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How We Take the Guesswork Out of Garden Planning

Have you ever found yourself strolling out to your garden plot with your seeds and tools in hand, only to arrive and be reminded that you still don't actually know how much of each crop you should be planting? Suddenly, you recall more questions like, "Did we plant two or three rows of peas last year? And how long were those rows again? How many carrots is even the right amount for us to grow anyway?" Those scribbles you jotted down on paper a few weeks ago might have helped you feel like you had a plan, but it's far from specific and leaves a lot open for improvisation.



A carefree approach like this isn't necessarily bad, and it can work alright for lots of other things in life. You can show up at the gym with no real plan and still get a good workout, or you can set yourself in front of a blank canvas with some paint and see how the mood strikes you in the moment. Vegetable gardening is an entirely different kind of activity. While it could be considered an art form, it is one that will only thrive with a well thought out plan in place. So in this post, I want to inspire you to give the planning phase of your gardening work a healthy dose of math. (If your brain just screamed, bare with me. There is a huge upside here and our computer is going to do the math for us.)


First, I want you to imagine that your vegetable garden planning is just like planning a grocery shopping list. You can wing it if you want by heading to the store without a list, but how many times have you done that and actually returned home with exactly what you wanted? If you're like me, that hasn't happened very often, if ever. Given that your vegetable garden is your own private grocery store, it only makes sense to start by making a list of the items you want and in what quantity.


Next, I want to remind you that the stakes even higher for your vegetable garden shopping list because you only get to make one list for a whole year. How careful would you be with your actual grocery list if you only got to make one trip to the store each year? Do you understand the need for a little more accuracy now? Thankfully, we can dial in our production targets by following a straightforward process and getting our computer to do almost all of the number crunching for us. Let's dive in to the three steps that make our garden planning a breeze.


Estimating Consumption


The question of how much to grow has to begin with the question of how much you plan to eat. Therefore, we start our garden planning by estimating the amount of each crop that we wish to consume during every month of the year.


For any crop that we plan to eat on a year-round basis, this is pretty simple. We just estimate the amount we would want to eat each week, multiply that by four to get a monthly estimate, record that same amount for every month of the year. Almost all of our crops will fall into this category because as homestead gardeners, we aim to equip ourselves with a year-round supply of vegetables. Some crops, like beets, carrots, and onions, we can easily store year-round in their raw state, while other crops, like squash, peppers, and tomatoes, will require some type of processing to preserve their value throughout the year. Regardless of the storage method, we can still fairly estimate the monthly consumption for each crop.


For any crop that is best enjoyed seasonally, like fresh cucumbers, melons, or snap peas, we only estimate consumption for the periods of the year when we know these crops will be available for harvest. This is a good reminder of the cases where our RATE of consumption needs to closely match the RATE of production. For example, if our garden can only produce fresh snap peas during a 4 week period in early summer, we need to make sure that we actually want to eat ALL of the snap peas we plan to grow during that period of time. Your family might enjoy gradually eating 20 lbs of snap peas in a year, but without consideration of the limited harvest window and storability of a crop like this, you could unintentionally flood yourself with 20 lbs of snap peas to eat in just a few weeks. You might not enjoy them quite so much at the end of that experience.


Once you have written down your monthly estimates in pounds or kilograms (not a vague unit like cups or buckets), all you need to do is add them together and you've got a pretty accurate production target for each crop you wish to grow.


Watch the video below to see how this first step plays out using our Production Calculator. In the next step we'll determine the amount of space we need to grow each of these crops in the appropriate quantity.



Calculating Production


This is the fun part of the process where we get to see how much land it will take to grow the amount of food we want to eat. To do this accurately, we need to know how to produce a crop consistently and the yield we can expect per square foot from that crop. Contrary to what you might have heard or experienced about vegetable growing, it is possible to get very consistent production from year to year. When you get in the habit of good record keeping, you'll also be well equipped with your own yield per square foot numbers to use. It takes time to get there by yourself, so I start my students off with all of our yield per square foot numbers based on years of growing.


The basic calculation we do in this step looks like this. We take the amount of beets we wish to grow and divide that by the amount of beets we expect to harvest from each square foot of bed space.


In the case of beets, that calculation would look like this:


Beet Production Target = 28 kg

Beet Yield Per Square Foot = 0.60 kg/sqft

Beet Production Area Required = 28 kg ÷ 0.60 kg/sqft = 46.67 sqft


There. That wasn't so bad was it, but since the process is the same for every crop, we might as well use a computer to do all of that work for us. While we're at it, let's also get the computer to incorporate our standard bed size into the calculations so it can just tell us the number of standard beds we need to plant for each crop. I value accuracy, but I don't want to be out in my garden measuring an area that is 46.67 square feet in size before I plant my beets. I just want to know how many standard beds I should devote to beets in my garden plan. If you are new to the idea of standard bed sizes, I am sorry, but we have to skip that concept for now to keep this post reasonably short. However, you can catch yourself up to speed with my Free 4 PartTraining. I cover the importance of bed standardization in part two of that workshop.



Standardization


I love seeing the bed numbers roll out from the previous calculation step, but those numbers won't necessarily be easy to work with. They might happen to round out to nice whole numbers but they are more likely going to be in decimal form like 1.764 and 2.348. I don't want to plant 1.764 beds of carrots. I want to plant 2 beds of carrots. So in this last stage of production calculation, we take the numbers our spreadsheet has provided and we make them fit into a standardized system. This makes our garden planning work infinitely easier.


Before I start rounding our figures to whole numbers, I check to see how much of our bed space we have used so I know if I need to be using up more space or reducing our space requirement. For example, if I am working with a plot of 20 standard sized beds and my production calculations show that I only need a total of 15 beds, I can choose to round my bed numbers up to use more of that space. Alternatively, if my production calculations show that I need 35 standard beds when I only have 20 available, I should probably round most of my bed numbers down to the nearest whole number. I say "probably" there because it IS possible to have a higher bed count than the number of beds that you actually have in your garden. There is no magic required here. This is just due to the fact that two or three crops can sometimes be grown in the same bed in a single season. For example, we had a total of 37 beds available at our two home plots last year and we planted 46 beds worth of crops in these beds throughout the season.


Now, the keeners among you are probably wondering just how much your bed totals can exceed the number of beds you actually have. Could you fit 30 beds worth of crops into 20 beds, 40 into 20, 60 into 20? The answer totally depends on the crops you are planning to grow, but I can tell you that with our diverse selection of crops for our homestead garden and appropriate crop proportions for a family of four, we can typically plan a bed count at least 25% higher than the number of beds we actually have. That means if we have 40 physical beds in the field, we can comfortably fit 50 beds worth of production into that space with the use of relay planting. (If you are new to the idea of relay planting check out this post that offers more of an introduction.)




If I discover that our bed total needs to come down a little, I will first look to decrease the bed numbers for crops where excess harvest is difficult to store such as watermelon, or reduce production of crops that are more specialized, like cauliflower. If that doesn't get us all the way down to the proper size, then I need to start cutting more staple crops or getting more creative with our relay planting and interplanting to maximize production in our growing space.


Lately, I find myself looking for ways to use more space because we have recently downsized from a much larger urban farm operation to now grow mostly for our own family. When I need to round bed numbers up a little, I first look to staples in our diet like potatoes, onions, and winter squash. Crops like this are usually pretty good at making use of extra space without adding much more labour. I can also devote more space to less productive crops like shelling peas, dried beans, and even grains. These aren't the best crops to start with because the outputs don't justify the inputs economically, but there lower yield per square foot makes it easy to cover a lot of space without being left with an overwhelming amount of produce to pack away for the winter.


Once I have rounded all of the bed numbers to fit neatly into our standardized bed system, I can proceed to lay out our garden plan, confident that there will be enough space to achieve our production targets. This task of garden planning is another fun subject but we'll leave that one for another time because you've got work to do. You now know the full process we use to take the guesswork out of garden planning, so pull out a piece of paper or open up a new spreadsheet and get to work on that annual grocery list of yours. If you'd like to accelerate your progress, this Production Calculator and all of its formulas and proven yield ratios are waiting for you inside the Seed to Table course along with much more thorough instruction and support for your journey.

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