How To Plan Your Dream Garden in 3 Easy Steps (Plus 3 Free Tools That Help)
I never met a grower whose eyes weren’t bigger than their stomach when it comes to gardening. I think we all have a human tendency to hoard, to grow more than we’ll ever actually use, all because of a societal scarcity mindset. So, if you struggle with growing too much and getting overwhelmed later in the season, you’re not alone.
What follows is a simplified and streamlined garden planning method. Planning a garden requires as much introspective reflection as it does actual organizing, so take your time with the process. Fortunately, there are a number of free garden planning spreadsheets and crop calculators on the internet that can help you grow exactly enough, and no more, than what you actually need.
Choose a location
When choosing a growing site, look for a level area that receives at least six hours of sunlight during the day. The amount of lighting that the plot receives will change throughout the year, so if you can, observe the same site during different hours of the day and at different times of the year. Make sure there are no buildings or structures that cast shadows.
Southeastern-facing slopes are ideal, but not necessary. Organize your garden rows with a north-south orientation and plant your tallest crops the furthest north to minimize shading. Stay away from low spots and areas that hold water.
You can also have your soil tested, and you should, but don’t let a soil test deter you from a particular site–you can always add amendments to reach the desired pH, fertility, and composition that fruits and vegetables prefer.
Decide on a type of garden
There is no end to the ways that you can creatively use whatever space you have to grow your own food. From containers to raised beds, and vertical to traditional in-row gardens, there’s a way to make it all work–and chances are, someone has already done it.
What’s your goal for your garden? Do you want to grow your own food or have fresh flowers all summer? You can cultivate an all-vegetable garden, culinary herb garden, pollinator-friendly flower garden, or some combination of the three. You might grow annuals, perennials, or a mix of both. But in terms of setup, the following are your main options:
Traditional garden rows
Garden beds may vary in length and width depending on what space you have available, but most growers have a lot of success with three or four-foot beds and two-foot walking paths in between each bed. You want to be able to reach the middle of the garden bed from either size–and for most folks, that’s about four feet across at most. Any wider and you won’t be able to weed or harvest from the very center of the beds.
Permanent raised beds
Permanent raised beds take seasons to build, but the payoff is astounding. Essentially, growers mark off the to-be bed and dig out a pathway (and drainage ditch) on either side. Compost, soil amendments, and mulch are heaped on the beds. Without regular tilling, microorganisms in the soil flourish, enriching the soil with nutrients. As the seasons progress the permanent raised beds only get richer and more full of life.
Container gardens are an easy and creative way to grow a variety of plants! Container gardens can take the shape of raised beds or pots and even repurposed buckets and tires. Container gardens do need to be watered more frequently, but container gardens are easier to maintain than traditional gardens. Weeding is minimal and harvesting is easier. Soil in raised beds drains better and warms up more quickly than ground at surface level, so you can start planting your garden even earlier.
If all you have is a windowsill or a sunny room, you can still grow your own food! Read this for a few more tips on cultivating an indoor garden–indoor gardens can be so much more productive than you think.
The biggest limiting factor in gardening is space, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t grow everything you want–you just have to get creative with it. Vertical gardens are especially popular with urban gardeners, but growers everywhere can benefit from this revolutionary technique. We all know that you grow tomatoes and pole beans on a trellis, but did you know that winter squash, with the proper support system, is an excellent candidate for vertical gardening?
You can also take your containers vertically too–build an upright pallet planter or repurpose an old ladder to hold plant pots. If you have the space and desire, you can build a rooftop garden or a living green wall–the sky’s the limit when it comes to garden planning.
Ditch dirt altogether and grow your own soilless garden. Check out this article for some suggestions on how to get started.
Pick your plants
This is the fun part–what vegetables, flowers, and herbs will you grow? Check out this article for a few sample crop plans for different household sizes. But before you order all the seeds you can get your hands on, consider these questions:
- What do you (and your family) like to eat?
Take some time to write down everything healthy that you know your family already enjoys. What do you already buy from the grocery store? How much do you buy? Once you know roughly how much you consume in a week, you can work backward to approximate how many plants you need to meet your family’s needs.
- How much time do you have to devote to your garden?
Take some time to look at your summer calendar before you commit to high-maintenance crops. I’ve learned this the hard way–gardens are easy to keep up with when crops and weeds are small, but all it takes is a week’s break and your rows can quickly get out of hand.
- What are your growing zone and climate like?
Your climate will dictate what will do well in your garden and what won’t. Ask seasoned gardeners what they have success with and what fails, and you’ll know whether or not you need a bumper crop. While you don’t want to go overboard, it’s not a bad idea to sow and transplant a few extra plants to account for things like late frosts, droughts, disease, and pest pressure.
- What are your goals for your garden?
What purpose do you want your garden to serve? Do you want a patio herb garden so that you’ll always have fresh herbs to use in the kitchen? How about a garden just for fresh eating? Are you looking to cultivate a garden that will feed you year-round? Different gardens serve different purposes and that will dictate what crops get prioritized.
If you’re planning to can, freeze, or dehydrate your harvests, you can grow up to four times as much produce as you’d need for fresh eating. Don’t forget to factor in the extra time you’ll spend harvesting and processing food, and the equipment required.
3 free and functional garden planning tools
Now that you understand how you should approach garden planning, there are a few tools that spit out numbers that you can use as a framework.
There are a number of free tools on the internet that make garden planning a little easier. Johnny’s Seed Quantity Calculator is one such tool that allows you to approximate how many transplants or seeds you need to fill out any given space.
Simply input the length and width of your rows and this nifty calculator will spit out how many plants you need to fill out that space! It even accounts for a border, should you have one. Choose to calculate hedgerow spacing or garden bed spacing, and choose between a square, rectangular, or triangular grid.
The plant spacing calculator doesn’t account for pathways, so if you want multiple rows of a particular crop you’ll need to take the measurements of an individual row and multiply that number by the total number of rows.
This very handy chart provides a rough estimate for how much you should plant to feed one adult. Multiply these numbers by the number of adults in your family to feed multiple people. For kids, cut these numbers in half.
*Also represents some numbers from the University of Michigan’s Vegetable Production Chart
While not a comprehensive guide, this article is a good starting point to use when planning your garden. These tools are great references when making a crop plan, and there are many more resources on the Seeds ‘N Such website if you have more gardening questions!
Joseph Masabni, and Patrick Lillard. “Planning a Garden.” Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, Accessed 25 July 2022.
“Seed Quantity Calculator.” Johnny's Selected Seeds, Accessed 25 July 2022.