How to Plan a Vegetable Garden

Today I did the unthinkable and made good on one of my many New Years resolutions: I planned our 128 square foot vegetable garden a year in advance. Here’s how I did it:

Identifying Seasons
Using an Ecology Action pamphlet as my guide, Learning to Grow All Your Own Food: A One-Bed Model For Compost, Diet and Income Crops, I divided the year into three seasons. Most of you reading this blog probably have two: a cool season and a warm season. Here in Los Angeles we have:

  • warm: April-July
  • hot and dry: July-October
  • cool: October-March

Picking Planting Dates
Using the handy Digital Gardener’s Southern California Vegetable Planting Schedule I chose planting dates (in April, mid-summer and Septmber/October) for each season and marked them down on my Stella Natura calendar. I identified the vegetables I’d like to grow choosing only those veggies that have done well in the past and that we like to eat.

A planning form from Ecology Action

Deciding How Much to Plant
To decide how much to plant I rely on the charts in John Jeavons’ book  How to Grow More Vegetables. I took his three day Biointensive gardening class early last year and recommend it highly, especially for learning how to use the, at first, intimidating charts in the book. Jeavons handed out a handy planning form during the class that works with the tables in the book to help organize your garden. With experience, I also now have an idea about how many square feet of, say, lettuce it takes to keep me and Kelly in salad for a season. While not everyone likes Jeavons, I can say that my best years in our vegetable garden have been when I follow his methods (minus frequent double digging).

Planting Compost Crops
Jeavons stresses the importance of learning how to grow your own compost and fertilizer. I adapted the food/compost ratios suggested in the Ecology Action pamphlet to match our climate. Instead of growing a big winter compost crop (Ecology Action is in cooler Northern California) I decided to treat the late summer/early fall as our “winter”. Growing vegetables in the hot, dry late summer here in Southern California is, frankly, a pain in the ass and water intensive. It’s a time when I’d rather just take a break from vegetable gardening and just grow a bunch of drought tolerant sunflowers, amaranth, cowpeas etc. On the other hand, winter here is the best time to grow all those cool season crops like lettuce and arugula. Using Ecology Action’s suggestions I came up with a compost/food growing ratio:

  • spring/summer – 33.3% food, 66.7% compost
  • summer/fall 100% compost
  • fall/winter 66.7% food, 33.3% compost

The compost crops will reduce my gardening workload, build fertility and assure that there’s always something growing and no sun-baked bare soil.

Apologies for a Southern Californiacentric post, but you can use the same process to identify dates and how much seed you need for any climate. In fact, if you know of a good vegetable planting schedule for your climate please leave a link in the comments.

Update: Scott left a link for readers in Texas. The Texas A&M Extension Service has a vegetable planting guide here.

And meansoybean left a link for vegetable gardeners in Montreal which you can see here.  

Thanks to Hak, here’s Southern Nevada

Kristen sent one for all of the US based on your USDA zone here.

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21 Comments

  1. planning is in the air– yesterday, i also planned my garden for the next year. one of the best resources i have for garden planning is my garden journal. it is most helpful having a record of past temperatures, frost dates, weather events, and of logs of plant successes and failures along with harvest data. it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of planting and plant too much or not enough of what is needed.

    i wish you happy planting!

  2. It is nice to see someone else interested in Jeavons methods! Thanks for this post because it helps me in that I am just basically starting out using Jeavons methods, even though I have been ready and studying them for years.

  3. Erik, I kneel at your feet in awe and gratitude. This is exactly the step-by-step advice/nudge I needed! I took a baby step toward getting my garden more organized last fall, and this is the next step I didn’t know how to take.
    Thank you thank you thank you!

  4. this wa awesome post trying to get my feet under me for the wierd seasons we have here in socal this is a great guidelin and idea maker thanks think i’m gonna try to plan out my own this year to i always seem to be right on the wrong side of the season most stuff is written for east coast/colder climate like i have my annual tomatoes hehe

  5. I do a garden plan each year and have a slight twist on your approach. I find that breaking up the plan temporally into seasons is less effective than planning on a month monthly basis, particularly if you do a 4-season garden as I do in Northern California. The “monthly” approach allows me to maximize my space and switch out varieties as the year progresses. The plan is done in an Excel spreadsheet with the months in columns and the various garden spaces in rows. I then do a monthly plan for what plant occupies any particular place over the course of the year. For example, I grow a cold tolerant lettuce called Forellenschluss in one area in the spring and early summer months, but then switch that space over to a planting of heat tolerant lettuce such as Jericho, and then switch it back again in the Fall. Likewise, I find that it’s better for me to start my “summer veggies” at different times. I put in tomatoes in May, but wait till June to plant Winter Squash (100-110 day maturity) since I want to harvest squash in October. In April/May, I use the space where the winter squash will be growing to plant quick maturing varieties like radishes etc. etc.

  6. Good for you. I did the same thing but mine didn’t look as pretty and organized as you. I’m glad you liked Jeavons talk. I went to one of his a couple years ago and both my friend and I left feeling suicidal. We didn’t get any useful information about planting. Just heard about how we as a planet are screwed.

  7. Green Bean, I went to a three day class. The first day was all about how we are screwed. I was put off by it during the class thinking that he was preaching to the converted and wasting time that could be spent on gardening techniques. But later I had second thoughts about my initial impression. For me personally it was good to be reminded that we may not be able to buy soil amendments forever. That being said, you’re not alone–the person I went with had the same reaction you did.

  8. I’ll have to find out more about growing compost plants – that’s interesting. I usually have cover crops that I put in (by seed) after harvesting, which are then dug in; or maybe I’ve been inadvertently growing compost crops as I pull them out and compost them with other garden refuse, kitchen scraps and chopped leaves. I think I would probably cry if I went to one of Jeavons classes…

  9. @ Greenbean and Homegrown…. had the same reaction when Jeavons spoke here in S. Oregon a few years back. We paid him to speak, and I suggested that next time we just get the Grim Reaper to address our group. However, I learned a great deal. But no, I don’t double dig every damn thing over and over and over….

  10. @ Greenbean and Homegrown…. had the same reaction when Jeavons spoke here in S. Oregon a few years back. We paid him to speak, and I suggested that next time we just get the Grim Reaper to address our group. However, I learned a great deal. But no, I don’t double dig every damn thing over and over and over….

  11. Hey don’t apologize for being SoCal Centric…I love when you talk about the things you do relative to the LA climate because I live there too and it helps me a lot :) Thanks!

  12. “Home Garden” – iPhone Home Vegetable Garden app v 1.4 just released through App Store.

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  14. I came across your great blog. I’ve taken the exact same picture of my table with all the books spread out when trying to plan my garden. It was just that experience a couple years ago that caused me to start designing a digital solution. Today SmartGardener.com has been launched just over a year. We continue to make improvements and value user input! Please check it out and let me know if it solves some of your issues.

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