Sunday, January 3, 2010

Laying out the game plan

With 2010 seed packets beginning to arrive, my fingers are twitching to start the spring garden. It is months away, but I have promised myself that this year I am going in with a game plan. I used to be one of those gardeners who realized it was Memorial Day and would go to the nursery, buy some plants and plant them in one weekend-long burst of garden energy. I rarely considered eventual height, relative water needs or companion planting issues. If I found some interesting seed packets, I would scatter those about the remaining bare spaces. The resulting garden plot was usually productive, but never as much as it could be. It surely looked haphazard. And, by the time the idea of fall crops crossed my mind, it was usually too late to get anything started.

This year, I will have a more careful approach. This should help me have a true three seasons of harvests and should also help me keep my resolution of not over-planting vegetables. It will let me thoughtfully incorporate companion planting ideas. In a perfect world, this game plan would also limit the impulse purchases in the spring - ha! Inevitably a few wayward specimens will make their way in under the radar -- it is too hard to resist all the spring temptations. But no longer will I impulse buy three Thai hot pepper plants only to realize I have space for one, or purchase zucchini seeds when I already have two packets at home. If I know I am going to need certain supplies (new trellises, or large tree-size containers), I can scour the stores now, prior to the costly exuberance of the new season.

I do wish I wasn't forced to use my space quite so thoughtfully. There are those lucky gardeners who have a long, warm growing season and more than a narrow Chicago lot as their gardening canvas. I enviously imagine them strolling through their acres of sunny backyard, deciding to install berry patches on a whim, or planting a 25 foot row of okra without the slightest concern for the first hard frost. Unfortunately for me, each square foot of garden must be carefully considered. The growing season is short in Zone 5, and I must maximize the heat if I want to get certain vegetables on the table. Moreover, the cruel calculus of urban space rationing means no sandbox in favor of a strawberry bed; no swing-set in favor of one beautiful flowering tree. I remind myself that the sandbox would just be a toilet for alley cats, and that we live close enough to city parks that my child is most certainly not deprived of recreational opportunities.

I have been investigating various on-line garden planning tools. The two that were the most readily accessible were and the Gardener's Supply Company. Both have their merits, but neither beat out plain old pencil and paper. Plangarden has a nerdy feature that lets you track the harvest and the relative money earned from your crops. Gardener's Supply offers quickly accessed advice on how many seeds to use per square foot, as well as a printable, personalized guide to sowing and plant care. Neither one boasts a sufficient variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers in their preloaded menu of garden options. Moreover, I can't seem to find a feature in either that lets you plan for a double-use of the space (i.e. radishes followed by kale). In the end, I will resort to a pleasant afternoon of paper and colored pencils.

I am a shameless lover of Martha Stewart Living, and I aspire to the "garden inspiration boards" the magazine often features in its pages. If you read the magazine, and even if you don't, you probably know of what I speak: imagine expensive grosgrain ribbon crisscrossing a fabric-covered cork board (the fabric is usually robin's-egg blue). Beautiful photographs of plants as well as old-fashioned seed packets are tucked into the ribbons, and postcard-sized watercolors of flower beds are pinned carefully about. Usually this work of art hangs over a beautiful antique wooden desk arranged with gorgeous secateurs, unmuddied garden gloves and a few cuttings of rosemary. If only we all had such a station for inspiration! This is a far cry from my scribbles, hung with masking tape on a basement wall above an old laminate kitchen counter. It comes down to hopefulness either way, be-ribboned or not. Stretching before us is the new season, full of promise.


  1. What a wonderful post! I'm with you on the itching to get started and wishing I had more space *and* resolving to limit the impulse purchases. (No way I could quit cold turkey!)

    I guess no real gardener is going to have a setup like Martha Stewart, but we can certainly enjoy her inspiration. I found your blog equally inspiring -- and entertaining -- today. :)

  2. I'm right there with you on the desire to approach the garden with a plan this year. Last year we blew so much money on too many plants...not again! Please post your completed plan if you can! :)