yield. We’ll see. As for the field, I’ve decided to try a 4-square garden design. The most concise explanation I have found regarding this system is here on Better Hens and Gardens.

Basically, crops are divided into four categories:

  • Legumes/Peas: These are considered soil amenders because they add nitrogen into the soil.
  • Brassica (Greens): These are heavy-feeders. They take a lot of nitrogen out of the soil.
  • Fruits: These are considered middle-feeders. They need less nitrogen (in fact, if they have too much nitrogen, they will produce more leaves than fruit). They need potassium.
  • Roots: These are considered light-feeders because they need even less nitrogen than fruits. They need heavy mulching.

The theory is by planting crops according to these four categories and rotating them annually, you can naturally provide what each crop needs without artificial fertilizer. The first cycle (the legumes) leaves behind what the next year’s crop needs, and so on. They rotate thusly:

Pinterest Buzzfeed illustration

As always, each of us must adjust the method to our circumstance. Our short season is always a factor, as is what we actually eat. After last year’s garden, I realized that I planted far more tomatoes than we could ever eat. I also planted way more eggplant than we ever wanted to eat. Additionally, it’s rare that John or I ever eat peas or beans, so I think instead of planting a section of legumes, we’ll plant soybeans or alfalfa. Alfalfa and soybeans have the same effect as legumes; they add nitrogen to the soil. Instead of harvesting it, we’ll till it under in the fall for the nitrogen. That way, that section will be ready for our brassica/greens when we rotate in 2023. That’s the plan (experimenting, remember?).

Here’s an aside (and a red flag): As of now, Feb. 2022, world-wide production of nitrogen fertilizer is down so the production cost is skyrocketing for large-scale farms who use nitrogen fertilizer to amend their soil. As a result, many corn farmers are switching to soybean production. This will mean a severe reduction in the amount of available corn in the spring/summer. Just think how many food items use corn in their production… For you and me, this will mean unavailability or sky-high pricing for these items. Prepare accordingly.

I realize a lot of people don’t see the benefit of growing for yourself what you could easily get at a store for much less effort, but perhaps we take this ease for granted at our own peril. Only two hundred years ago (two generations), most of our families were growing their own food. They grew it or they starved. My grandfather was the first in his family to leave the farm for the “stability” of working in a textile mill… Oh, how quickly that stability disappeared! You, too, probably recognize the wisdom of creating your own food security or you wouldn’t be here so…I digress.

No matter where or how you garden, the most important thing you can do is get started. Just get your hands in the dirt and experiment. Even growing a tomato plant in a pot on your patio is a start and offers a lesson to be learned. And once you’ve started, never stop learning.

“No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden…But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

Thomas Jefferson

Despite never consciously planning to own a farm, John and I have always had gardens everywhere we’ve lived together, even as renters. Our first garden was a tiny raised bed in a very small greenspace behind our duplex in Portland.

This garden taught us how fast arugula can go to seed, that red lettuce gets bitter quickly in summer, and that co-workers like free, fresh tomatoes.

Our next garden was a little bit larger, but not by much. It was behind a high school football field.

This garden taught us that Home Depot rental tillers are crap.

Later, when we bought our first house together, we grew another garden. Our neighbors (who had 10′ fencing around their garden plot) thought we were crazy for planting our garden with no fencing protection from deer, but John solved the deer issue with motion-activated sprinklers. They sounded like mini-AK47s, so the water and the sound scared the deer off every time.

This garden taught us that, by planting close on the south-side of our house, we could extend our growing season using the warmth reflected off the house.

Meanwhile, as we wait for the snow to melt and my seedlings to bud, we’re enjoying a few fresh greens from our experimental window-box in the kitchen. Back in October, I planted Brussel sprouts, baby spinach, arugula, red leaf lettuce, a pepper plant, basil and parsley. From this, I’ve learned that if I plant our window-box with all leafy greens as early as next September (like spinach and lettuce), we should have enough fresh greens for salads all winter long.

South-facing kitchen window
After three months, the peppers are just starting to grow!

Add that to the many canned tomatoes, peppers, parsnips and other veggies from last year, as well as the dried eggplants and onions, canned meats and assorted other storables, and we barely need to go to town at all through the winter.

That’s our farm in the middle. It’s a long way to the store… especially on a snowmobile.

Each year, I’m becoming more purposeful with my gardens. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. I guess that could be intimidating if it weren’t also so rewarding. For instance, did you know that even a tiny seedling smells like that which it is becoming? The tiniest bud of a tomato plant smells the same as a grown tomato; a miniscule basil bud smells like a whole basil leaf. That realization alone offers a humbling lesson that each whole life is contained within the smallest fraction of that life. Kind of like a hologram whose whole image exists within each fractal of itself. Who knew gardening could be so esoteric?

“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee. One clover, and a bee, and revery. The revery alone will do, if bees are few.”

Emily Dickenson
Last year’s greenhouse crop in full swing (that’s fake grass down the center, if you were wondering. It’s much nicer on my knees and I’m not getting any younger).

Finally, here’s a peek at my garden plans for the coming season.

Way fewer eggplants and tomatoes than last year!
Leaving room for transplants into the field, and for tea and cut flowers. I’ll transplant the berries and rhubarb into the field in 2023, when they’ve become hardy.
Perennials located in the far top row (these do not rotate); Top left square, Legumes (or cover crop); Top right, Roots; Bottom right, Fruits; Bottom left, Greens.

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