Last week I talked about the equipment necessary for starting vegetable seeds indoors, and I want to continue in this vein. The next logical steps in this discussion have to do with planning and scheduling, which means that we will be working backward from a vision of what the garden will look like at various points in the growing season.
To keep this exercise as uncomplicated as possible, I'll be assuming that the vegetable garden we have in mind is a traditional row garden. Experienced gardeners may prefer to plant certain vegetables in blocks, using the square-foot method, and some may have raised beds already in place. Still others may have developed other successful approaches to laying out a garden.
Regardless, the only requirement is that the vegetable garden we fantasize about in winter can be drawn two-dimensionally on a piece of graph paper. This is a necessary step because it determines how many seeds we'll buy and start indoors, and when these starts need to germinate.
A traditional row garden is easy to sketch. You simply determine the dimensions of your usable garden space and block it off on graph paper, making allowances for space between rows for tilling or pulling weeds and watering. Note where vegetables will need support, as in tomato cages or bean trellises.
Also take stock of where any nearby trees will cast shade on the garden. Put greens and cole crops there, as they will appreciate the protection after the weather begins to warm and the trees leaf out. Avoid penciling vegetables into spaces that are shaded half the day through the entire growing season.
For most vegetables, a row takes up two feet of width. This would hold true for bush beans, peppers and other midsize vegetable plants. Remember that plants have roots, so even if a particular vegetable plant doesn't leaf out to a width of two feet, its roots will travel underground.
Exceptions to the two-foot rule of thumb are lettuce, spinach, onions and other shallow-rooted plants, which I allot one foot, and larger, greedier plants, such as tomatoes and corn, which I give three feet.
Even gardeners who plant in traditional rows often have tricks to economize on space. For example, I like to plant bush beans in a double row, three feet wide, with a soaker hose running down the middle. I plant greens and onions four deep, in a three-foot row, which can be tended from either side.
The width of walkways depends on how you plan to maintain them. If you will be tilling the weeds between rows and have a 42-inch tiller, you will need to accommodate that with five-foot spacing between rows. In a small, hand-weeded garden, you can get buy with three feet or less between rows.
The garden map is an essential starting point for the work you do indoors during winter. In the long run, it will save you time and money.
Consult seed catalogs and gardening manuals for guidelines for the spacing between plants. It's not so important for direct-seeded vegetables, such as beans and corn whose quantity of seed is determined by the length of the row, but it does matter for vegetables that will be transplanted into the garden. There's nothing more disheartening than hauling three dozen broccoli starts out to the garden and realizing that you've set aside just 10 feet of two-foot row for the whole mess of them.
From your garden map, you should be able to determine exactly how many transplants you'll have room for and then grow starts accordingly. You'll also be able to determine how much seed you'll be able to accommodate for direct planting. If you approach gardening like I do, you want to plant everything you see in the catalog, and it simply isn't practical.
Generally, the most common garden vegetables that must be transplanted into the garden or do best when grown from starts are broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, eggplant, leeks, peppers, tomatoes and turnips.
Those that should be direct seeded include beans, beets, carrots, corn, okra, peas and radishes.
Lettuce, spinach and other greens, cucumbers, melons and squash can go either way. Onions and potatoes do best when grown from sets, not seed.
Next week, we'll talk about the indoor planting schedule.