Seed catalogs are arriving. So now is the perfect time for planning what to plant in your outdoor garden. Right?
I used to think so until I realized that gardening isn’t like placing an order on Amazon. You can’t pick the plants you want and install them like you would a power cord or an electronic device.
Gardening requires continuous dynamic planning in response to information communicated by your garden environment and your evolving needs and experience level.
Of course, if you don’t already have gardening experience where you live, you need to start somewhere. So, rather than get wrapped up in the whole chicken or egg dilemma…
Don’t plan a garden. Instead, take a flying leap!
The first time I tried trapeze, I could barely hold on. After some practice, I could do a flip off the swinging bar and fall into the net. With a little more practice, I could flip and release at the right moment so someone could catch me. I had no expectation of suddenly becoming a trapeze artist, I just wanted to do something exciting.
That’s what gardening should be like. You have to be willing to take a flying leap and have some fun if you want to eventually become skilled.
Get Started Gardening
Get started using any beginner garden bed making formula (e.g. square foot, raised bed, sheet mulching, straw bales, etc.). Almost anything 6 inches deep (filled with growing medium that’s not fill dirt, cheap topsoil, or your unamended native soil) will work.
Set it up in a mostly flat, dry, full sun, low wind location that’s not on top of a power line or far from your water source.
When it warms up, visit your local nursery for starter plants. Plant them according to the provided instructions. Do your best to keep them healthy. Buy more plants as needed to keep your bed full.
Spend time near your garden bed to pick up all sorts of subliminal and observed information about the nature of your landscape.
It’s really that easy to get started. And similar to beginning trapeze, there’s a safety net built into beginning gardening too.
Soil Safety Net
Most first year garden beds built on top of native soil (and watered sufficiently) are productive and problem free. No offense, but it’s not because you are some incredibly gifted gardener (maybe you are… but only time will tell).
It’s because nature is an ancient, complex, and methodical living system that takes time to respond to change. It may be a few months to a year before the materials you used to start your bed integrate with your native soil. Until then, you’re gardening in a the equivalent of a large container.
It also takes time for the plants you grow to influence your environment. That means pests and pathogens take a while to show up too.
That first taste of gardening is the tempting trailer inviting you to tune in for an exciting, action packed full length experience. If you let yourself enjoy learning it, that flying leap can propel you into a lifelong, passionate relationship with natural gardening.
As your new bed materials integrate with native soil, that will set off a chain of chemical reactions. They may alter soil pH, influence nutrient availability, increase or decrease certain kinds of soil life, impact drainage, and more. Those changes will also trigger some of the seeds in your soil, or that came in with your bed starting materials, to germinate.
I know that when weeds (unplanned plants) pop up, months after you’ve been gardening without much weed pressure, it can feel like failure. But trust me! This is a totally predictable response to all that new organic matter you added to your bed. In a way, weeds are proof that nature has accepted your friend request.
You can rip up those weeds up in outrage like tearing up a bad report card and in the process encourage lots more weeds. Or you can decode nature’s reasons for germinating those particular plants and use that information to plan your next steps in the garden.
Weedmails from Nature
If all the weeds have something in common, like they all love moisture or prefer dry soil, that’s nature’s way of saying “Big, smiley face, hugging a heart emoji for the organic matter! But now we need to work on drainage or more frequent watering.”
If you get a diversity of weeds with nothing in common, maybe you need to grow more plants closer together to utilize all that soil fertility you added. If the abundant weeds are all large, leafy, and shallow-rooted, then you probably added too many nitrogen rich materials at once and need to replace the weeds with some heavy feeding plants you like better.
Now, don’t worry! Weeds aren’t nature’s only form of communication. In fact, if you consider those weeds to be nature’s suggestions for improvement and act accordingly, weed pressure goes way down.
Gardening is a bit like dating. It starts with that awkward get to know you phase when you’ll probably make some silly, maybe even embarrassing, mistakes because you’re nervous. Nature also gets a little over reactive to the big changes you’re making to the landscape.
Soon, though, the energy between you and nature flows more freely. You grow a shared history of good times and challenging ones. Intimate details get catalogued. Likes, dislikes become easy to detect. Cosmetic or superficial assumptions give way to real communication and greater understanding. You’ll be able to predict how your partner will react and move forward knowing the consequences or change tactics to keep the peace.
You also discover your weaknesses (you’re terrible at timely watering) and strengths (you make rockstar compost) in the relationship. Then you can adjust for weaknesses (grow drought-resistant plants) and play to your strengths (use compost to improve water retention in your soil).
At the start of any new relationship, it doesn’t make sense to plan a whole year because things change rapidly. Instead, let nature take its course, be spontaneous – not fretty. And don’t rush things or you risk of ruining the the romance and pleasure of falling in love with gardening.
In the early phases of your of a new garden, you might just check the forecast for the week ahead and decide if there’s anything you need to do to keep your plants healthy.
- Is a deluge coming? Skip watering. Maybe cover young plants with a clay pot or cloche until the storm passes so they don’t get beat down.
- Is a dry, hot spell coming? Give the soil a deep watering and apply a light layer of mulch around the soil not shaded by leaves. (Not too much though, or you’ll overexcite the soil life and make the soil heat up rather than stay cool.)
If something doesn’t grow well, replace it with a new plant from a different plant family to see if that grows better. Don’t waste time and money trying to salvage a $3 plant at this stage. The goal is to learn how healthy plants grow, not become expert at fixing sick plants.
As the relationship progresses, you might think a month out or plan a big event a few months down the road.
- Schedule monthly trips to your nearest nursery selling locally grown plants, public gardens, or farmers markets to see what’s in season.
- Decide what to plant when your first round plantings time out. Mustard? Garlic? Winter cover crops?
- Perhaps try some indoor seed starting.
- You can also look at ways to deepen your relationship to nature such as by taking local gardening classes or starting a second bed by a different method.
- Begin tracking actual maturity rates and harvest times. The package may say 65 days to harvest in ideal conditions. But it may take 85 days in your newly created garden bed and erratic spring weather. Harvests might start at 65 days then continue for two weeks or three months, depending on cultivar and your conditions. Use that data for future planting.
Until you reach a deep level of intimacy and comfort with your garden, planning too far out is about as crazy as making a lifetime commitment to someone you barely know. Yes, sometimes it works. But you’ll miss all the fun of a long, exciting, and romantic dating period!
When your relationship gets really serious, even then, sitting down to plan once a year doesn’t make sense. By that point, you already have habits and patterns that flow through the year based on decisions you made in prior months or years.
Let’s look at an example.
Perhaps the first year, you transplant in four varieties of cabbage from your local garden center. Only one does well. So, you decide to plant that variety next year.
To save money, you decide to start your cabbage indoors from seed or outside under cloches. You also ambitiously grow a row of 30 heads of cabbage (a year supply) since you have a whole packet of seeds to use.
When you realize how much garden space that takes and that you’ve got no place to store all those heads, you decide to succession plant next year.
This year, you plant two rounds of 10 cabbages in spring 6 weeks apart, plus a third round in summer for a winter harvest. When your second round of spring cabbage gets devoured by cabbage moth larvae you think about floating row covers for future crops.
You try row covers in spring, but your cabbage still gets devoured. So you skip fall cabbage to break up the pest breeding cycle.
You also skip your spring planting of cabbage to control pests and instead grow potatoes in that space. In fall when you plant cabbage again, there are still a few lingering moths and their larvae to pick off.
You do some research and decide to interplant cabbage in patches with lettuce, coriander, and onions. Plus you mulch with with dried mint leaves to confuse pests. You also plan to start earlier so your cabbages can be mostly grown before the cabbage moths main breeding season.
Interplanting worked well for pest prevention. But your cabbage was slow to head up and your onions were smaller than usual. So, you plan to try some different interplanting combinations and increase soil fertility for next year.
This is how natural garden planning happens. It flows easily through the gardening season, from year to year, as you gain experience, experiment, and react to the feedback nature is giving you on your gardening choices. The big challenge is keeping track of what you decide so you can follow through in the future!
Predicting the Season Ahead
Most of the planning happens in real time, in the garden, and flows into the year ahead. However, there are some situations when you need to do a little planning outside the garden so you aren’t caught off guard. For example, many people are surprised by the kind of extreme weather events we’ve been seeing in the past few years.
Truthfully though, extreme weather shouldn’t be surprising at all. Adding a whole bunch of new material on top of soil eventually leads to weeds. Likewise, filling our atmosphere with heat-trapping gasses like carbon while simultaneously reducing the number of carbon-capturing plants inevitably leads to environmental changes that decrease our weather stability.
Today’s extreme weather events are just a consequence of past actions. The challenge is that we can’t be 100% sure when each event will occur. But we can still proactively plan for the most likely scenarios.
Climate Change Models
At present, complex computer-driven models are being loaded with environmental data from around the world. That data is then being used to predict how things like rising sea temperatures and glacial ice melts will impact wind patterns and influence weather. It’s also being used to figure out how rising temperatures and increasing humidity or drought will influence plant, insect, and wildlife behavior.
These things, and other data points, are being connected through these comprehensive models and scientific analysis to improve the predictive capacity for near and long-term environmental conditions.
Today’s models are a lot like first or second year gardeners, working with limited knowledge and experience. Yet, just like attentive gardeners, the models used to predict climate change outcomes are getting better quickly. So, as you grow in the garden, the scientific data and information needed to help you plan for climate change in your garden do as well.
Planning for Weather Variability
Even in these early stages, there’s a lot of useful information available about climate and weather variability in response to climate change to help you plan ahead to prepare your garden for extreme weather events.
One example that impacts many gardeners is the El Niño and La Niña effect, also called ENSO. These are opposing climate patterns than run in cycles and have big impacts on seasonal temperatures and the amount or lack of rain in any given year.
Knowing which of these cycles is going to be prevalent, and how strong its influence is likely to be on weather patterns, can help you fine tune plant selection and soil amendments for the season ahead.
For example, where I live, in strong El Niño years, we typically get droughts in summer. So, since I know I am a lazy waterer when those conditions are predicted, I grow annual varieties with drought tolerance. I also put my cucumbers and watermelons in the bed right next to my water drum to make watering them easier.
You’ll need to do some research to find out which near-term weather patterns and long-term climate changes are most likely to impact your garden. Your state climate office website is a good place to start.
Then, check back before you turn your beds to make sure there’s no new weather or climate information to consider for your near-term planning.
The Past in the Present
When you look back over your gardening history with the understanding that your choices influenced the outcomes in your garden, you may discover that you inadvertently created some of your own challenges.
- Those 30 heads of cabbage in a row invited the cabbage moths to come for a lovely, leafy buffet.
- Succession planting helped the cabbage moths proliferate by extending the buffet over more of the year.
- By using netting and taking a planting break, you interrupted the life cycle of the cabbage moth by reducing access to food during peak breeding months.
- Interplanting increased the diversity of life around your plants giving them access to more community resources below and above ground to fight off pest invasions.
So, you might wonder… Why not just cut to the chase and plan out an interplanted garden?
Well, because, that’s like joining the circus as a netless trapeze artist/choreographer before you learn trapeze. You have to build up some simple skills and gain environmental knowledge before you can choreograph the complicated interplay between a bunch of unique performers.
You have to take the flying leap, knowing you’ll make mistakes, while also trusting that when your mistakes catch up to you, you’ll have the experience to effectively resolve them.
Even though I plan as I go and I’m never sitting down in January to plan the year in my garden, I still love seed catalog season. Those beautiful booklets are garden porn that help me get through these dark days of winter. They also help me figure out what fun plants I want to experiment with next.