If you are serious about growing your own food, having a good map of your garden space is essential. At one glance it can show you what is planted where, any day of the year. It will also show when one crop is expected to come out and the next go in. My garden map is the one thing I refer to more than any of my other garden records throughout the year. Here is a copy of the map of part of my garden. As you can see, I add color to easily identify the crops grown.
To make your map, measure your area and draw it out, showing where the beds are. If you are making a garden for the first time, you need to decide where those beds will be. I prefer to run my beds from east to west. Four feet is a good width for most people. People with a shorter reach may prefer a 3’ wide bed, but I wouldn’t go any narrower than that, unless you are planting against a wall or fence, then the bed might be only 2’ wide. The wider the beds are, the more efficient use of space, but there is a limit. You need to be able to reach all parts of the bed without stepping in it. I would caution against anything wider than 5’. Label each bed with a number or letter or, in some cases, both. My large garden has four sections (A,B,C,&D), with each section having 9 beds. So I have A1-A9, B1-B9, etc. Maybe you want to give each bed a name. It’s your garden. Labeling helps to identify each bed in your planning. To get the measuring done, a 100′ tape measure is a great help and is fairly inexpensive.
There is more to a garden map than the outline of the beds. It helps your planning if all the beds contain the same area. Many of your crops will occupy a whole bed—tomatoes, corn, and potatoes come to mind. Some will need less space, such as lettuce and zucchini. Those can be grouped together in a bed. You will need to plan rotations and put those rotation arrows on the map. It is not good to keep planting the same thing in the same place year after year. That goes for things in the same crop families. You can plan so that the crop, or group of crops, that are planted in each bed rotates to the next bed the next year. There is a lot to explore in the area of rotations. Eliot Coleman has a chapter in New Organic Grower about rotations. Also, The New Self-Sufficient Gardener by John Seymour is a good resource on the subject. My pet peeve with computerized garden maps that are often available is that they only show you the plan for one year, with no rotations. It may be that part of your garden is shady and you have specific crops that go there. In that case you would have two rotation plans—one for the shady area and one for the sunny part. Maybe you have both large and small area beds. If the large areas are twice the size of the small areas you might do as Brent did in my garden plan video and count each large bed as two beds. Or, you might have a rotation schedule for the large beds and one for the small beds. If you have only one garden bed, consider rotating the spaces within the bed.
Once you have the map drawn, complete with the rotation arrows, have some copies made to play with. Write in the names of the main season crops you will have there and the beginning and end dates those crops will be in the beds. Your garden is out there every day all year soaking up the sun. Fill in the beds for the rest of the year with additional crops, cover crops, companions, etc. If you don’t plant something there, Mother Nature will. Once you think you have everything like you want it, take a good look. If you have overwintered cover crops or eating crops such as greens or carrots in a bed, the group of crops rotating to that bed the next year needs to begin with what’s already going to be there. If you plant garlic in bed B3 in the fall and the next year the crops from the current year B2 will be planted there, that selection of crops from B2 needs to begin with garlic. Most often it is a cover crop that will be overwintering. If a bed is the first to be planted in the spring with onions, lettuce, and sugarsnap peas, the cover crop planted there in the fall needs to be one that will winterkill. Or, you could prepare the bed in the fall and cover it with leaves. Pull them back two weeks before planting time to allow the soil to warm up. You can click on the pictures in my posts and they will each open larger in a new window. If you take a closer look at my colorful garden map you will see a couple places where the rotations don’t match for the next year. That’s because it shows what’s there right now as the first crop, but I’ve made some changes for next year, so the last crop in the bed will be with the new plan. For more information on planning cover crops for sustainability, refer to my blog posts Planning for Soil Fertility and Compost Materials on August 9, 2011 and Choosing Which Cover Crops to Plant Where on August 23, 2011. For cautions on bringing in outside sources of mulch and compost read Killer Compost from July 26, 2011. My video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden takes you through the year from March to November, showing you the different cover crops and how to manage them using only hand tools.
It is good to have a “to-scale” map, but in some cases your working map might look a little different, with the beds large enough to write in all the necessary information. Just as long as you know how much area you are working with and that what you are planning for that area will fit. In my video, Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan, I work through the rotations in this 4-bed plan. I’ve had people tell me they really didn’t understand rotations until they saw me explain it in the video. That video comes with a companion CD that includes this 4-bed map, plus worksheets to help you plan when your crops need to be planted, how long the harvest will be, and when the bed will be ready for the next crop. In addition, the CD has a 7-bed rotation map that corresponds with Betsy’s Garden at Sunfield Farm, the garden you see in the video. That map is included as a real-life example of a working rotation.
Now that you have your map as you like it, label it with the year and “Proposed”. Take two more blank maps (which is why you need to make multiple copies) and label one “Actual” and another “Amendments”. Put them in your garden notebook and fill them in as you go along. At the end of the season, you will have a record of what actually was in each bed and when. You will also have a record of anything you may have added during the year on the amendments map. Have fun with your garden maps. Spring will be here soon and you want to be ready.