Tugging at the root, I shook off the dirt and tossed the scraggly tomato plant in the wheelbarrow. I then gathered up the spent cucumber vines and pulled up a few weeds. Finally, I untangled the season’s new blackberry canes, tying them up to the trellis to prepare for next spring.
I stood and surveyed the rest of my garden plot — the okra reaching for the sky, beans producing once again in the moderate fall temperatures, a successful late planting of summer squash, and carrot seedlings planted before summer’s end. But having spent the last two weeks clearing out overgrown weeds and spent summer crops, most of the garden area lay bare.
Like an unpainted canvas.
Suddenly, my late-summer exhaustion gave way to a new excitement and hope. My mind bubbled with thoughts and ideas for next year: how I’d do this differently or that better; how I’d scratch this crop altogether and add many more of that one.
Oh, the possibilities!
Typically I don’t begin planning the year’s garden until Christmas Day. It’s a kind of comfort habit of mine. Smack-dab in the shortest days of the year, when a brown earth sleeps outside the cold glass window, I wrap myself in a blanket, brew a cappuccino, read gardening books, and thumb through seed catalogs. While reading, I make notes and dream. And sometime in January I have my garden all planned out.
But a few years ago, I decided to make a change. Yes, planning a garden in the middle of the winter is a fun and cathartic activity. But I learned my garden — and harvest! — benefited when I began the planning process while the current year’s garden was fresh on my mind. Here’s how to get started planning next year’s garden in the fall.
Identify What Didn’t Go As Planned
As I pulled out those tomato plants, my thoughts held regret. I wish I would have had more tomatoes. Though I canned plenty of tomato sauce, tomato paste, and taco sauce, I didn’t get enough to can the amount of spaghetti sauce and crushed tomatoes to last me until next year. The same is true for my bell peppers. Had I earmarked the raised bed for bell peppers and tomatoes instead of paprika and poblano peppers, my pantry would have had plenty of spaghetti sauce.
Chances are, you have a few regrets in your garden this season. We all do. Jot those “wish I wouldda” down to keep in mind for next year.
Remember What Worked Well
My corn crop performed surprisingly well, and I enjoyed having two successive harvests. Now that I know how to grow corn, I’d like to expand and have three successive crops.
I also learned about the timing of summer squash and zucchini in my garden. With the yearly infestation of the squash vine borer, I learned that my very early crops produced well before eventually succumbing, and the one I planted in late July gave me a pest-free fall harvest. With that in mind, I’ll plan two separate plantings of squash and zucchini.
You think you’ll remember everything that worked well in your garden, but as time goes by — trust me — your memory will start fading. You may recall the stellar cucumber harvest, but will you remember how many you planted when it comes to mapping out next year’s garden layout?
Test Your Soil and Amend Accordingly
Fall is the best time to have a soil test done. Though you can do this at home, I prefer to use a professional service. Dig up dirt 6″ deep from several places in your garden, put it in a zip-top bag, and take it to your county extension service or send it to a professional lab.
See your options in the video below:
After you receive your results, you have have time to add compost, manure, lime/sulfur, and other organic amendments as needed. Doing this in the fall gives these amendments plenty of time to break down into usable nutrients before the next season.
Plan for Next Season Based on Achievable Garden Goals
Those seed catalogs, let me tell you. They’re like the Toys R Us Christmas Catalog to a child. One year I succumbed to trying too many new crops, and in hindsight I wasted valuable garden space on some of those new ideas. I always want to try new things, but I let myself get carried away.
Because the realism of what worked and what didn’t is fresh on my mind, I can plan the bulk of my garden for what I will truly want out of my garden. Then any remaining space I can use for fun.
I also have a realistic view of what I can keep up with. In the spring it’s tempting to want to expand the garden when the weeds aren’t growing. It’s easy to get in over our heads. But in the fall we understand what’s doable and what isn’t. When our gardens fit our capacity to manage them, they’re more likely to be successful, and we’re less likely to burn out.
Get Started Now!
Since your mind is fresh with this season’s hits and misses, it’s the perfect time to start jotting down what worked and what didn’t. I created a chart to allow me to begin to plan next season’s garden and I want to pass it on to you. It has a chart for each crop and allows you to work through how many plants you’ll need, when you should plant, location ideas, and other notes from the season. Here is how I used this chart for planning my onion and potato crops in 2017.
To print your copy, click here to download this chart (pdf) now!
My favorite thing to do — besides planning my own garden, of course! — is helping others plan theirs! Enter your e-mail address below for guidance on planning your garden. You’ll also receive my information-packed e-mails on Fridays to give you resources to help you plan and succeed in next season’s garden.
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