Part 2: How?
So last time, I discussed the environmental importance of gardening – i.e., growing food and other useful, as opposed to strictly ornamental, crops – and I mentioned that ya gotta have a plan.
When I was in high school, I had a smallish (around 250 square feet) garden in the back yard. Back then, before the days of computers, I labored for hours with my graph paper, plant lists, and seed catalogs to come up with a garden plan every year. It was always to scale and I used a circle template to indicate relative plant sizes. I wanted to cram as much stuff as possible into my tiny space.
In more recent years, when I resumed serious gardening on a much larger plot, I took basically the same approach – only now I use the computer, as you will soon see. It worked relatively well – planning mostly for the major crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, and such. Problem is, I would read magazine articles and books that talked about succession planting and season extension and other more sophisticated gardening techniques, but I never seemed to really get a handle on it. I’d plant my peas in early spring, they’d be done by mid-July at the latest, and then what? What could follow? Or I’d have plans for a late planting of something but when the time came, there was a producing crop in that spot that hadn’t quite finished yet. In other words, my “plan” was only superficial; I hadn’t considered the dimension of time very carefully.
So, this year, I resolved to finally try and figure this out once and for all. How much succession planting can you really do in a given garden bed, with a given “main” crop? Is it possible to start in late March and be eating from the garden until Christmas when your frost-free window is only 129 days?
The first step was to figure out planting dates for all the vegetables I was interested in growing. The tough part here is that most books (and seed packets) are pretty vague on this, because their authors don’t know where you and I garden. So they have to generalize, telling us to plant “as early as the soil can be worked” or “in late spring”, or “after all danger of frost has passed”. Well, that gives you a ballpark guesstimate, but not the sort of precision you really need to maximize production in whatever space you have.
Fortunately, I’d recently bought a book, The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour, that handled the planting advice a little differently. The author tells us when to plant relative to spring and fall frost-free dates. If you know those dates for your garden, you can easily figure out the rest. So, instead of simply advising us to plant peas as early as the soil can be worked, she pinpoints that window by telling us to plant them 5 to 6 weeks before the last spring frost, which in my area now averages May 21. For me, that translates to between April 9 and April 16 or, to generalize a bit more: early April.
To determine the latest planting you can do, she advises that a fall crop of peas should be sown 10 to 12 weeks before my average date of first fall frost (October 1). That means in my garden, late peas need to be in the ground between July 9 and July 23.
Planting & Harvesting Windows, Arranged Alphabetically by Vegetable
So, The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener‘s advice seemed like a very good starting point. I went through the book, vegetable-by-vegetable, and mapped out planting dates and windows and plotting the information in a spreadsheet. As you can see below, I laid out the 12 months, allowing 4 columns per month and color-coded the planting windows for seed started indoors, planted under protection, and in the open garden. I also allowed a reasonable harvest window for each crop. As I did this, I compared it to what I already knew from previous gardening experience. This resulted in a large, very detailed spreadsheet. Here’s a section to give you an idea:
Planting & Harvesting Windows, Arranged by Date
The next step was to copy this sheet and begin rearranging the rows in order by date, instead of by vegetable. In other words I started with the earliest dates, finding and moving each row so that everything that could be planted out in the garden on, say, March 12 was listed in alphabetical order. If succession planting of a given vegetable was recommended every two weeks, then I duplicated that veggie and inserted it under the appropriate dates. So, for example, lettuce has three spring planting dates: March 12, March 26, and April 9 and so it appears three times in the list aligned with those dates. “In the ground” dates and harvest windows were calculated and “mapped” for each:
Main Crops + Potential Succession Crop Candidates
Stay with me here! A third spreadsheet was then created by copying. In this one, I’d list a main crop like paste tomatoes first. Then, based on the color-coded date map for that crop, I’d scroll through the previous “crop by date” list and copy any other early or late crop whose “map” indicated its dates would fit before or after that main crop. So for the Amish Paste Tomatoes I came up with a list like this:
Final Selections: Main Crops + Succession Plantings
And finally, I created a fourth page in my spreadsheet. On this one, I made my selections of crops for each main crop bed and diagrammed them. Please note that these are not to-scale diagrams of the beds. They’re roughly laid out by time – earliest crops at the top of the top of the “bed box”, latest toward the bottom. And of course, the planting season for that bed progresses from left to right by week and month as well. Again, here’s the diagram for the paste tomatoes:
I’ve decided that I will plant my paste tomatoes on the traditional date (May31/June 1), allowing for carrots, mache, spinach and salad turnips as preceding crops. Planting in early May, even with row cover or other protection just seems too risky to me. I’d rather have later tomatoes than no tomatoes at all. This planting date means my tomatoes will be occupying their beds pretty much until the first frost date of October 1. At that point, I will have been making fall/winter plantings in the cold frame since late August, so the tomato beds will be done for the season with no additional succession plantings.
I won’t kid you; all this geekiness was a lot of work. It also requires you to have a basic knowledge – impossible to teach in a blog post, or even several – of Excel in order to create the spreadsheets: how to color a cell; “merge and center”, how to cut/copy and paste/insert rows and columns and how to create simple formulas. But if you’re reasonably computer literate, you should be able to figure out the basics of Excel on your own. That’s what I did; I just kept playing with it until I figured out how to make it do what I needed.
The handiest thing about doing all this in Excel is that it made date calculation automatic. Once a column is designated as “date” (I used “short date), it’s a simple matter of inserting a formula that tells Excel to use a certain date (like May 21, my date of last spring frost) and add or subtract a given number (of days, like “days to maturity”). Excel then gives you the new date which can be plotted in the appropriate cells under the correct months.
Ultimately, I didn’t mind investing the time in all this because I know I’ll only have to do it once. I now have these spreadsheets forever (backed up!) and can modify them when and if needed. Now I won’t have to reinvent the wheel every spring; I can just come back to these anytime I need to make adjustments and go from there.
If you need similar information for your garden, you may not have to create such elaborate charts. Maybe your garden is simpler or maybe you’re just better at keeping this stuff straight in your head. However, as an artist, I need visuals. It’s probably a left brain/right brain thing; I love seeing my planting time frames all mapped out with any conflicts clearly visible. I feel like this was a huge leap forward and that I now “own” this information, at least for my little patch of the planet. I also expect it will save me enormous amounts of time in the garden every year.
I hope all this makes some sense. It can be very difficult to explain thought processes like these in a blog post that won’t put you, dear reader, to sleep. If – after studying the spreadsheet images – you have questions, please ask by leaving a comment so others can learn as well!
Coming soon in part 3: The final step of a formal garden layout – to scale.