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How to Plan a Garden

By Emily Lawrence

1. Make a map of your garden or get out maps from years past.
2. Measure all of your beds and include exact dimensions of each garden bed on your map. This is good to do well before any seeds need to be started (January or early February).
3. Assess your needs. At Allegheny Mountain Institute we need to grow enough food to feed at least 11 people per day. We also grow crops that will be stored, preserved or fermented. We plan to grow dry beans, cornmeal, barley and wheat flour as staples this year. Our cash crop area will be used for garlic, onions, potatoes and winter squash, which will be sold to the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind cafeteria through AMI’s Urban Farm.
4.Think about where you would like to place your farmscape beds. Decide on the location of these first so you can plan your vegetable crop rotation around these beds. Farmscapes attract bees and beneficial insects to pollinate and protect your vegetables from pests.
5. Make sure that you have a crop rotation of at least three years. A good crop rotation helps to prevent disease, confuse pests and balance nutrients in the soil. In our production garden at AMI, we placed vegetables in the same family at least two beds apart. Each year, we just have to shift each crop over one bed and the same plant family will never be in each bed more than once every 3 years.
6. Take inventory of old seeds from previous years, keeping in mind that there will be approximately a 20% drop in germination for each year your seeds are old. Don’t count on old seeds but it is definitely good to use them before they get more than a couple years old.
7. Start your master garden planning spreadsheet, by creating a separate line for each bed and each variety within each bed. On this spreadsheet you can include the dimensions of the beds and divide that by plant spacing and row spacing for each variety to figure out how much seed you will need. Be sure to take into account seed failure rates. Assume that at least 30% of your seeds will fail. The germination rate on most seed packets is 70%-95%.
8. Figure out which vegetables/varieties you would like to plan multiple plantings (succession) plantings for and be sure to order extra seeds for these varieties. Fast growing veggies that can be only harvested a limited number of times can be planted several times throughout the season. For example, lettuce can be planted every 2-3 weeks for a continual harvest. Many veggies will have one spring planting and one fall planting. These include: cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards, Asian cabbage, beets, carrots and turnips.
9. Look for a seed company that grows seed in the same growing zone as you. Allegheny Mountain Institute’s mountain farm is in zone 4. This year we ordered a lot of our seed from High Mowing Organic Seeds (located in Wolcott, Vermont – zone 4) and Johnny’s Selected Seeds (located in Winslow, Maine – zone 5). (
10. Consider ordering mostly open pollinated and heirloom varieties. Seeds from hybrid plants will not keep the same characteristics the following year. It is good to support seed companies that grow open pollinated and heirloom varieties so we don’t put ourselves in danger of losing these varieties. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (located in Mineral, Virginia), Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (located in Mansfield, Missouri) and Seed Savers Exchange (located in Decorah, Iowa) are all great sources for heirloom seeds.
11. Make sure to order plenty of extra seeds. It’s better to be over prepared than to need extra seeds last minute. A lot of companies offer free shipping on larger orders. A larger amount of each seed variety is also a lot cheaper per seed. 
12. Include a column for your seed order details on your spreadsheet so you can mark when you have submitted the order for each variety and you have records of what you are supposed to receive in your order. Be sure to list approximately how much seed you are receiving in each seed packet.
13. Decide which seeds will be grown as transplants and which seeds will be direct seeded. Make a column for this on your spreadsheet and then you can look at just transplants or just direct seeded while you are planning.
14. Look on seed packets and online for number of days for seeds to reach transplant size and when they can be moved outside in relation to your area’s last frost date. Include these two pieces of information on your spreadsheet and then subtract the number of days to transplant size from the transplant out date to know when to seed indoors.
15. Look at seed packets and online for recommended outdoor and hoop house planting dates for direct seeding. If you choose to plant a vegetable in your hoop house or green house, this will allow you to plant about two weeks earlier than if that same vegetable was planted outside.
16. Keep track of germination dates and germination rates to make sure you don’t need to start extra seed. Include a column on your spreadsheet for expected germination date. You can find the number of days to germination on most seed packets.
17. Remember that even with seed failure, pests, diseases and other obstacles, your garden will be beautiful!
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