Planning Your Garden, Part I: Why?
Updated: Mar 24, 2021
Although the darkness of winter still has a firm hold on northern gardens, spring will be upon us before we know it. Now is the time to begin planning the upcoming garden. A successful growing season and an abundant harvest begin long before the ground has begun to thaw. Given the uncertain world in which we live, it is more important than ever to be investing in sustainable, independent living. Any garden, whether big or small, is a step toward resilience in turbulent times. To make the most of the coming growing season, you need to ask yourself questions about the land on which you live, the habits of the plants you will be growing, and what you want to gain from your harvest this year.
When, Where, and Why?
These three questions will help you narrow down the decisions that you need to make as you prepare for this year's garden. However, they are best answered in reverse order. The "Why?" question is the foundation for all of the choices that you will make as you order seeds, plan garden space, etc. What is your goal for this year's garden?
Many people have been inspired in the past year to connect with their food on a personal level. In some cases this has been founded on a desire to be more independent from an unexpectedly fragile supply chain. For others it is out of a longing to be rooted and engaged with creation in an increasingly transitory world. Knowing why you want to grow your garden this year will help you focus your energy in the right places.
Many people are looking for new sources of connection, centeredness, and peace in their lives right now. Some are taking this opportunity to reconnect with creation and the food that they eat. If your goal for gardening this year is to reconnect, here are a few guidelines to get you started:
Focus on foods that you will actually eat. While radishes are quick and easy to grow, they will be of little meaning to you or your family if you don't actually like them. Think through what crops from the garden you instinctively choose at the grocery or farmer's markets and select varieties that are appropriate for your area.
Budget your energy. If you are primarily interested in the experience of gardening and not the volume of produce, budget your energy toward crops that interest you most. Some plants--like lettuce, peas, and herbs--will require little effort beyond planting and watering. Others--like potatoes, squashes, or garlic--require more forethought, labor, or storage space. Choose what you want to grow based on how much effort you want to put into your garden.
Experience the seasons. Choose one or two things to grow in each of the main growing seasons. For example, grow early lettuce and peas in the spring, tomatoes and zucchini in the summer, kale and radishes in the fall.
If you are one of the many who are taking up gardening in response to the uncertain times in which we live, you are most likely interested in replacing or supplementing resources you depend upon from the supply chain. This will focus your approach to gardening on the most important and productive crops. Here are some things to think about:
Focus on volume. If you are seeking to replace a significant portion of your purchased food with something you can grow on your own, choose crops that are highly productive. We measure productivity by weight in our homestead garden. The two vegetable crops that consistently produce the most food by weight are potatoes and squash. Tomatoes, onions, and cabbages also have an excellent return on investment.
Select for efficiency. Some crops--like sweet corn--may produce a lot of food at once, but will provide relatively little nutrition for the amount of effort they take. Invest your energy in foods that are nutrient dense and take a reasonable amount of effort. Choose crops that can be stored or processed with the skills you already have.
See what works. If you are taking a step toward independence from the supply chain, you will have to experiment to see what grows well, what you enjoy, and what you actually use in the kitchen when harvest comes. This process will take experimentation and a willingness to adapt.
There is a fast-growing minority of the population that is on a quest for long-term resilience. We seek more than freedom from the fragility of the supply chain. We are working toward self-sufficiency in many areas of our lives. This means a focus on every area of our resources and needs. Our homestead has not achieved hard-core, store-shunning independence (we like pineapple and chocolate too much for that!), but we are planning for as much independence as we can reasonably achieve for this year and the years ahead. If you're on this journey with us, here are things we've learned:
Balance your nutrition. If you want to Grow Your Food, choose nutrient-dense foods that can be eaten throughout the growing season (cucumbers, tomatoes, beans) or can be stored for the "hunger gap" of late winter (potatoes, beets, squash). Choose a balance of fresh greens, starches, etc. that will meet your nutritional needs--you can't eat just lettuce. Plan for variety that flows with the seasons and makes the most of what is available with as little waste as possible.
Work up slowly. You most likely aren't going to be able to launch into 100% self-sufficiency in one year (or perhaps even five). Start with what is achievable for you given the space you have available, other demands on your time, etc. Be willing to try things and adapt them. Be willing to try things and scrap them! Call it education. Be willing to do what works.
Think long term. Much of what we eat on the homestead is not a crop from one year. Yes, we live on beets, cabbages, and potatoes that are grown each season. But we also have berries from three-year-old bushes, apples from trees planted five years back, walnuts from trees that have been here longer that we have, and so on. There's no better time than today to start long-term garden investments.
If you know why you are gardening, it will help you prepare for the year ahead, focusing your mind and heart on what is most important in the coming season.