Vegetable Garden Resolutions—6 Steps to Success

Vegetable Garden Resolutions - 6 Steps to Success Featured Image

Last year the weeds took over, you didn’t feed or water enough, you didn’t mulch that bed, or you failed to start that new raised bed you’ve been dreaming of for years. Never fear! It’s a New Year! Last year’s vegetable gardening woes can be rectified with good planning and smart garden resolutions. Now’s the time to troubleshoot and plan to make this year’s veggie patch better than ever.

When it comes to smart garden planning and success, experience is everything. Being a part of a large, bountiful community garden for the past 14 years has given me the opportunity to watch new and seasoned gardeners in motion. Not surprisingly, the seasoned gardeners always have well-planned, productive, weed-free plots, while new gardeners haphazardly start their plots in spring and end up with the worst weed patches by midsummer. But some novices return the following year ready to try again. Gardeners committed to success learn to turn their beds around through guidance from the old-timers and pros.

With garden guidance in mind, here are a few pro tricks to add to your vegetable garden resolution list. Commit to these, and you can’t go wrong!

1) Plan

Garden planning
Good planning, spacing, and crop succession are essential for vegetable garden success. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Truly productive beds are planned in advance with the seasons in mind. A good planning strategy starts with knowing when plants bloom and produce, and timing your garden to sequentially bloom and remain productive and pretty through the year, if possible.

It is important to identify cool season and warm season vegetables to correctly plan beds. Knowing the window of productivity and days to harvest (number of days it takes for plants to be harvestable from seed) for a given plant is also essential.

Click here for a table of Cool Season Crops for Spring and Fall and Warm Season Crops for Summer. The basic tables show some of the most common cool-season vegetables, warm-season vegetables, and their average days to harvest. Use this data when plotting spring, summer, and fall vegetable patches. Warm-season vegetables must be planted after the threat of spring frost has passed. To determine your spring and fall frost dates, refer to The Old Farmers Almanac frost dates.

2) Design & Plot

Freeman Garden raised beds for Darcy
Raised beds make planning and care easy. (Image by Mike Darcy)

The best vegetable gardens are designed and planned each year to consider space, light, succession cropping, and rotation. Choose a full-sun location, decide what you want to grow, and plot your beds to allow enough space to meet your gardening goals. Investing in raised beds can make the process easier, otherwise, establish your bed lines and pathways and maintain these yearly. (Click here to read more about garden planning and design.)

Next, determine where crops will be planted incrementally in spring, summer, and fall. Designing and planning your garden for the full growing season will help you stay in budget, time seeding and planting (Click here to view Johnny’s Seeds handy seed-starting date calculator.), and plan for harvest, preservation, and storage. When designing your beds, consider the space needed for crops, their overall heights, and include space to add cages and trellises, as needed.

Crop succession is another essential practice. Some crops must be rotated yearly, so consider what crops will succeed the next. For example, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes are heavy feeders that commonly harbor soil-borne pests and diseases, so they must be succeeded by fortifying crops, such as peas or beans, the following year. Legumes, like peas and beans, replenish essential soil nitrogen. (Click here to learn more about vegetable rotation.)

3) Feed Your Soil

Digging soil
Good soil is porous, early smelling, easy to dig in and high in organic matter.
Fafard Garden Manure Blend pack

Happy plants must have good soil. Organic matter is the number one additive sure to increase crop yields. Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost and nitrogen-rich Garden Manure Blend are two top-quality amendments to increase soil quality and improve plant production. The addition of an OMRI Listed all-purpose fertilizer approved for organic gardening will also increase plant vigor, yields, and keep common nutrient deficiencies, such as leaf chlorosis or blossom end rot in peppers and tomatoes, from appearing.

For raised beds, we recommend the addition of OMRI Listed Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil, which contains RESiLIENCE, an all-natural, water-soluble silicon additive for plants that encourages better root growth, earlier flowering, increased stem diameter, and longer time before wilting. Mix this soilless medium in with quality topsoil at a 1:3 ratio for reliable vegetable performance.

When calculating amendment needed for a particular area, use the following formula:

Amendment Application Formula
([area to cover] ft2 x [depth in inches desired] x 0.0031 = ___ yd3).
Example: If you wanted to cover a 20 square foot area with 2 inches of compost, the result would be: 20 ft2 x 2 inches of compost x 0.0031 = 2.48 yd3.

4) Manage Weeds

Mulching walkways with straw, hay or leaf mulch
Mulching walkways with straw, hay, or leaf mulch can really keep weeds down. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Save yourself major weeding time by applying thick organic mulch for weed control. Compost is a great choice for vegetable garden mulch in addition to seed-free hay, grass clippings, and leaf mulch. Compost should be applied directly around plants while coarser organic mulches are better for walkways and melon and squash beds.

Organic pre-emergents are also recommended to stop weed seeds from sprouting in the first place. Just be sure not to sprinkle them where you plan to directly plant seeds. Corn gluten, the most common natural pre-emergent, works by inhibiting root growth in newly sprouted seeds.

Of course, nothing beats regular hoeing and hand weeding for effective weed control. Monitoring, scratching, and digging weeds weekly are the best ways to keep them in check, and good tools make the job easy.

5) Invest in Good Tools

Good tools are a must for all garden tasks, whether you are weeding, digging, or pruning. Quality tools may cost a bit more up front, but they will last much longer and perform better.

Garden knives
Garden knives are great all-around gardening tools. (image from Gardeners Supply Company)

For hand weeding, nothing beats the classic ho-mi (hoe-mee), also called the Korean hand plow or cultivator. This sharp, downward-facing tool can get to the base of a dandelion root in seconds with a quick chop, chop, chop. It also pays to invest in a trusty garden knife (also called a soil knife or Japanese hori-hori). These can cut into the soil to deep roots below and saw through the bases of tough plants. They are even useful for harvesting greens and digging root crops. One side of the knife is sharp for slicing and the other is serrated for sawing. The classic Cobrahead hand weeder and cultivator it also a nice, effective, well-made weeding tool. It has a sharp, curved head for fast digging and hand hoeing.

A heavy-duty hoe is a necessity for larger weeding jobs. The Prohoes by Rogue are great tools that are so well made, they will last for years. And, for digging and planting, a good spade is a must. Of these, the sharp, all-steel King of Spades pro nursery spades is so tough it will last a lifetime.

Most established gardens will tell you that Felco makes the best pruners and loppers on the market. Pruning and harvesting are fast and easy with these sharp, Swiss-made bypass pruners.

Keep your tools clean and sharp for the best performance. A 5-gallon shop bucket filled with moistened sand is recommended for dipping tools in for easy cleaning. Handy garden tool sharpeners are also on the market. At the end of the season, apply mineral oil to clean tools to prevent corrosion.

6) Commit to a Time Schedule

Happy gardeners with vegetables
Provide garden care on a time schedule and you will never get behind!

Gardens need committed care. Regular scheduling of tasks is required for gardening success. Plan to harvest, weed, and water at least twice weekly. (Click here for good watering tips!) During hot and dry periods and high-growth windows, plan to add more time to assess water and plant needs. In no time, your schedule will become a habit, your garden will become your passion, and you find yourself there whenever time allows.

One trick to making any garden a pleasurable oasis is to create a spot where you can sit, sip a drink between weeding. Pick up a cheap patio table and chairs, add a sun umbrella, and make space for them in your garden.

Child in a vegetable garden with table and chair
Place a table and chairs in your vegetable garden for a place to sit and rest between tasks. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Renewed hopes and fresh ideas for the New Year offer new chances to make your garden amazing. In most parts of the country, gardeners have plenty of time to reshape their garden plans and set their resolutions in motion before the weather warms up. So grab your seed catalogs, and get planning. (Click here to get more garden planning tips!)

Garden Journaling: How To Plan Your Dream Garden

Garden Journaling: How to Plan Your Dream Garden Featured Image

A journal is one of the best tools for achieving the garden of your dreams. Your recorded observations of what’s happening today will give you a clearer vision of what to do tomorrow – and many years beyond.

Starting Your Garden Journal

A note pad, smartphone, and/or computer are all you need to build your journal. Use them to record the dates and details of significant garden happenings, such as the following (with photos, if desired):

  • Flowering and leaf-out times for key garden plants;
  • Impactful weather events such as freezes and storms;
  • Disease and pest outbreaks;
  • Sowing and planting (including what was planted and where);
  • Important maintenance activities such as mulching, shrub and tree pruning, harvesting, and major weeding;
  • Garden amendment, fertilization, and other soil preparation strategies;
  • What succeeded and what performed poorly.

Do a weekly journaling stroll around your garden. When you see something that delights or concerns you or otherwise grabs your attention, take a note or a photograph (or both). Is the perennial border up to something particularly spectacular this week? Are sawfly larvae skeletonizing the swamp hibiscus? Does the rhododendron by the front entry need to be replaced? Make a note (with the date!), along with any associated thoughts that might come to mind.

Garden Journaling Methods

Jotting down notes and smartphone on the side
A note pad and/or Smartphone are all you need to build your journal.

Traditionalists will opt for hand-written journals, but Smartphones make especially good journaling tools, especially for photos. Not only are photos automatically dated, but you can also add text to them and store them by subject. Smartphones are also good for note-taking, via apps such as Google Keep (which can link notes to photos). Then you can organize printed photos and other physical records (such as receipts and empty seed packets) in a binder with plastic pocket sleeves.

If you are one for the computer and a stickler for the details, consider creating spreadsheets to track trends in seed germination, harvests, flowering dates, pest appearance, and so forth. In time, you can create charts showing the ebbs and flows of your garden. These can be very informative.

Winter Garden Journaling

Gardening notebook with supplies
Winter is the time to organize any notes, photographs, and data from the past year that are still at loose ends. It’s also the time to record seed-starting data.

Gardening and journaling continue through winter. There are bulbs to force, catalogs to peruse, seeds to order and plant, house plants to enjoy and maintain, and any number of other winter gardening activities to complete and chronicle. It’s also the time to reflect on gardening seasons past and future. What were the garden’s highlights and successes this year? Where did it fall short? What are your visions and overall goals for next year, and beyond? Get it all down on paper (or microchip).

Finally, winter is the time to organize any notes, photographs, and data from the past year that are still at loose ends. For example, a spreadsheet of the year’s planting data – including plant/seed source and sowing/planting information – will be essential when you get around to ordering and planting next year’s seeds and plants. You can move a copy of the spreadsheet to your smartphone, to join the rest of your journal information. A well-stocked, well-organized garden journal from the previous year is just what you need to get rocking in the upcoming year.

Garden Journaling for Design

Thinking about garden design
Garden design must be planned and continuously recorded for the best success.

Journals are essential for the dynamics of garden design. Your journal will make the greatest impact have these essential planning and design materials on hand:

  • Documentation of the garden site’s layout and characteristics, including maps/plans, soil test results, sun and wind exposures, grades, and extant plantings;
  • Garden design ideas and plans, including drawings and plant lists;
  • An “encyclopedia” of information of special interest to you and your garden, comprising entries on plants, materials, gardening techniques, and other relevant subjects (be sure to include a file on Fafard’s outstanding lineup of potting soils and soil amendments!);
  • Short-term and long-term garden calendars, specifying the sequence of yearly gardening activities, and the long-term (e.g., 5-year) plans for maintaining or renovating the garden and for implementing designs.

Combine these elements with the detailed observations of your journal, and you’ll have all the ingredients to make your dream garden a reality.

Garden Planning 101

Kniphofia 'Border Ballet' in garden
Remember that many great gardens have been planned on scrap paper and built on a shoestring. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

In February, home gardens may be covered with snowdrops or blanketed with snow, depending on climate zone and the whims of Mother Nature. Either way, it is time for garden planning. New ideas are ready to break dormancy, even if the outdoor plants aren’t quite there yet.
Fafard Premium Topsoil packSomewhere there is a vast garden planning spectrum, with places on it for all of us who love to dig in the dirt. The meticulous planners are at one end, plotting layouts, bloom times and expenditures in careful detail every year. They keep excellent records and can tell you precisely how much they paid for a new lilac in 2002 and the exact day that it produced its first blossom. The seat-of-the-pants gardeners are at the extreme opposite end. These are the people who make every garden decision on the fly. When spring arrives, they get in their cars and create highway havoc by braking suddenly in front of every alluring garden center display. Often these mercurial individuals go on to jeopardize their credit limits by making extravagant impulse purchases of plants, tools and garden décor. No matter where you are on the spectrum, a little planning is a good investment.

Dream Big

Define your dream garden in words or images, even if your vision goes way beyond your current means. Great gardens or landscapes begin with big plans. The same goes for plant lists. When you first page through paper or online plant catalogs, flag anything that catches your eye. The process will help you understand the colors, shapes and plant types that you love best at this particular stage of your gardening career. It will also speed you through the end-of-winter doldrums and pave the way for the list-whittling and prioritizing you will do down the road.

Some of the best garden ideas have been inspired by “borrowed” landscape elements. Start Your Garden Plan

Think about your entire landscape, including hardscaping, structures and established plantings. Decide what you want to keep, modify or eliminate completely. Even if you are starting with a property that has been completely cleared, at least one landscape element is already in place—the view. For better or worse, the view of your own property and that of your neighbors, is part of the existing scheme. Some of the best garden ideas have been inspired by “borrowed” landscape elements. Some even better ones have sprung from the necessity of hiding something ugly.

Plan a Garden You Can Manage

Get a realistic grip on your gardening/landscape resources. This includes your discretionary time as well as money. Figure out how much of both you have available for garden-related expenditures and tasks. Your dreams may include large, color-themed beds and borders, with razor sharp edges and hundreds of linear feet of precisely clipped hedges. If your reality includes about an hour a week of garden maintenance time, you will either have to hire someone to do much of the work, stretch out your plans over a long time frame or redefine your goals.

Making Arrangements for Your New GardenWinter Landscape

Once you have defined your vision and resources, it’s time to move ahead. Do you have the time and/or money to make big changes, like removing a mature tree or building a water feature? If so, get contractor recommendations from friends and family and call contractors for quotes. In spring, landscape professionals and builders have full calendars. Starting early ensures that your jobs will be on them. If smaller DIY changes are more your style, figure out how best to accomplish them. Sketch out planting schemes or designs, either on paper or with the help of online gardening tools. Whittle down plant wish lists and, if possible, order plants that you won’t be able to find at local garden centers. Many vendors offer early bird discounts to gardeners willing to order at the end of winter. Make a list of the basic supplies you will need, including new or replacement garden tools and products like Fafard Premium Organic Compost and Premium Topsoil.

Garden Limits

Imagination has no limits, but most other resources do. If money is a problem, borrow tools or buy them cheaply at garage and tag sales. Plan to divide existing perennial plants and ask friends if they will share divisions or cuttings from their gardens. Start annuals and edible crops from seed. If your soil is bad or non-existent, plan a container layout using repurposed vessels. Remember that anything that can hold a quantity of damp dirt can serve as a plant pot. Start small, with a simple plan, and add to it as time and finances permit. Remember that many great gardens have been planned on scrap paper and built on a shoestring.
Planning ahead lets you make the most of whatever you have and gives you a jump-start on the gardening season. It is also an excellent tonic for the winter-weary soul.

Planting during gardening season
Planning ahead lets you make the most of whatever you have and gives you a jump-start on the gardening season. (Photo by Jessie Keith)