Six Questions Before Planning A Vegetable Garden

Are you planning a vegetable garden this year? Trying to decide what to plant, whether or not to start seeds indoors and what else you need to consider?

I’d love to help because I love vegetable gardening. There’s nothing better than watching a seed turn into something you can eat. Perhaps it’s even more remarkable here on the prairies where it all happens so fast. One week we’re threatened with a snow storm, the next we’re out in the garden planting our hardiest plants and within mere weeks we’re harvesting our first crop. It’s simply amazing.

I want you to have that feeling.

This article on planning a vegetable garden encourages you to think carefully about your garden plans in hopes of avoiding disappointment and frustration. Gardening takes a lot of planning, work, determination and patience. You’re working with Mother Nature – she can be fickle and turn your best laid plans topsy turvy! Go into it with eyes wide open. Be prepared, have fun and enjoy the process – regardless of the outcome.

Start with these questions when choosing what to grow.

6 Questions for Planning a Vegetable Garden

 1. What do you love to grow and eat?

Grow the things you really love to grow and eat.  You’re putting a lot of effort into this garden – you might as well grow your favourites!
I love growing and eating peas, beans, carrots, zucchini, cucumbers, kohlrabi, tomatoes and beets.  Peas, because they’re the first crop of the season and are so amazingly sweet and delicious.  Beans because they’re so easy to grow, easy to freeze and will last us a whole year.  Carrots because for the longest time I couldn’t grow them – but now I can and nothing beats a homegrown carrot!  Zucchini because they’re such amazing producers that there’s always some to share with friends and family – whether they want them or not! Cucumbers because I love cucumber salad with the fresh dill that grows all over the garden.  Kohlrabi because it’s unique and connects me to my German heritage.  Tomatoes because those red things they sell at the store just aren’t the same.  Beets because I have just recently learned to love them.
fall produce

2. Do you want to start seeds yourself or buy plants?

The notion of starting seeds, moving them to your garden and harvesting delicious vegetables sounds so romantic. Who wouldn’t want to be champion of the entire cycle of life?!  The truth is, it’s not that easy. Starting seeds indoors can be tricky, you need the right light, soil and space. And you need to manage those little seedlings as they grow and take over your space.
Buying transplants from a garden center is NOT cheating. For many gardeners, especially first time gardeners or those with limited space, it’s the smart thing to do. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
Buying transplants also gives you the chance to choose more varieties and try new things. For example, if you start your own tomatoes, you’ll likely stick to two or three packages and if you seed them all, you’ll end up with so many plants you’ll be overwhelmed. If you buy from a greenhouse, you’ll likely choose 6-10 different plants with unique shapes, colours, tastes and textures. A much more enjoyable experience!
Yes, you can save money on seeds vs transplants – but only if you have the right space (light, air movement, temp) and the patience to properly harden off seedlings so they can survive in the outdoor world.
Personally, I choose a combination of starting some seeds and buying plants. I start seeds for small plants (easier to manage indoors in my small space), ones I want multiples of (to save money), ones that are easy to grow and some that can be difficult to find as transplants. Usually my seed starting includes basil, parsley, marigolds, hot peppers, kohlrabi, kale and leeks. I usually buy tomatoes, sweet peppers, perennial herbs, cucumbers and squash.
And, of course, when planning a vegetable garden, don’t forget all the veggies you can seed directly into the ground:
onion sets
swiss chard
garlic (plant cloves in fall)

3. What veggies are easiest to grow? 

If you are new to gardening, you’ll have a much more pleasant experience if you start with a few time-tested, consistent winners. Talk to your gardening friends and neighbours and asks them which veggies consistently produce well for them. Every corner of our province, even our city has unique conditions, so what does well in one place, might not do so well in another. That’s why it’s important to get the local perspective. Local gardeners will know all about your weather patterns, soil conditions, common pests, pollinator patterns (yes, it does matter!), rain, etc. If you don’t know any local gardeners, check for a local gardening Facebook group like Gardens Manitoba.

For planning a vegetable garden here in Winnipeg, with our crazy heavy clay soil, I would say the easiest veggies to grow are the following. Just remember, every vegetable has unique needs, be sure to read and follow instructions for planting each one.

peas – shelling peas and/or sugar snap peas
bush beans – try yellow, burgundy and green wax beans
peppers – I find hot peppers are easier than sweet peppers

If you lighten our heavy clay soil at the beginning of the season, root crops like the following are also good.
potatoes – if you don’t mind dealing with potato beetles

planting leeks

4. What veggies are just too much time and effort for you? 

Fresh baby potatoes – yum!  But as good as they are, I’ve decided that the messy battle with potato beetles (ie squishing those gross salmon coloured larvae) is just not worth the 5 potatoes per hill that I’m able to harvest out of our heavy clay soil.  I’m quite content to buy my baby potatoes at the Farmer’s Market!  Think about the veggies that cause you the most frustration.  Do they deserve a place in your garden plans or are there alternatives that will make you a happier gardener?
Cauliflower and cabbage are another two veggies I have given up on growing myself. Again, it’s the battle with the pests that take the fun out of it for me. Immediately after planting, the flea beetles come and devour the plants, they’re ruthless and have destroyed several crops. You have to cover all cabbage family plants with a row cover to survive the onslaught. If your plants survive that, you have to contend with the cabbage moth and it’s larvae in late summer. The row cover works best for that too, but I don’t enjoy hiding my veggies all summer long. To top all of that, cauliflower takes extra attention to make sure you get a nice head of white cauliflower. You have to make sure the top is covered with leaves. Ugh – too much work for me! I’ll buy my cabbage.
planning a vegetable garden pests
Don’t sweat it, there are tons of local growers and Farmer’s Markets for you to get fresh, local veggies from. These growers know what they’re doing and they’ll be there for us. Look up a Manitoba Farmer’s Market at Direct Farm Manitoba.

5.  What’s the condition of your garden and your soil?

Is your garden ready for the kind of veggies you have in mind?  Do you have a fence to protect your garden from deer or bunnies?  What’s the condition of your soil?  When was the last time you added some organic material into your soil?  How will you water your garden? Your answers to these questions may impact which veggies you choose to plant and what kind of prep work you need to plan for.  For example, I know that I can’t successfully grow carrots in my clay garden unless I loosen the soil 6 inches deep, add some compost, cover the seeds with a light layer of soil, keep everything evenly moist and cover it with a light layer of straw. 

If you’re converting a lawn into a garden, chances are your soil is missing vital nutrients and is too compact to have a great crop of anything – you’ll have to add some nice three way mix.

6. What are your summer plans and how will they impact your gardening?

Summers are short and sweet in Manitoba.  You gotta enjoy every moment of them.  And while the garden is a big part of that enjoyment, many of us also take time to travel, go to the cottage or explore other parts of the province or country.  It’s important to plan for extended time away from your garden.

Last summer, my family and I had several adventures planned that took us away from the garden for 3 weeks in July and 3 weeks in August.  That’s prime gardening time! For a while I thought I would have to give up the garden altogether.  I love the garden, the soil, the seeds, the growth, the weeding (weird, but true), and of course the harvest.  The thought of not having my plot to putter around in was depressing, so I ran through my list of options:

  1. don’t plant a garden
  2. ask friends and family to watch my garden
  3. hire someone who provides a professional garden sitting service
  4. plant a cover crop for the season – clover or alfalfa (not sure what my neighbours would think of that)
  5. share my garden with someone else
  6. plan a veggie garden that would work around my schedule and hope that Mother Nature will offer up the optimal conditions for such a plan to work

In the end, I did a little bit of #2, #5 and #6. Number six meant I had to study my handy dandy planting chart to see which plants to grow, when to start them and which plants I shouldn’t grow.

planning the garden

For those of you who are planning a vegetable garden this year, I say whoo hoo, go for it and let me know how it’s going for you.

If you love the idea of fresh garden veggies, but you realize you don’t have the space, time or energy for all the little things that go with growing a successful garden, not to worry. Try a pot of herbs or tomatoes on the patio and go visit your local Farmer’s Market. Totally legit!

Getty Stewart is a Professional Home Economist,  speaker, frequent media guest and writer dedicated to putting good food on tables and agendas.  She is the author of several recipe books on enjoying and preserving fruit, Founder of Fruit Share, a mom and veggie gardener. Sign up to get articles by Getty delivered to your inbox. You’ll get recipes, practical tips and great food information like this.

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    1. Hi Donna,
      I love rhubarb and think everyone should have at least one plant. Rhubarb can be split and shared quite easily, so if you have a friend with a well established old rhubarb plant see if they’d be willing to divide the root ball and let you have some. It’s actually good for the original plant as well. Be sure to pick a good spot for it – sunny, good drainage and add some compost every year and you should be good to go. It takes at least 2-3 years to get it well established before you can harvest, but after that it’s super easy. Bonus – it’s pretty pest resistant.

  1. Thank you for your brutal honesty on what is not worth the effort, time or frustration! I’m exactly the same way – grow what is enjoyable and buy what is a pain in the neck.

    1. Hi Donna,
      Your welcome, might as well tell it like it is! We are fortunate to be able to pick and choose what to grow and go to the farmers market or grocery store for everything else. Happy gardening!

  2. For the potato bug problem, diatomaceous earth is environmentally friendly. It is made from crushed fossils and works by cutting the soft undersides of the bugs, so is a mechanical rather than chemical insecticide. Use it for flea beetles, and the cabbage worm that attacks broccoli etc. I used to plants red (Norland) potatoes to have young, but because commercial potatoes are sprayed with pesticides/fungicides I now plant Kennebec as well. They will keep well in a cool dark place the longest without getting soft and sprouting. Hope this helps people who grow vegs to stay away from chemicals.

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