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A Beginner's Guide to Plotting Your Yearly Garden

Hold your shovel — a successful garden starts way before May, and the most important tools are pen and paper. You may have noticed seed catalogs hit mailboxes in early January, and for good reason: Many experienced gardeners begin planning their warm-weather plots during the year's coldest days. Here's how you can get started on your own garden plan for 2021.

Drafting Your Garden on Paper

A person writing in a notebook on a wooden table filled with different gardening tools
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Before you move your dream garden from pinboard inspiration to real life, you need to create a garden plan. Many plant enthusiasts record their ideas, successes, and failures in a garden journal from year to year, keeping track of which tomatoes ripened first and the zucchini varieties that didn't work out. Scribbling down your own ideas can help you launch an inaugural garden that's successful and cost-efficient — no impulse buying seeds you won't use! Plus, early planning can ensure you start seeds at the right time to avoid purchasing costly full-grown plants. Here's what you should include in your first garden plan:

What do you want to grow? If you're interested in starting a small salsa garden packed primarily with tomatoes and peppers, you'll have different needs than someone filling a retaining wall with perky marigolds. Write out a list of the plants you're interested in growing. It's OK to be vague — you don't have to decide on specific varieties right now. This is a great time to reference seed supplier catalogs for general inspiration.

Where do you want to grow it? One magnificent thing about gardening is that you can tailor it to your specific needs and interests. For example, while some gardeners can't work with fewer than six raised beds, others pack a few plants into five-gallon buckets on their balcony. The key to this exercise is examining what kind of space you have, how you want to utilize it, and any pitfalls that might need to be remedied (such as a shaded patio or a backyard spot that's too rocky to dig). Jot down plans for building raised beds or tilling an existing inground plot, setting up a bucket or hay bale garden, or even trying hydroponics.

How do you want to grow it? Starting plants from seed is exciting because you get to participate in every stage of a plant's life cycle. It's also cost-effective, since individual full-grown plants can come with a hefty price tag. That said, while seed packets can give you many plants at a low price, purchasing grown plants can, in some cases, reduce the chance of failure. Onions, for example, can be difficult to get started from seed and transplanted, so purchasing onion bulbs is an easier alternative. It's OK to not grow every plant from seed; gardening is supposed to reduce your stress, not be the cause of it.

When can you start growing? Picking beginner-friendly plant varieties only goes so far if your plants head into the garden too early (or late). Understanding frost dates and how to work around them greatly increases your chance of success. In the U.S., a spring frost date is the average date of the last winter freeze, while a fall frost date marks the first; the number of days between is the length of your growing season. Frost dates depend on where you live and affect how plants thrive in your region. Some frost-hardy plants (such as peas, kale, and radishes) can be planted outdoors several weeks before or after frost dates and survive cold weather, while heat-loving tomatoes, flowers, and squash won't survive until nighttime temps reach around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Frost dates also influence the types of plants you should purchase; if you want to grow tomatoes but live in a region with a short growing season, you'll need to buy quick-maturing plants that produce fruit early on.

Purchasing Seeds and Supplies

Four seed envelopes on a table with a notebook
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With a garden plan in place, you can now dive into the fun part: seed buying. The specific plants you choose should reflect your skill level, available space, and location. Refer to your garden plan to pick out varieties that fit your unique gardening situation. For example, if you want cucumbers or green beans but don't have a ton of space on your patio, consider bush-type plants that require less room. Luckily for home gardeners, seed companies provide expansive selections at bulk rates since they sell directly to consumers. (This can pay off for lettuce, kale, and other vegetables you eat a lot of.) You should know, though, that you're not limited to purchasing from catalogs. Many novice green thumbs start with inexpensive seed packets purchased from home improvement stores..

In most cases, there isn't a noticeable quality difference between catalog and store-bought products, so long as you're getting the freshest seed. Seeds are harvested the season prior and packaged for the following year's use, so when you're purchasing in person, be sure to check the envelope packing date. While some seeds can last several years if stored properly, others have short lifespans regardless. Parsnip seeds, for example, are only viable for one year, while corn seeds may last up to three. If you do use older seeds, know that the rate of germination drops each year, so you'll need to sow extra seed to make up for the dead stock.

Winter can be a great time to purchase general gardening supplies, too. Retailers may need to clear out plant markers, trellises, seed starter mix, and containers from the previous gardening season to make way for incoming stock, so it's possible to snag a good deal on tools and other items.

Preparing Your Indoor Space

Plants in plastic containers inside
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Even if winter is still raging where you live, there are things you can do to begin preparing your planting space. Now's the time to set up an indoor seed-starting spot — miniature greenhouses, grow lights, and heating pads really can jumpstart warm-weather plants, especially if your home is kept cooler or doesn't have a great source of sunlight. But know that gardening doesn't require a massive financial investment; even a draft-free, south-facing windowsill can nurture young plants until they make their move outdoors.

If you're planning to add new garden fixtures, such as raised beds or a compost pile, you can begin building these structures indoors if space allows, or gathering materials so they're ready for construction on a warm spring day. But in most cases, prepping actual outdoor spaces like in-ground garden plots should wait until the soil has thawed. In the meantime, you can prep the garden tools you'll need for tilling, weeding, and other tasks. Removing dirt clods, oiling wooden handles, and repairing or replacing worn-out tools can make garden labor more enjoyable when the time comes.

Planting and Caring for Seedlings

Two people planting seedlings
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After setting up your temporary indoor plant hotel, it's time to start planting. Your seed packages contain the best information for when to start seedlings based on your frost date; generally, the longer a plant takes to mature, the earlier you'll plant the seeds. You can keep track of these dates in your garden journal by making a seeding schedule that ensures your plants are ready to transplant in warmer weeks ahead.

Not all plant varieties should be started indoors, however. Many fruiting, long-growing plants — such as peppers, tomatoes, cauliflower, herbs, and decorative flowers — benefit from indoor growth, but most root vegetables, such as carrots, radishes, and onions, should be planted directly where they'll grow. The same goes for plants with roots that struggle to survive transplanting, such as lettuce.

Nestle seeds into a well-draining seed-starting mix; you can purchase a premade blend or make your own from peat moss or environmentally friendly coco coir. Seeds won't need light until sprouts appear, but heat is important since germination for most plants occurs best between 68 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. You may find that a heat mat helps germination occur faster, but it isn't necessary if plants are kept in a warm spot.

Seedlings grow best when watered from the bottom, where their delicate roots can access water and any light fertilizing you may add after their true leaves develop. If young plants lean to one side or the other, you'll want to rotate them to ensure their stems grow strong. Before long, you'll be ready to transplant healthy seedlings into larger containers or prepare them for heading outdoors into warmer weather — the perfect daydream during tough midwinter days.