Garden Planning 101

January 24, 2012

This is the second in our biweekly series from Amy Pennington – urban farmer, founder of GoGo Green Garden, and author of Urban Pantry and Apartment Gardening – on how to start growing your own food, no matter how tiny your garden-to-be is.

Today: Want to start growing your own food? You can do it. Here's your game plan.

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Garden Planning 101

- Amy

Gardening and growing food are two of the most intuitive things I have ever done. This is not to say that I've always had a green thumb. In fact, I've killed every houseplant I've ever owned (including a cactus) and have officially given up on keeping them. All of this is to say that anyone can garden. The only skill you need is the ability to observe. You have this, I promise.

Here is my disclaimer, which I'll likely repeat again during the lifespan of City Dirt; it is helpful to recognize that information often varies from source to source. It is also worth noting that gardening "experts" often use a combination of education and experience to offer advice and instruction on how to grow a bountiful garden. That doesn't necessary mean it will always work for you. I have opinions about what works and what doesn't, but there are many options for home gardeners. I also garden organically, 100%. This means no chemicals for killing slugs, adhering to a strict crop rotation schedule, and in general making decisions based on what is best for the soil, not what is best for me personally.

Additionally, gardening requires one to work with nature, and this is not an exact science. There are many variables in gardening — sun exposure, latitude, time of year, watering schedule, and more will affect the success of any planting you do. So although certain factual information having to do with nutrient requirements and plant science will not change among the information you read, strategies will. It's up to you to decide what works best for you and your garden. With City Dirt, I aim to give you enough information and tools to make informed choices. Happily, there is often more than one answer.


Garden Musts
When starting a garden at home there are three things to consider that will immediately contribute to your success.

1. You must have sun! At least 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight a day for leafy greens and 10 to 12 for fruiting plants (hello tomatoes, cukes, and beans). I know you hear stories about how arugula is a weed and can grow in any condition, or perhaps about a tomato that doesn't need full sun, but trust me on these numbers. In order to have a successful (i.e. fully mature) plant, you need sun. Track your sun pattern starting NOW. At what point does it hit your property? At what time? Keep a sun log that tracks the sun across your yard at various times throughout the day, so you can watch how the sun changes with each season. Remember, it is winter, so in northern states the sun is sitting low on the horizon. If it tracks across the backyard now, it may arch over the house come summer.

2. Access to water is also a must. If you have to lug gallon jugs up some stairs and across your property, the odds of you watering often are slim. Make sure you have a hose and spigot handy. Anyone installing over 60 square feet of beds may also want to consider an automated watering system (drip irrigation, soaker hose or sprinkler system) so a nearby spigot will make your life way easier.

3. And finally, your soil should be considered. Many soils can be remediated or conditioned, but if your house sits on a cement block, is deeply water logged, or is built on sand, you may need to consider container planting as your only option.

With these three key components in mind, you must choose a space for your garden. Choose the space that best encompasses all three considerations and know that this may not be where you want to put your garden. Far too often, I see clients forcing gardens to work in their linear and square back yards. Let go of landscaping "rules" and put the garden in a spot where you can expect it to be successful. If you're not starting out with your best foot forward, you're inviting frustration and problem solving into your future.


As for how much space to allow, assuming you have the option, consider both your time commitment and your eating habits. There have been a handful of surveys and studies done to estimate yield per square foot in a garden, but these are widely disparate and I find them to be only remotely useful. Instead of trying to figure out how much space you'll need, determine how often you eat at home and just what food your family consumes. Every garden I grow in has waste each season, though that is never the goal. Do yourself a favor and be honest. Are you a stay-at-home parent or green-dedicated cook who makes three meals a day with vegetables as a major component? Then you'll need a big ol' garden. If you're hoping only to start small, if you're one person, or if you have an active lifestyle that keeps you out some nights, a smaller garden will suffice.

I suggest starting with no more than 100 square feet your first year. Beds should be no more than 4 ½ feet wide, so you can reach in to the center with ease. I like a bed length to be 6 feet long, as well. (I explain why here.)



Sketch out the space to approximate scale and leave some surrounding space for future beds and/or a bed dedicated to perennials like sage, mint, or artichokes. Hang the sketch, think about it, and contemplate the space for a few weeks. This gives you an opportunity to change things around as you watch your sun pattern.

Garden Wish List
To help determine the amount of space you will need, I encourage gardeners to sketch out a garden "wish list" of vegetables they'd like to grow. This should be your big garden brainstorm of the year. Get creative! Be bold! Think about vegetables, herbs or fruits that are not widely available — think like a cook. Basil can be found in grocery stores all year long, so why dedicate precious space to grow basil? Try something new like cinnamon basil for summer teas or salads, or lime basil for Asian-inspired dishes. Instead of the perfect red tomato, which a farmer will likely grow faster than you, why not try some odd shaped little tomatoes? I love White Currant tomatoes for their clear skin, pale yellow hue, and sweet acidic taste.

Using this list, you will map out each of your garden beds over the course of the year, a topic we will cover in the near future. Next up, however, is seed ordering! Check back in two weeks for seed resources, ordering strategies, and suggestions for your first planting of the year.

Photos by Della Chen


See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • RogersParkCook
  • lorelu
  • Waverly
  • Sagegreen
  • gardenercook
I am a cook and food writer, author & gardener who is passionate about the environment, using sustainable resources, reducing my impact on the earth and making conscious food choices that are both smart for the planet and taste fantastic. When I'm not knee deep in dirt growing food, you can find me in the kitchen where I'm likely standing over a canning pot or staring up in to my pantry deciding what to make. In the gardens, I have a business gogo green garden, wherein I build, plant & tend edible gardens for folks in their urban backyards. I also launched a garden-sharing website in 2009 that connects urban gardeners to unused garden space across the country - Check it out!


RogersParkCook April 5, 2012
Thank you for starting this column. I just signed up for a plot through an urban garden project in my city. The plots are awarded through a lottery system so I won't know if I am awarded a plot or where it is located until later this month. I'm excited about the prospect of having fresh homegrown veggies this summer. I
lorelu January 31, 2012
garden... here I come!
Waverly January 30, 2012
Great article, thank you!
Sagegreen January 29, 2012
gardenercook January 29, 2012
AMY! as a long time gardener/cook/writer your "disclaimer" is right on the money and the perfect explanation of the ever-changing, ephemeral moving target that is "growing" - especially here in the PNW. In addition to crops of delicious kale, herbs and juicy tomatoes, the garden teaches us to be flexible and as you brilliantly said... observant!!!
Thank you!
missb503 January 29, 2012
This post made my morning! Taking at least a small stab at kitchen garden is a goal this year. Hopefully we'll see some sun so I can start tracking!
J3_Dog January 29, 2012
I also forgot to mention that I checked out you're website (KRISTEE). I saved it to my favorites and will sign up for it later today. Looks Awesome..... I am also always on the lookout for free seeds :o)
Amy P. January 29, 2012
Awesome thanks! Check out all sorts of 'green' fairs and trade shows for free seeds or join a seed swap. This year, we'll also cover how to save seeds, which is the ULTIMATE in garden seed selection as seeds will genetically evolve to your gardens conditions. Thanks for the nice words!
J3_Dog January 29, 2012
Very Nice Amy. I am also looking forward to planting this spring.
Lusty D. January 26, 2012
I anxiously awaiting my third vegetable growing season. I have a lovely raised box in my yard. I rotate my plantings every season. If any of you live in NJ it is worth a trip to Rutger's University (Rutger's Gardens) the weekend of Mother's Day. They have an excellent variety of vegetable plant starters - excellent heirloom tomatoes... as well as some hard to find herbs.
Valhalla January 26, 2012
This is great--I'm looking forward to reading about soil. I've been gardening for a few years, but I still feel clueless about soil testing. I have clay soil, so I built raised beds and topped my native soil with purchased topsoil and compost (about 50-50). Things have been going pretty well overall, but I know I could probably boost my yields of certain crops if I was aware of any soil deficiencies. When I read soil test instructions they don't make much sense to me--should I sample from all 8 beds, even though I grow different things and will certainly be scooping compost as well ? Any advice on soil maintenance would be greatly appreciated.
Amy P. January 29, 2012
We will definitely cover soil health in this column, particularly when setting up the garden. However, as you're entering your third season it is likely that you will need to amend your soil in some way. The best and only way to really know is to soil test. Good news is, you can send multiple samples (and yes, you'll take one from each bed and keep track/label) to one source and specify that you're growing vegetables. From there, some testing sites will actually tell you what and how much you need, so you're not left doing the math and running numbers. Check out UMass:
Karilyna January 26, 2012
I had a great garden last year, but had problems with an infestation of bugs in my cucumbers, probably cucumber beetles and also had an infestation of Japanese beetles on my crape myrtles and other plants.

Should I do something before planting to prevent the return of the pests? Are there some natural remedies to use that don't kill everything after the garden is started? I love the planning process and will have more space this year. I am eagerly looking forward to new crops this year.
Amy P. January 29, 2012
HI Karilyna, You'll need to rotate your crops this year. Don't replant cucurbitis plants, meaning melons/cukes/pumpkins/squash, etc. You want to confuse the bugs by switching things up! Another great organic solution is to plant a decoy crop for whatever is eating your plants. Keep us posted!
Kristee January 26, 2012
HI Ann. You are one busy person! Thought you'd like to know about a site I launched last May - It's for many of us who want to grow our own food but have limited time or feel overwhelmed with the process. Our goal is address the whole "Plot to Plate" experience. We have great seed partners too - Peaceful Valley, Baker Creek and Southern Exposure. I would love to hear what you think.... Thanks much. Kristee. Founder.
Kristee January 29, 2012
Oops. Mea Culpa Amy. I called you Ann.
Waverly January 30, 2012
I visited your site and am intrigued. It looks well done and I look forward to learning more!
Miafoodie January 25, 2012
Looking forward to following this series. I will be a container gardner but I'm sure a lot
of the information will pertain to me. Hoping for tomatoes that taste like tomatoes!!!
Will start collecting my supplies and start in March.
Amy P. January 26, 2012
HI Mia, We have an upcoming post on container gardening that will cover strategy and necessary supplies, so stay tuned!
Hilarybee January 25, 2012
Wonderful! I've been working on tracking the sun in my yard already and will start mapping out my new beds very soon. This is excellent advice and I love, love this column!
edamame2003 January 25, 2012
thank you thank you amy! I am so inspired and look forward to following along with you. great advice. i've already secured some 'odd' plants--a calamansi and kaffir lime...spending the next two weeks thinking about it until your next post.
Amy P. January 26, 2012
Awesome! Where are you located?! Sounds very tropical, so you'll want to consider humidity along with your sun.
mcs3000 January 25, 2012
Such great advice, especially about the sun. Stubbornly tried to grow tomatoes in SF, on a patio that does not get optimal sunlight (duh).
AnnieHynes January 24, 2012
Great advice!
Jay G. January 24, 2012
Pretty sure Tuesday will be one of my favorite days. Can't wait for more of these. Just did some indoor planting of leeks, artichokes, peppers, and eggplant--per my reading in square foot gardening. Would love to hear more of your thoughts on square foot gardening.
Amy P. January 26, 2012
Hi Jay, Thanks! As for square foot gardening, I think it is a tidy looking and easy tactic to wrap your head around for a beginning gardener. In small urban spaces, however, I prefer to plant intensively and will address this strategy in the coming posts. Basically, a much tighter bed then in square foot gardening, wherein every inch of soil is pretty well covered. More soon!
arielleclementine January 24, 2012
love this series! i just put in my winter garden (i live in Austin), and am excited to hear how to become a better gardener- thanks!
midnitechef January 25, 2012
I'm in Austin too :) I'm about to start seeds indoors while my second garden bed is under construction. I have a bunch of different seeds and some that were saved last year. Very excited to see this series on Food52!
StrawberryPye January 24, 2012
I'll have to measure, but I think there's no way I will be able to carve out 100 sq feet of garden on the space I have. Will you have any tips on how to maximize yield/foot?

Also, my landlord has the lawn sprayed periodically with killex and since the smell drifts, I assume the chemical does somewhat too, should I find something to cover up the veggies on these occasions or just wash them dilligently?
Amy P. January 26, 2012
HI JRoss - bummer about that weed killer. You have a few choices for best steps. You could raise the bed higher, so it is a hip height. You can wash your veg super well. OR, maybe try asking your landlord to give you a 5 foot radius and promise to weed his lawn for him?! As for small spaces, we will be discussing intensive gardening tactics that you can apply to any bed at all. Keep asking questions as they come up & stay tuned.