Crop planning, what to plant

If your garden is to realize its full potential for productivity you will need to get organized, so you know what to plant, when it should be done and where to do it.

Planning the garden starts with deciding what crops you want to grow, which varieties, how much of each, how much seed to buy, when to start seeds (indoors and outdoors), when to prick out and transplant, where to put them and more. This is probably the most complicated (the only complicated) part of growing vegetables, as you have to find out when to plant, decide where to plant and then you have to make sure you plant at the right time.

Planning the coming seasons crops can be a lot of fun and is the kind of gardening you can do in midwinter, even when the garden is deep in snow. This paper garden may soon be altered by reality, but you will have learned from the exercise.

The first year in the garden is the most difficult to plan for, because you have to start everything anew. In future years you don’t have to make a totally new plan, but merely refine previous ones, moving things around and adding and subtracting as necessary. You will also have a better idea of when to plant and how well the crops are likely to grow.

The easiest way to start planning is to ask an experienced gardening neighbor, a local farmer or a cooperative extension office. They will be able to give you the specialized local advice you need, on what crops and varieties do well in your area, when to plant them, what problems to look out for and more. Whatever crops are grown commercially in an area tend to be those that are easiest to grow and most productive.

Step by step planning

You might start by thinking about what you are trying to achieve with your garden. Do you want to grow a wide variety of crops to gain experience? Do you want to save money and grow the crops you spend most on? Do you want to grow the most delicious varieties of the most delicious crops. Do you want to produce as much of your own food as possible?

What crops?

What you like: The first stage in planning the garden is deciding what to grow, and the most obvious answer is whatever you like to eat. Be sure to concentrate on crops you will actually use. There’s nothing wrong with being adventurous, but don’t fill up your garden with taro, mashua, skirret and seakale to the exclusion of the foods you eat every day.

Climate: Your list of the crops you like to eat will be altered by your climate and what grows well in your area. Each crop has its own preferred growing conditions, depending upon where it originated. Though temperature is the most obvious aspect of this (if it’s too hot or cold a plant won’t work), humidity and rainfall  are also important.

Obviously you must also choose crops that are appropriate for the season. Grow plants when they are easiest to grow, which means at their optimal time.

If a crop proves too difficult for the conditions (temperature, pests, bolting) then look for a substitute that is easier. Don’t struggle to grow heat hating spinach in summer when you could have heat loving amaranth grow itself. Grow kale instead of cabbage, shallot or leek instead of onion. Of course you shouldn’t try to grow a warm weather crop if it is too cold either.

Day length: Day length is an issue for some crops (notably onions). These bulb up (or flower or produce tubers) in response to certain day length days and won’t do this (or set fruit) if the day length is too long. In such cases you will need to choose varieties that are appropriate for your latitude.

Varieties: Of course you have to choose varieties that will be able to mature in your area. Don’t plant a tomato  that needs 95 warm days if you only get 80 such days, all you will get is a lot of green fruit and disappointment. This is particularly important with late plantings. See Seeds for more on this.

Convenience: Consider how much time you want to devote to the garden. Some crops thrive on neglect, while others wilt and die if you look at them with anything less than adoration. If you don’t have much time to spare it is probably a good idea to concentrate on the more independent crops.

How much to plant

Once you’ve decided which crops you want, you must decide how much of each you will need (whether for your own consumption, giving away, sale or to feed to local wildlife). If you are growing just to supplement your diet with better tasting and more nutritious foods, you won’t have to plant tons of everything, you won’t need it (unless you are planning to preserve a lot for winter, or give it away). For many crops you will only need 6 or 8 plants at one time. Raising plants from seed takes some work, so don’t waste time and effort on growing more plants than you can use.

I like to plant quite a few varieties, to get more diversity and interest. This means I don’t usually plant many seeds of any one variety.

If you are aiming for any kind of self-sufficiency then you will be creating a larger and more ambitious garden. In this case you will probably want to concentrate on growing the most nutritious and productive crops. These include the high calorie or high protein crops, such as potatoes, beans and field corn. Large plantings of these main crops would be supplemented with other crops that are especially tasty or easy to grow. Your garden won’t keep you alive if your main crops are tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce.

To feed a family of four year round will require a lot of plants and you will need to grow crops in quantity. Obviously the exact numbers will depend upon many factors, but you might start with 1000 bean, 1000 carrot, 100 garlic, 200 lettuce, 400 onion, 25 pepper, 300 potato, 25 squash and 50 tomato plants. Growing this many plants requires quite a bit of organization.

How many seeds (or transplants or bulbs) you plant at one time will depend upon the crop. In some cases (garlic, dry bean) you will plant your whole crop at one time. In some you may plant several times (such as squash or potatoes), and some you might plants a few at a time (radish or lettuce).

How many seeds do you need?

Once you know how many plants you require, you can figure out how many seeds you will need. A seed packet can potentially contain a lot of plants and there is no point producing more plants than you can use.

When growing transplants, you will normally plant 2 – 3 seeds for each plant you need, then you can pick the very best for transplanting. You should also expect to have some losses when planting out, perhaps 10 – 20%.

With direct sown crops, where risks from pests and weather are greater, you should plan on sowing 4 seeds for every plant you need.

As you get more experienced you will learn which crops have the highest losses (when a crop has a serious pest in your area) and which are relatively problem free. In this way you may well be able to reduce the number of seeds sown even further.

A sowing list

Start your sowing list by writing down the number of plants of each crop you want to grow (whether for a few treats, food for the growing season, or to feed your family for the whole year). Subdivide this into varieties as you select them. This will help you to know how many seeds to order and transplants to start.  

Once you know how many plants you need, you can determine how much square footage of bed you must devote to each crop. You will then know how much space is required in total and if necessary you can adjust the number of plants, to match the space you have available.  

Of course all crops aren’t in the ground at the same time, or for the same length of time. As soon as some are removed you can plant others. Early potatoes might give way to late beans, peas may make way for zucchini. This enables you to use the same space for several crops during the course of a growing season.  

Sow or transplant?

You will also have to decide which crops you need to start inside and which you will direct sow.

Generally it’s more work to raise transplants inside, but you get crops earlier than by direct sowing.

In areas with shorter growing seasons you often have to use transplants, if you are to have a long enough harvest season (or even harvest at all in some cases). Direct sowing is easier, but takes longer.

If you only need 3 or 4 plants you may choose to use transplants, whereas if you need 200 you will be more inclined to direct sow, simply because the cost is much less.

Plants that produce a small amount of food each (such as beans or peas) will usually be direct sown. As will plants that grow very rapidly (these may get root bound quickly inside) as you don’t gain a lot from starting them inside.

Transplants are commonly used when the weather is unpredictable, as they give you more control.

Direct sow   Transplant   Either  
Beans   Celery   Basil  
Beet   Eggplant   Broccoli  
Carrot   Leek   Cabbage  
Radish   Melon   Cilantro  
Spinach   Okra   Cucumber  
Parsley   Onions   Kale  
Peas   Peppers   Lettuce  
  Corn Tomatoes   Squash  

Crops for different situations

Easiest crops

Bean, beet, chard, corn, cucumber, kale, lettuce, onion, squash.

Fastest growing crops (60 days or less)

Lettuce, mizuna, mustards, radish, shungiku, spinach, komatsuna.

Most valuable crops

Beans (bush and pole), corn, cucumber, peppers, strawberry, summer squash, tomato

Most space efficient crops

Beet, carrot, garlic, leaf lettuce, onion, radish, spinach .

Most efficient crops (in all respects) Beans (pole), beets (root and top), lettuce  (leaf), onion (bunching), snap peas, potato, salad mix, summer squash, tomato  (trellis), turnip (root and top).

Most nutritious crops

Broccoli, dry beans, kale and collards, parsnip, potato, soybean, sweet potato, turnip.

Crops for moist soil

Celery, cucumber, endive, lettuce, peas, radish, spinach, squash, turnip

Hardiest crops

Brussels sprout, cabbage, celeriac, chicory, corn salad, fava bean, garlic, Hamburg parsley, Jerusalem artichoke, kale, land cress, leek, parsnip, rutabaga.

Heat tolerant crops

Amaranth, Malabar spinach, sweet potato, watermelon.

Shade tolerant crops

Beet, Brussels sprout, cabbage, chard, Chinese greens, dill, kale, lettuce, onions, parsley, spinach .

Drought tolerant crops

Beans, corn, hot peppers, melons, tomatoes

Crops for poor soil

Arugala, beans, beet, carrot, chard, chicory, collards, cowpea, endive, escarole, fava bean, kale, parsnip, pea, turnip greens.

Crops for average soil

Artichoke, basil, cilantro, cabbage, corn, cucumber, eggplant, garlic, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustards, okra, onion, potato, rutabaga, spinach, summer squash, tomato, turnip root, watermelon, winter squash.

Crops for rich soil

Asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprout, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, celery, celeriac, leek, melon, peppers.

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