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What to Do First in the Garden

If you've ever grown a vegetable garden, I'm sure you have asked yourself the question, "What should I do first?" and if you haven't been asking that question, it's time to start! The order with which you approach the tasks on your to-do list can have a huge impact on your overall success, so this month, I am breaking down the ranking criteria we use to decide which of the next jobs on our list should happen first.

The premise that we are starting with is that we have more jobs on our list than we actually have time for each day. If this doesn't sound like you, well, congratulations. What's more typical for us growers with other responsibilities like kids and jobs, is that our dreams for our garden spaces can easily end up exceeding what is realistic for us to accomplish. At least, it can certainly feel that way. Yet, after the end of every busy spring planting period, I find myself looking back at the gardens coming to life around me and being amazed that all of the tasks have somehow been completed. I have no secret weapon and no, I don't get my tasks done in the middle of the night when our kids are sleeping. The only secret is that I don't accomplish everything on my list at the same time. I know that may sound a little radical in this world of instant gratification we live in, but so much of our garden's success can really be attributed to doing a collection of small tasks at the right time.

exhausted after spring planting
Spring planting does not have to leave you exhausted. Use the 4 levels described below to rank your task list.

Before we dive in to the lesson here, I suggest giving this ranking method a try right now. Start by making a list of all of the jobs you would have on your list during spring planting...or even list the jobs you have right now if you are at a different stage in your growing season. Once you have that long list assembled, you're ready to rank them in order of importance. Use the descriptions of the 4 levels below to help you assign a number (1, 2, 3, or 4) to each of the tasks on your list. Then look forward to your next garden work session, knowing that you are working through your list with direction and purpose.

Level 1: Keep Everything Alive

Okay, I realize this won't come into play until you actually plant something, but it still needs to be ranked first. From the moment you put your first seeds in the ground each season, your number 1 priority is to keep all of those plants alive and well. I know it is easy and sometimes a lot more exciting to let yourself get preoccupied by other new projects in your garden, but if you fail to maintain the life you have started, you lose all of the valuable time you have already invested.

cucumber seeds planted in soil blocks
Cucumber seeds just dropped into their 2 inch soil blocks.

Each time you seed you plant you take the additional responsibility of their care. They won't be able to send you a notification when they need you. You'll just have to keep showing up for them with the right resources at the right time. That means after the initial excitement of planting and watering these cucumber seeds for the first time, I will be responsible for keeping them alive and well until our growing season comes to an end in fall. With just one day of attention, I could plant some cucumber seeds, but there would be little hope of achieving any sort of harvest if I failed to hold up my end of the bargain from that day forward.

My responsibility as a grower also increases with the transition of seedlings out into the field. The photo progression above shows the transfer of hundreds of beet and onion transplants from their seedling trays into their final growing beds. It's pretty easy to keep your seedlings alive while they are in a concentrated seed starting area, but when those seedlings are transplanted into the garden, your responsibility does not come to an end. It's just progressed to the next stage. Since you will have already invested your time and energy in these crops, you owe it to yourself to continue their care in the field.

Plant maintenance isn't always the most thrilling, but if the work of keeping stuff alive is proving to be too much for you, then you really shouldn't be moving on to other tasks anyways. If you find yourself spending time in this area constantly, I encourage you to invest more in the automation of your irrigation and better weed management strategies. Watering and weed management are the two biggest time sinks for new growers. Use some of your level 4 time (see below) to address these problem areas.

Level 2: Plant and Harvest at the Right Time

Plant performance is highly dependent on the amount of growing time allotted so when it's go time, it's go time. If you miss the planting dates on your schedule, you will pay the price with reduced yields because your crops won't have enough time to mature and your relay planting combinations will be thrown off. The most important planting tasks on your list are the seeding tasks, because that initial seeding date determines a lot, whether you are starting a plant indoors or outdoors. You'll have other planting related tasks on your list like potting up or transplanting, but the timing with these tasks can be a little more flexible.

Our first seeding of peas this spring was a good example of prioritizing our planting schedule over other tasks. These early beds of peas were planted on April 27. I knew that I needed to get them started then in order for them to mature before being smothered by neighbouring beds of winter squash later in the season. I was too cold to turn on our irrigation system and I didn't have the time to set up trellising but that didn't matter. Those tasks could happen later. The important thing was that I put the seeds in the ground early enough to stay on schedule. I didn't end up adding the irrigation and trellising until three weeks later.

Once crops are planted on time, the next deadline we need to be concerned with is their harvest. Many of your crops will have an ideal harvest window that will come and go and you can't expect them to ping you when they are ready. If you are not present to do the harvesting at the right time, your crops will just spoil out in the field, erasing all of the work and resources you had previously invested in growing them. That's really not cool! Thankfully, not all vegetable crops are terribly finicky about their harvest timing, but there are a few crops that you really need to look out for. At the top of our harvesting priority list are cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and garlic. All of these crops are at their ideal stage of growth for a very short time so only the gardeners who pay attention are rewarded with the best quality harvests.

Level 3: Prevent Growing Problems

You can read this heading in two ways, but the intention here is to prevent problems that are getting worse with time, (ie. "growing" problems). A few examples of growing problems would be: a patch of weeds that is about to go to seed, a bed of overcrowded tomatoes wandering away from their trellis, and a new densely seeded crop that requires thinning in order for the plants to grow properly.

A mistake here would be to assume that all problems are growing problems but that's not the case. Some problems don't get worse with time. For example, a small leak in a drip line might send a tiny spray of water into the air unnecessarily, but the irrigation system still works. Therefore, a problem like this doesn't need to be dealt with immediately.

leaky drip line
This drip line has sprung a leak, but it can wait until I am caught up with level 1 and 2 tasks.

Level 4: Get Ahead of the Game

When you are all caught up with your tasks in levels 1, 2, and 3, feel free to put your feet up for a quick recharge, but don't just twiddle your thumbs for the rest of the season. Now is the perfect time to invest in making your future garden easier to manage. The types of tasks that fall into this final category are clean up jobs, automation projects, and infrastructure investments. Level 4 activities are not usually a matter of life and death for your plants, but it is still important that you do spend some time here, because the gains you make in level 4 can greatly improve your gardening efficiency and satisfaction over time. If you fail to invest any time on level 4 tasks, you will be forever trapped in an endless game of catch up in levels 1, 2, and 3.

Walk-in Netted Tunnel Over Strawberry Beds
Walk-in Netted Tunnel Over Strawberry Beds

One level 4 project of mine this spring was our walk-in netted tunnel for our strawberry beds. This addition to our home garden plot will make strawberry harvesting more enjoyable and faster for the entire month of July, so even though it required an upfront investment, the upgrade makes me a happier gardener and frees up more time for other tasks in the long run. Level 4 tasks are not always significant upgrades like this tunnel example. You can also use your level 4 time to get better organized or accomplish flexible tasks well in advance of their deadline. Is your collection of garden tools becoming more jumbled and confusing every week? Devote some time to getting them organized so that you aren't frustrated the next day you are looking for a tool. Need some compost for spring planting? If I had my pick, I would order that in fall so it's ready for me as soon as the snow melts.

That brings us to the end of this 4 level garden task hierarchy. I still rank my garden tasks every week using this criteria and it always gets me to the end of the season in good shape, so the next time you are feeling overwhelmed with the number of jobs on your wish list, run your jobs through this ranking system and start with the ones that come out on top. I hope that helps you navigate your way through the busiest periods of your growing season. Before I wrap this one up though, I do have an extra bonus tip that can make a world of difference!

Bonus Tip

This 4 level hierarchy does have one limitation. It only works if you spread your gardening tasks over a long period of time. It you try to cram all of your spring planting into 2 days, you are going to run into time limitations that no ranking system can solve. Our solution to avoid having all tasks fall on the same day is season extension. In fact, I would say that the most significant difference between our growing schedule and that of the typical home grower, is that we extend our tasks over a much longer period of time. There is a myth among growers in our cold climate that gardens should be planted at the end of May and harvested in early September before the first frost. However, in my years as a market gardener, I learned how to push these limits and discovered that they are entirely not true. Today, our outdoor planting, harvesting, and other outdoor field work extends far beyond our frost dates.

planting and harvesting timeline

The timeline above shows that we are doing garden related tasks in almost all months of the year, so your first thought about this season extension idea is that it is going to require more work. Therefore, I want to assure you that this is definitely not the case. The idea here is NOT TO ADD MORE WORK, but to SPREAD OUT YOUR WORK over a longer period of time so that you don't have to progress through your to-do list as the same rate. The luxury of spreading out planting over several months is that I only have a couple of key tasks each week.

If I had to squeeze all of my planting into a few days at the end of May, it wouldn't matter how well I could rank my priorities. There just wouldn't be enough time to get all of the work done and I would have to abandon any thought of raising my own seedlings. That said, it is possible to dramatically simplify one's crop selection and plant a huge area quickly, and this is actually an approach I would recommend to Pantry Gardeners. (See our Garden Type Quiz if you don't know your ideal garden type yet.)

Notice how the harvesting period is spread out on the timeline as well. It would be equally impossible for me to attempt to harvest thousands of pounds of food right before the first frost in September. In almost all cases, the timing would be wrong and I'd miss the chance to bring in the highest quality of food, and there simply would not be enough time to get all of the work done without a much larger work crew. With our family workforce of 1 or sometimes 2 adults, plus or minus a couple of toddlers, it is much better for our harvest to trickle gradually from May through November.

Now that we've covered that final tip, I'm officially ready to wrap this up. Go forth and masterfully attack your to-do list by focussing your energy in all the right places. If you'd like more help with figuring out the best strategies to apply in your own garden, get started with my Free Mini Course. You can find that here.


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