Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
If you want to have a great garden, you have to plan for it. All year long.
Your garden is the heart of your homestead. You rely on it for all of your fresh fruits and vegetables. You can and preserve other garden items to get you through the less productive colder months.
As your gardening skills and confidence improve, you may even use your garden to supplement your homestead’s income, by selling fruits, vegetables and preserved foods at a farmer’s market or your very own community supported agriculture (CSA) program. But your garden is only going to thrive if you work at it.
The most critical task every garden must do is planning. Yes, all of the sweat equity is important, too. However, if don’t make a good plan, all of the tilling, planting, weeding and watering you do is going to be for naught. Planning your garden activities out will help ensure you have the most critical resources you need on hand, and will allow you to take advantage of all the opportunities that become available to you as well.
There are many ways to do all of your garden planning. One of the best ways is to allow the change in seasons to guide your planning efforts. Viewing your garden based on the way the seasons affect it can help you optimize all of the hard work you put into it.
A seasonal planning system can help you maximize your crop yields, and increase the satisfaction you get from putting the hard work in as well. Let’s look at how you can put seasonal garden planning to work on your homestead’s garden.
Planning on the Seasons
Relying on the seasons to guide your garden planning efforts is extremely useful. Each season brings substantial changes to your garden. There are tasks that must be done, preparations that must be made, and limits to gardening based on weather and temperature. Accepting the various seasons’ constraints allows you to leverage the most out of them.
Planning your garden season by season allows gardeners to focus on what is important at a particular time. For example, it may be folly to work your soil or start your tomato plants in the middle of December. However, winter may be the ideal time to buy terrific heirloom tomato seeds from your favorite catalogs, or let your poultry roam through the garden area.
Spring is obviously an important time to be working in your garden; however, if you’ve been selling your garden produce over the past year, it is also important to get your tax paperwork done as well.
Each season brings important tasks to plan and do. Some of them are critical to the “here and now” of the garden; others help set your garden up for success later in the year. Since the four seasons are an endless cycle, there is no perfect or imperfect place to start reviewing the planning process. So let’s start when most people are doing much more thinking about gardening than doing: the dead of winter.
Winter Planning Tasks
Most gardeners in the United States do little to no gardening work in the winter, especially in colder areas. However, winter is a critical time for garden planning efforts. Here are some of the most critical tasks you should complete during the cold winter months.
Make The Master Plan
When the weather outside is frightful, take the time to make a master garden plan for the next year. This is the plan that you will use to guide all of your gardening activities for the rest of the year. Your plan should include, at a minimum, the following:
- What do you intend to accomplish this year in your garden? Your goals can be as modest or ambitious as you desire; however, you should base your master plan on what you think you can accomplish over the next twelve months or so. Your garden goals for the year may include: the types and/or total yield of crops you want to harvest over the year; the introduction of a new crop; the establishment of expansion of a garden area; starting a CSA; or meeting a revenue target for your farmer’s market sales.
- If you’re a homesteader, money is one of your most critical and finite resources. One of the first checks you want to make on your master plan is that you have the money on hand to commit to it. Seeds, plants, fruit bushes and trees, and other garden resources are expensive. Make sure you do a good budget estimate to ensure you can afford to implement your plan. If it turns out that your plan is too costly to do, go ahead and modify it.; doing so will save you time, money and frustration later on.
- Time is your second critical resource. In order to use your gardening time effectively, make a month-by-month timeline to help you determine where and when you need to implement your master plan. Your timeline should include: when to purchase seeds, trees, plants and other garden stock; when to start seeds; when to sow seeds outside and plant your garden; when to harvest certain crops throughout the year; when to preserve harvested foods; when to move plants into greenhouses and cold frames; and timelines for planting and harvesting your CSA items. This is just a generic list to provide you an example; if you’re planning your garden tasks out, think of when you are going to have to commit time and effort to accomplish your goals, and record those times for future reference.
While there is software that can help record all of your gardening plans, using a spreadsheet or a handwritten garden journal can be just as useful. Alternatively, you can also write out your entire plan –goals, budget and timeline – on a dry erase board that hangs in your home office or garden shed. Doing so will make it very easy to reference your plan throughout the year, tally your progress, and make any necessary adjustment to it as things change.
Buy Seeds and Tools
Winter is a great time to get ready for the rest of the year. As you look at the master plan you’ve made for the year, you’ll likely identify plants you want to grow later on. If there are varieties you weren’t able to save from last season’s harvest, go ahead and order them online or from a catalog. Store them as directed, until you’re ready to sow them later on in the year.
Winter is the best time to buy tools and equipment for your garden as well. Outdoor items can often be picked up for a discount during winter months, since hardware stores want to keep sales alive during this time of the year. Look for great bargains at your local hardware stores during this time of year.
Clean Out Summer Garden Beds
Winter is a great time to clean out the garden beds you left fallow after the first frost. Clear out all of the dead vegetation (a great addition for the compost pile), and recover and store all of your stakes, poles, tomato cages as well. Let your poultry roam across your defunct garden beds, too; they’ll eat up remaining vegetable matter, gently turn the soil, and leave a little fertilizer behind to compost until the spring, too.
Optimize Your Winter Gardens
The majority of American gardeners don’t have much to show for the winter; they wait out the cold weather, and then go full tilt in the spring and summer. But if you’re a homesteader, your credo is to make the most of your land, no matter how big or how small, right? If you plan for it, you can continue harvesting fresh vegetables, even when snow covers the ground.
Photo above: cold frames like this one will let you extend your gardening season well into the winter
Winter is when your homestead’s cold frames and greenhouses truly earn their keep. Hardy greens will continue producing in modest cold frames well into the winter. You can expand your harvests even further if you build or purchase a greenhouse.
Here are some of the best plants to consider keeping in your cold frames+
Throughout the winter months, the key task you’ll have to do with your winter garden structures is monitor them. You may have to prop open a cold frame on unseasonably warm days to keep plans from wilting. On other days, you may have to remove snow from your plastic greenhouse to keep it from collapsing. Plan to spend time doing some maintenance on these structures after particularly bad winter storms as well.
Here is a great video demonstrating the benefits of winter cold frame gardening:
Finally, winter is a great time to optimize the gardens in your home. Sunny windows are great places to raise some fresh herbs that would otherwise go dormant in winter, like basil or mint. Having homegrown herbs on hand to spice up your meals or teas will definitely help keep those winter blues at bay.
Tapping And Boiling
Photo: make a plan to tap your sugar maple trees this winter.
Does your homestead have a stand of sugar maple or sweet birch tress on it? Plan on tapping them and boiling the sap into maple syrup this winter! We are fortunate to have over three-dozen mature sugar maples lining the perimeter of our New England homestead. Maple syrup is a valuable commodity these days; it is a top seller at farmer’s markets and in demand for CSA’s as well. If you have access to trees, make a plan to tap them. Sweet birch is another great tree to tap as well.
Most sugar maples come into sap in February, depending on the weather. You’ll need to have sufficient equipment, such as taps and buckets on hand, to tap them and capture the ap. You’ll also need a means to boil all of those gallons of the sap, and turn it into syrup. Making maple syrup is an easy but time-consuming process; make sure that you have everything on hand to make it this winter, and plan for the time required to process it.
Here is a great video that shows you how to tap maple trees:
AND another video that demonstrates how to boil down maple sap into syrup:
Spread That Compost
All of those fall items you placed in your compost pile have spent the last five or six months decomposing. Now, they have become that “black gold,” the crumbly compost that all gardeners covet. Go ahead and spread that compost liberally on your garden beds now, and mix it in with your soil. This will help ensure your soil is in the best shape possible for prime gardening season.
Spring Into Action
Spring is arguably the busiest season for gardeners. There is so much to be done. Let’s look at the key tasks you’ll need to plan for in order to have a productive spring in your homestead gardens.
Preparing Garden Beds
Early spring, after the snow melts, is a great time to prepare your garden beds for the planting that is to come. Make sure you have the material on hand – topsoil, compost, mulch – to prepare your garden beds. If you are making raised beds in your garden, you’ll need to ensure you have the materials to construct those as well.
Planting Seeds Indoors
Many of the most popular garden plants thrive when you start them off indoors as seeds. Late winter and early spring is the optimal time to start these. Make sure you have seeds on hand, as well as the appropriate growing medium the need to thrive. You should also ensure you have an effective light source to get them started off right as well.
Here is a great video that covers all the bases for indoor seed starting:
Sowing Seeds Outdoors
There are some seeds that do better when you directly sow them outdoors throughout various times in the spring. Beets, for example, are a great vegetable whose seeds can be sown outdoors in early spring.
Other plants, such as squash and cucumbers, can be sown directly into garden beds as well. Make sure you have those garden beds ready for them when the time comes. Here is a list of common vegetables that do best with direct sowing:
Plant Fruit Trees And Bushes
Spring is a great time to purchase and plant fruit bushes and trees and get your orchard in tiptop shape. Prepare space in your orchard, or clear a new one, so you are ready for new bushes and saplings. Then, be prepared to buy your plants at a nursery or online once spring is in full force. High quality fruit bushes and trees can be expensive, so it is important to account for this when you do your planning.
Maintaining your equipment is a year-round affair. However, early spring is a great time to make sure all of your mission essential gardening equipment is in proper working order. Change the oil and spark plugs on all of your gas powered engines, and fire them up to make sure they don’t have any major problems. Spring is also a great time to check all of your garden fencing, and make any necessary repairs as well.
Sharpen the blades on saws and other implements that need to be sharp. Replace any old, unserviceable components on important equipment that you’ll rely upon later in the season. Make sure that you can find tools, such as pitchforks, that you haven’t really used all winter but may need now that the weather is warming up.
Tax planning is something that you should do a little bit of every single month. However, when spring rolls around, you need to make a plan for your taxes in earnest. If your farm is income-producing, this is especially important. Many of the purchases you made for your garden, as well as any equipment purchases, may be tax deductible. You may be able to depreciate some of your farm equipment as well to deduct on your return; even your home office may be able to reduce your tax liability.
As soon as spring rolls around, start looking closely at the tax situation related to your homestead. If possible, try to meet with your accountant well before the April deadline as well. Working tax preparation into your seasonal garden plan can keep you from unnecessarily paying State or Federal taxes you aren’t liable for. It can also help you maximize your farm’s profits.
If you have planned ahead and planted accordingly, your garden will be productive throughout the spring. Many of the crops that you planted indoors or sowed directly will be ready to harvest at various points during the spring. Here are some vegetables you can expect to reap in your garden prior to the first day of summer:
- Various herbs
- Swiss Chard
- Leaf lettuce
- Fava beans
Be ready to harvest, store and preserve these vegetables, so you can make the most out of a productive gardening period.
Summer is another great month on the farm, with a great deal to be done. It is also another time where planning ahead can help you get the most out of your garden. Here are some major garden planning considerations you should make as summer rolls around.
You’ll begin harvesting the majority of your fruits and vegetables during the summer, so you need to plan accordingly. Be ready to pick and store your crops as they become ripe, and have a good plan to make the most of them; you probably can’t eat all of those tomatoes yourself!
Canning and Preserving
Preserving your foods goes hand in hand with preserving them. If you want to enjoy your fruits and vegetables well past harvest, or sell them to others later in the year, you’ll need a plan to preserve your harvest.
If you are going to can some of your fruits and vegetables, ensure you have all of the canning supplies you need on hand. You should also make sure you have the space in your freezer, or root cellar, to store crops you harvest in the summer as well. Having books on hand about canning, or using other methods to preserve foods, is helpful this time of year, so consider purchasing them at the first opportunity.
Here is a great video to whet your appetite on food preservation techniques:
Summertime is also prime selling time for a productive homestead garden. If you have a CSA, make a good plan for your weekly vegetable distribution; determine how much each of your CSA subscribers are going to receive, and have a plan for how and when you will harvest, assemble and distribute your subscribers’ weekly produce pickup.
If you are working the farmer’s market circuit, make a plan for which markets you will sell you produce in and when. Have a plan for how you’re going to pack your vehicles and man produce stands week after week; if you’re not going to do it all yourself, make sure you have reliable helpers lined up to support you.
Keep It Neat
Plan to put in some serious efforts keeping your garden under control during the summer months. You’ll have to weed your garden beds to keep unwanted plants from crowding out your fruits and vegetables. You’ll want to clear away any rotted or damaged fruits and vegetables from your gardens as well to keep the pests away. Keep your vegetables and fruit plants from being unruly as well. Stake plants like tomatoes to keep them from falling over onto other plants. Additionally, help climbing plants, like beans and peas, fins their support structures, so they develop correctly.
Manage Your Cold Weather Structures
You won’t need your cold frames during the summertime. Clean them up, and put them somewhere so they don’t get damaged. Move all of the stock out of your greenhouse that is ready to plant as well, and keep it well ventilated; summer heat in a closed greenhouse can kill your plants. Consider adding some cover, or shading paint, to help keep your greenhouse cooler on those hot, sunny days.
You want your garden to be productive for as long as possible. One way to increase its productivity is to sow late season crops you can harvest in the fall. Crops such as lettuce and beets can be sown again in July, and harvested right around first frost. That second sowing can keep your CSA active later into the year, or ensure that your family has fresh fruits and vegetables well after the leaves start falling from the trees. Here are some of the vegetables you should consider planting again in summer:
- Beets and beet greens
- Leaf lettuce
As the weather gets cooler, there is no reason to slow down your gardening activities. In fact, fall is a critical time in the homestead garden. Here are some of the key things you need to consider when gardening in autumn.
Harvest and Preserve Again
There are a myriad of fruits and vegetables ready for fall harvest. Apples and other fruits will be ripe in your orchard. Many vegetables will become ripe or continue to be ready for harvest in the fall. Ensure you have a plan to harvest them. Also, as in the summer, make sure that you are ready to preserve your fall harvest, so that you can enjoy it later in the year.
Sow Fall Crops
There are a handful of vegetables that are planted in the fall and harvested the following summer. Garlic is a prime example of these vegetables. If you want to have a great garlic harvest next summer, fall is the time to put the hard work in. Make sure you have sufficient seed garlic on hand, and a good, well-turned bed to plant them in.
Here is a video demonstrating how to plant garlic this fall:
Additionally, here are some other crops you should consider planting when the weather turns cooler:
- Beets (and beet greens)
- Leaf lettuce
Prep the Cold Structures
The first frost will kill most of your garden, save for the most cold-hardy plants. If you want plants to continue producing into the cold weather, you’ll need to use cold frames or greenhouses. Cold frames will buy you several more weeks of productivity on most vegetables, and even longer on winter-hardy ones. A greenhouse, if heated, will allow you to garden throughout the entire winter (although you have to account for your heating costs).
You can build cold frames easily out of cheap materials you have ling around rather easily. Greenhouses are a bit more complicated, but homesteaders who are adventurous enough to try the DIY route build them all the time. You can also buy both of these structures online. Setting a winter production goal for fruits and vegetables will help you determine how many cold frames or greenhouses you’ll need for the winter.
If you decide to build your own cold frame, here is a great DIY video:
If you get more adventurous, you can construct a greenhouse like the one in this video:
Save Those Seeds
If you grow heirloom fruits and vegetables, you can save the seeds from this season’s crop to plant next year. This will save you money, and it will help you ensure that you are planting only the most healthy, vigorous plants in your garden.
Once you have saved your seeds, make sure you label and store them so they’re ready to plant next year.
Here is a great video explaining how to save seeds from your garden:
Plant Cover Crops
If you want to keep your garden productive for the long term, planting cover crops in the fall can definitely help. Fall is the optimal time to plant cover crops like clover, ryegrass, or snow pea in your otherwise fallow garden rows. These crops will help loosen compacted soil, add organic material and prevent erosion in your garden, so it will be even better next season. Plan for planting these cover crops a month or so before the first frost, and let them get your soil in shape for next year’s harvest.
There are several terrific fall cover crops. Here are a few you should consider for your garden:
- Winter peas
- Fava beans
- Bell beans
- Winter rye
- Oilseed radish
Load Up That Compost Pile
The onset of the cold weather will provide you loads of material to compost. Put all of your spent garden materials, leaves, rotted or unused vegetables, and other items into your compost pile. They’ll all decompose over the next few months, and will be a great addition to your soil for the next season.
As a homesteader, your garden is your most critical resource. It is also going to consume much of your time and effort year after year. You can ensure the hard work you put in amongst your garden rows is worth the effort by planning effectively. A good plan can make sure you invest the right resources, and accomplish everything you want with your garden.
Using the seasons to synchronize your plan will help keep you in tune with the needs of your garden, and put you in the best position to take advantage of fleeting opportunities there. So what are you waiting for? Put a pen to paper and start planning your garden today!
When Tom Harkins is not busy doing emergency repairs to his 200 year-old New England home, he tries to send all of his time gardening, home brewing, foraging, and taking care of his ever-growing flock of chickens, turkey and geese.