The most important element of a garden is the plan. Without a good plan the would-be gardener is inviting disaster. Everything the gardener plants is out for itself. Your sweet potatoes won’t hesitate to invade . . . well, everything. The same goes for squash and pole beans. Your tomatoes have no reservations about toppling over their trellis and smothering whatever is in their way. Despite thousands of years of selective breeding the law of the jungle still rules. In other words, your cucumbers don’t give a damn about their community (the garden); they just want to set fruit and spread their seed.
The wise gardener takes this into account in his plan; He uses this selfish vigor to his advantage without being drawn into the futile exercise of actually fighting it. If you fight against these natural impulses you will loose.
Someone I can’t remember once compared a garden to a contest between Apollonian order and Dionysian chaos. At the beginning of the season order reigns, but as the months pass chaos comes increasingly to dominate. The gardener must accept this. We are never in complete control. Without a good plan we have little or no control at all.
I usually start planning my garden in late January. You cannot plan it too early. The more time you have to get supplies together and do all of the necessary preparatory work the better.
One of the most important elements of the plan is soil preparation. This includes any amendments to the soil to improve texture or add nutrients, as well as building raised beds or grading the soil. You don’t want to rent a tiller with the plan of preparing the soil and getting everything planted in one day. Getting the soil ready a few months ahead of time, if possible, will make your life easier. Unlike planting itself, soil preparation can be done any time the ground is warm and dry enough to work. Sometimes this is preferable, as some soil amendments are more effective if they are allowed to interact with the soil for a period before planting. I will go into more depth on the subject in a future post.
Something else that needs to be considered is weather or not you want to buy “starts” or seedlings, or buy and start your own seeds. For a small garden the extra cost of buying starts is negligible and can save a lot of effort. For a larger garden the cost can add up quite a bit. Buying your own seeds not only saves you money, it gives you orders of magnitude more options; Only a small fraction of the most popular varieties are available at local nurseries. Occasionally you will get lucky. If you have access to a local nursery that offers unusual varieties of vegetable, all the better! Also, while I prefer trying out unusual heirloom varieties or less well known vegetables, there is nothing wrong with the common varieties offered at most local nurseries. The point is to figure this out ahead of time so that you can plan accordingly.
Seeds and other supplies can be bought locally or through catalogues or online. I prefer to get my seeds online, as this gives me the greatest variety to choose from. To save costs I try to get my seeds from as few places as possible; I also try to support companies that are working to preserve older varieties. Here are some of my favorites:
Terroir Seeds at http://www.underwoodgardens.com/ . An amazing selection of heirloom seeds.
Territorial Seed Company at http://www.territorialseed.com/. Also a great selection of heirloom seeds and supplies.
Outsidepride at https://www.outsidepride.com/. A great selection of cover crops and green manures.
Gurney’s at http://gurneys.com/. A good source for more conventional varieties of both seed and plant, as well as a few heirlooms.
I prefer to get as much of my supplies as possible locally. Unfortunately, many of the tools and amendments I need simply aren’t available locally. Some of the best tools for the small-scale horticulturalist aren’t even available in the country. This is the inevitable result of a food system centered on large machinery and synthetic chemicals. Fortunately, things are changing, and more and more products for the organic grower are available all the time.