The Organic Prepper: How to Start Planning Your Garden

It may be just starting to get into the season season, but it’s not too early to start thinking about your garden. If seeds are as scarce as last year, hopefully you’ve already been making some plans. Here is Joanna Miller at The Organic Prepper with Growing Vegetables Is Back in Style: Here’s How to Start Planning Your Garden to get your thoughts moving in the right direction.

Whether you celebrate St. Bridget’s Day, Candlemas, Imbolc, or Groundhog Day, February 2 is coming up. For those of us active in gardening and raising animals in the Northern hemisphere, this means it’s time to think about spring. And that means garden planning!

The pandemic has caused one very positive resurgence: growing food is back in style and no longer the purview of hippies or those crazy preppers.

Last year saw a record amount of people start gardens

Between the cost of food, grocery shortages, and sheltering in place, it comes as no surprise that many Americans have turned to gardening. And they’re doing it not only to keep themselves busy, but also to keep themselves and their families fed during these turbulent times. More people than ever are learning that not only does gardening produce food, but it also soothes the soul.

However, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out in an article about wannabe homesteaders, many people found out that gardening was a little more complicated than Michael Bloomberg said. ( “I could teach anybody, even people in this room, to be a farmer. It’s a process. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.” 2016-Bloomberg)

Thousands of quarantined Americans planted vegetables last spring, striking a blow for hope just as their World War II-era forebears did with home-front Victory Gardens.

Six months later, many are admitting defeat.

“My tomatoes look like a Dr. Seuss plant,” said Doni Chamberlain, a 64-year-old blogger in Redding, Calif. “It might not have helped that I planted them in a kiddie pool.”

Daisy has an article about the year she and a friend tried to raise a homegrown Thanksgiving, and some other tips for what you can do if the garden you’re relying on fails.

Garden planning varies widely based on your location.

I have gardened with varying degrees of success in the Chicago suburbs, Houston suburbs, and now on the High Plains in Colorado. What works in one area will often not work in another, and the first thing to do is to ask yourself what will grow well in your area.  

For example, some tomatoes will grow just about anywhere, but timing and varieties will vary greatly between regions. In Illinois, you start tomatoes from seed in March, then plant them out sometime between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day. We grew all kinds of tomatoes in Illinois. We could grow cherry tomatoes or those big beautiful slicing tomatoes.

I soon realized I needed to change my view when it came to tomatoes

When I moved to Houston, the tomatoes I planted in May didn’t produce a darn thing the first year. I did some reading and found that tomatoes won’t set fruit if the temperature is above 95 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and doesn’t drop below 75 at night. Well, in Houston, that’s at least from May to October.

So the next year, I started the seeds in January and put them out on Valentine’s Day. Sure enough, the fruits set in March and April, before the heat hit, and we spent June and July picking tomatoes.

I found that I needed to explore different varieties and experiment

I tried both cherry and slicing tomatoes. The cherry tomatoes exploded; I’m not sure if I ever grew a slicing tomato. While living in Houston, I assumed it was too hot to grow the slicing tomatoes and contented myself with the cherries.

I gardened for five years in Houston before moving to Colorado and became very proficient. We only had a little suburban lot, but it was quite productive. When we moved to Colorado, I wondered if I’d be able to grow bigger tomatoes, like I had growing up in Illinois. I planted the same cherry tomato variety I’d grown in Houston, and also some Brandywine tomatoes. The cherry tomatoes did okay, but I didn’t get one Brandywine.

I went back to online searches and gardening books.

It turns out bigger tomatoes need relatively constant temperatures to set fruit. The 85 degree days and 65 degree nights in Illinois were perfect; the 90 degree days and 55 degree nights in Colorado, not so much. A certified organic vegetable gardener lives two miles away from me, and she grows beautiful large tomatoes, but she grows them in a hoop house, which moderates the temperature.

It took me a few years of experimenting to find that Principe Borghese are the tomatoes for me to grow. They do well in the hot, dry weather and are perfect for sun-drying. I now get plenty of tomatoes every year, but it didn’t happen right away. It took some research in the form of flipping through books and asking neighbors. It took a lot of patience.

Gardening is a skill learned by trial and error.

It takes time to find what works in your area, and even then, disaster can strike.

We had a warm, wet spring in 2020. Our last freeze was in April, and we didn’t get one May snowstorm. I had plenty of fruit set throughout June and thought the year would be great. Well, early in July, we had twenty minutes of marble-sized hail and 50 mph winds. My garden was in tatters. The hailstorm knocked my tomatoes and cucumbers off the vines and tore my corn and squash to ribbons.  

I say this not to discourage anyone, but to show that gardening always turns into more of an adventure than people expect. If you stick with it and find what works, you will usually come out ahead in terms of food and fun versus time and energy. But like any sincere endeavor, there will be occasional spectacular failures.

However, I have had occasional unexpected successes as well

This year, the hailstorm didn’t affect a new plant I had tried. I had read about ground cherries in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Ground cherries are native to North America, and they look kind of like tomatillos though they taste very sweet. The fruit grows underneath thick leaves in a papery husk. So while the hail bruised the thick leaves, they protected the fruit underneath. I didn’t lose fruit in that hailstorm and was pleasantly surprised later in the season by the plants’ heavy production.

Gardening is a worthy endeavor. If you felt the urge to garden last year and it just didn’t come together the way you envisioned, now is the time to revisit what worked and what didn’t.

Where should you plant your garden?

Decide where to plant your garden first. You will need to check your local rules and regulations. (Here are some tips for growing food when you”can’t” have a garden.) Wherever you intend to plant, make sure there is enough direct sunlight.

If you live in a place like Texas and find it is too sunny for some of your plants, it’s a lot easier to put burlap over your plants to provide partial shade than it is to trim tree branches overhead if the garden isn’t getting enough sun. So start by finding a sunny spot, and go from there.

If you use containers, read the instructions. Many larger pots will recommend placing a layer of rocks or pea gravel in the bottom to assist drainage. If you live in an area with a high water table, it may be worth your time to build a raised bed. It doesn’t have to be super expensive. When we lived in Texas, we just bought cinder blocks and tore up the grass inside, then added some compost. I want to conserve as much moisture as possible in Colorado, so I haven’t raised the beds. The water drains just fine on its own.

What kind of soil do you have?

When I lived in Illinois, we had just about perfect soil. It was black and rich and loamy, and we had productive gardens without adding much in the way of specific soil amendments. In many other parts of the country, however, that is not the case. 

What you decide to do depends on how much money you have available. It may be worth your time to get a soil test. In Colorado, this costs about $30, and it is useful. You send in your soil sample, and they tell you not only the pH but also any nutrient deficiencies your soil may have.  

If you have some money to spend and are confident in your ability to add the proper amendments to your soil, the soil test is worth your time and money. It can save you a few seasons’ worth of trial and error. However, if you are distressingly tight on cash, don’t despair. If you eat, you can still improve your soil.  

What can you do to improve the soil?

Many useful guides exist on composting. All you have to do is enter “How to make compost” into your favorite search engine, and plenty of sites and videos will pop up. Much of your food waste can be used for compost. Lawn trimmings and downed leaves can go in as well. If you want to build up a lot of soil, you can ask neighbors for their leaves and other yard waste.

My kids and I volunteer at a park, and we took their Christmas tree home after the holiday to feed our goats. Organic waste is all over the place. Your neighbors might tease you for being a hippie with all the compost and garbage collecting; tell them sticks and stones. Building your soil with compost alone will take time, but it’ll be free.  

Remember to do your research first

A green bean that grows well in New York will not necessarily grow well in East Texas, which won’t necessarily grow well in South Texas, which won’t necessarily grow well in Oregon.

Don’t just grab whatever they have at the hardware store. The major chains usually source from large nurseries that ship nationwide; if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you may find something inappropriate for your area. If you have a smaller, locally-owned nursery, browse that instead. They may sport higher prices, though not necessarily. But staff at locally owned nurseries have often gardened in that specific area and can offer a great deal of information.  

Once you’ve picked out varieties, look carefully to find when and how to plant. For example, I plant peas and potatoes in April. We usually have freezes into May, but peas and potatoes survive if they have a thick layer of mulch. Peas prefer cooler weather and come out of the garden at the end of July. Tomatoes don’t go outside until all danger of frost has passed. In my area, that’s usually mid to late May. Corn doesn’t go in until the soil has warmed in June.

You can’t just toss seeds into the ground whenever, wherever, and expect them to thrive. Take time to figure out your gardening zone and read the seed packages carefully. This Garden Planning Calculator from Seeds for Generations provides you the following for 46 types of crops:

  • Germination timelines for all crop types
  • Germination temperatures for optimal results
  • For plants that need to be started as seedlings, then transplanted into the garden, the Indoor Start Date
  • For plants that are direct seeded, the earliest date to plant them outdoors
  • For seedlings, the earliest transplant date relative to the last frost
  • AND, it provides you with forecast earliest harvest dates based on the days to maturity for each crop

TIP: Now that more people are gardening, it’s a good idea to order your seeds early to ensure the best selection. Last year, many sources ran out of seeds quickly so do not delay your purchase. Seed shortages could occur again.

Gardening is ultimately responding to the needs of other living things

It requires patience, willingness to get dirty, and the ability to recover from failure. These are not skill sets that our society typically values. I found the stories of successful professionals who couldn’t keep a plant alive for a few months disturbing. 

The nation that won the World Wars was the same nation that produced over 40% of its produce in the backyard and rooftop Victory Gardens. I suppose it’s not shocking that the nation that now cannot wait three days for a package from Amazon cannot be bothered to learn about where its food comes from, but I don’t think it’s a sign of its progress. I think it’s a sign we all need to do some soul-searching.

Of course, the nation that grew Victory Gardens was also much closer, generationally, to a society of mostly farmers. Most people 80+ years ago still had relatives in the country to whom they could turn for advice. More people kept livestock. Parenting was typically more hands-on. In general, more people spent more time in their lives as caregivers...(continues)