Garden Q + A: How Do You Plot + Plan Your Garden?

Garden Q + A: How Do You Plot + Plan Your Garden?

Hello, fellow gardeners! I am really excited to share this new series with you called Garden Q+A. I mean, that's fairly self explanatory, right? I have been welcoming in a stream of questions for the past year, which has been awesome, and I love being able to talk with you all one on one on my gardening experience (it's still not much - I try really hard not to preach because I am not an expert!), my advice, and my opinions on how to combat troubleshooting when it comes to growing plants. Over the past autumn, I received my training in becoming a Master Gardener, which is basically just an elevated title for an obsessed home gardener! It was so fun to receive more information there that I can share here with you and help out within the community. 

Today's question comes from Instagram. He asks:

"What is your process when deciding which types of plants to grow, plotting how the garden will look, and determining the size?"

The short answer: it depends entirely upon the land that you own and your own personal preferences. I know, that's kind of an easy out for me. But it's true. Everyone's yard, growing space, food preferences, and family size is different. I felt like this question makes a great start as I believe many of you are wondering that same thing. How and where do I even begin?! It's probably my most frequently asked garden question, and the answer can range anywhere from plotting your garden to choosing the types of vegetables you want to grow. I am going to try to break it down in more general terms!


  1. Sunlight:  Look for the sun! Where in your yard do you get the most sunlight? When it comes to growing vegetables, in general, they need somewhere between 8 to 10 hours of sunlight to be successful. I feel like you can get away with 6 hours of sun as well. One of the best lessons I learned while taking my Master Gardener classes was that most people want to go against what the back of the seed packet says. Pay attention to the type of plant you are planting and what it likes! For instance, let's say you buy a hosta and decide to plant it near your home in full sun. You watch it die and wonder why it's not doing well. What you forgot to look into was whether hostas prefer sun or shade... they prefer shade! Read the seed package or plant tag to determine where they'll fit best in your plot. If you don't have much sun you may be stuck to growing root vegetables, leafy greens, and herbs. Fruiting crops like tomatoes, melons, and squash need lots of sunlight!
  2. Soil:  Will your garden be planted in-ground or in raised beds? Why is this important? It can change a lot about the layout and design of your garden not to mention how much you'll be able to grow. Personally, I like planting in the ground. I don't have to water as much. We had two raised beds last year because there were electric lines running through a portion of our garden. I thought that my plants grew much better in the soil than in the raised bed, but that's not always the case for everyone. We have great soil here in eastern Iowa! Depending upon where you live, you may not have ideal soil. In that case, you can either amend the soil you do have or create a raised bed environment. With raised beds, you control what the soil is made of along with how big the space is, which is usually a bit more limited than in the ground. What you choose should also be dictated by your climate! If you have dry and hot summers, in ground is probably a better choice for you as raised beds will quickly dry up and overheat the roots. You can always add raised beds later!
  3. Proximity:  How far away is your plot from your house? What about the utility area where you keep your tools and the compost pile? A good organic garden is nearby a healthy compost pile! Placing your garden closer to your home, in a place where you can see it from the window, is a beneficial choice. When you cannot see your garden from the house, unseen problems can arise like pests, weeds, lack of water, and lack of inspiration. A garden close to the house can be viewed and admired, and it gives you the courage to get back out there and get some work done! I loved looking onto our kitchen garden from the kitchen window. I was consistently heading out to pick things while I was cooking! That's the entire point. Also make sure that your tools are nearby. 
  4. Aesthetics:  This I feel is a personal touch. There are many ways you can make a garden aesthetically pleasing, and the way you plant your vegetables is simply one. If you plan to plant in a more organized manner, like in raised beds or in organized tiny plots (much like we did last year), then I highly suggest looking deeper into companion planting! This is a great way to keep pests away - it's called IPM (integrated pest management). Companion planting, or planting two different types of plants nearby that help each other positively, is a way of preventing insect pests to enter the garden... which inhibits your use of pesticides! Whatever you choose, fancy or natural or formal or asymmetrical, create a space that you enjoy being in!

Determining Size

How many people do you plan to feed? For most first time gardeners, your plant yield is kind of a mind numbing factor. You don't even know how much a single plant can produce let alone how much of it you will eat! Last year, I just kind of winged it. Honestly! I over planted plenty of vegetables. We started off with over 14 kale plants when we really only needed two, at most. Kale, if healthy, will produce for the entire season. At least, mine did! Some will tell you plant a set in spring and another set in autumn. I just never let me kale go to flower since I was picking it consistently! We are feeding a family of four that mostly eats plants. That means we'll need a moderate amount of space, it could be small, and I feel at least 1-2 of each type of plant we hope to grow. That would be at the bare minimum! Are there plants that you would like to preserve like canning tomatoes or freezing winter squash? Plant a couple extra so that you can preserve them for over winter. 

Size also matters with your production. Here's a quick glance at how many people you can feed within certain sized plot:

  • 200-400 square feet:  This is for a beginning gardener who wants try a couple of crops and east from plants during peak harvests. You may have to switch out crops here during the season, if you want it to be highly productive. It can feed 1-4 people throughout the seasons and allow for preservation as well.
  • 400-800 square feet:  You're stepping it up from the easy garden! This plot can feed anywhere from 2-6 people and provide storage for the autumn and winter months. 
  • 800-1,000 square feet:  You can feed 4-8 people with this size garden, especially if you are a lover of eating mostly plants! Our first garden was 1,300 square feet. 
  • 1,500 - 2,000 square feet:  This is a great step up if you have less than 8 people in your family to provide extra food to friends and neighbors and have a lot of winter storage. If you have more than 8 people, you'll most likely simply be eating fresh from a garden of this size.

Choosing Plants

What do you like to eat? This is the first question any home gardener should ask. Do you want more salads in your life? Try planting lots of lettuce varieties and healthy greens like kale, arugula, and spinach. Hoping to can tomatoes like crazy? Find a variety that works best for canning like Romas or Amish Paste. What are you consistently purchasing from the grocery store? Peppers? Cucumbers? Potatoes? If you can find it in the produce section of your local grocery store, you can probably try planting it! I think looking at your weekly grocery list is a great place to start when it comes to picking what you should grow.

It can be a little overwhelming stopping at the seed supply store and seeing all of the different varieties and strange vegetables that you are curious about but have never eaten. Keep it simple at first! See a potato that looks like something you would buy from the grocer? Plant that. You're going to find that it tastes a million times better than anything you would purchase from a big box store. If you're confused about varieties, take a look at what the supplier recommends using the plants for or the taste of the produce. You may find something new that sounds appetizing! Want to try planting a new vegetable that you've never eaten? If this is your first year, then just start with one or two to try. If you plant too many things that you may not like, you'll be wasting space and most likely not eating consistently our of your garden. Branch out, but leave room for your favorites!

Is there anything that you think I missed? Let me know in the comments! I would love to help you out.

xoxo Kayla

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