There are a few things you need to consider when making your plan for the year (yes, you need a plan!). But it doesn't have to be a 20-page color coded plan. In fact, it can be a simple drawing on graph paper. But I use and recommend an excel spreadsheet. The plan should be built around (1) the space needed, (2) the timing of planting, (3) what will grow in your climate, and (4) the type of seed / how it grows (ex. vine or bush, single harvest or continual picking).
Your plan should be solid enough to help you remember everything, but loose enough that you can make adjustments. Trust me, we have NEVER had a year go exactly according to plan.
Most of our backyards are small. So the struggle lies in putting as much as you can, in as little space as you can. In Salt Lake, many urban farms have developed some really unique ways of squeezing everything in. We give plants extra room if we can, because a field setting is quite different. But aside from googling and pinteresting ideas, here's a general guide:
- <1 inch between seeds (these are your space savers!): Carrots, Beets, Radish, Dill, Green Onions, Cilantro
- 3-6 inches between seeds (or ~2 in radius) : Green Beans, Peas,
- 1 foot between seeds (or 6 in radius) : Basil, Sweet Corn
- 18 inches between seeds (or 9 in radius) : Cabbage, Kale, Peppers, Sunflowers,
- 3 feet between seeds (or 1.5 ft radius) : Zucchini, Yellow Squash, Cucumbers, Tomatoes, Watermelons, Cantaloupe
- 6 feet between seeds (or 3 ft radius) : Pumpkins, Winter Squash (Spaghetti, Banana, Butternut)
- Peach trees need about 5-10 feet on all sides. If given more space and pruned properly, you can get 3 bushels of peaches on one tree every year (1 bushel = 50 lbs so 3 bushel = 150 lbs!).
***Also consider whether this plant needs space in full sun, part shade, or shade.
Do you know how many days it takes to grow a watermelon? Or a carrot? Well, if you are planting those things, you will need to find out. Our growing window here in Utah is short, only 170 days total. We usually plan most plantings around May 1st, with some important exceptions. If the weather has been really warm, we plant a little early. If the weatherman is talking about more cold or storms, we wait. Here are some suggested planting dates from USU.
Note on Exceptions : Our potatoes get planted at the end of March because they are planted in deep furrows and are protected from frost. Peas & green beans can go in 2 weeks earlier than normal because they are cold-hardy (check your seed packets). They enjoy spring temperatures and then usually die off anyway during the hot summers.
You also don't want to do just one planting of everything. Usually you want to harvest a little bit all the way through the season. In this case, you want to do your plantings in a series. Radishes are an easy example because they grow so fast. If I plant 20 radish seeds on May 1st, I should get 20 radishes on May 31st. But then I run out! If instead I want a steady supply of 5 radishes every week, then I would do a new planting every week. This is the same for other one-hit-wonders like carrots, beets, & cabbage. However, zucchini plants already produce new zucchinis every week on their own. In this case, you would only need to plant once. This is the same for cut-and-come-again plants like basil, kale, tomatoes, and peppers.
When you order seeds, it should tell you whether you should direct seed or transplant. Direct seeding is putting the seed straight into the dirt. Anything that says to transplant means you have to (1) buy them from a local greenhouse like Cook's or (2) plant the seeds in containers and grow them inside with special growing lights until they can go in the soil. Normally, it will tell you to plant into the ground after the "last frost" or "when all danger of frost has passed". What is the last frost and when is it? Read on!
Ever heard of a hardiness zone? It's a number for your geographical area that tells you the minimum temperatures. Most of Utah County is zone 7 which means our lowest temperatures can be 0-5 degrees Fahrenheit. The higher elevations fall in zone 6, meaning it could potentially get down to -10 degrees Fahrenheit.
This is extremely important for perennials (like trees), but it also helps calculate the last spring frost and first fall frost dates. The Old Farmer's Almanac has a good explanation and a way to type in your zip code for exact dates. Here in Orem, our average last spring frost is Apr 28 and the average first fall frost is Oct 16, giving us 170 days in our growing season.
The earlier you plant, the earlier the crop but the higher the risk. Stay tuned to the weather reports when you decide to plant. If an extra cold night is coming, there are some tricks to getting your plants through it.
Trick of the Trade : We have found that covering a small plant with soil is the best way to protect them for one cold night or two. Just don't cover them for too long because they need sunlight. The may be slightly yellow when you un-bury them after 48 hours.
You will need to know if you will be growing an annual or a perennial.
An annual will complete it's life in one year which includes (a) growing from a seed to (b) produce a flower/fruit to (c) creating a new seed. You will need to replant these every season. Some like to bush out, some like to vine. Some produce only one fruit per seed, some keep producing for a whole season. You may need special supports or equipment, so make sure you study out the behavior of each plant you are growing. One example is picking the right sunflowers. Single stems will die after you cut the flower. These usually produce much bigger flowers that can be 6 inches in diameter. Branching sunflowers will produce more and more as you cut them, but the flowers are only 2-4 inches across.
A perennial comes back year after year. This includes trees, shrubs, tubers, & bulbs. They need extra care, like pruning and fertilizing or storing tubers. But it's worth it because most peach trees produce well for about 15 years, apples about 25 years, and roses as long as 35 years! So plant these in a permanent spot.
Tender Perennials : Some perennials can be treated as an annual, like rosemary for example. Our winters are too cold for it to survive year to year, so you can replant it each season.
Biennials : There is a small category called biennials that produce a crop in year one and a seed in year two. Ever wonder where a carrot seed comes from? If you never pull the carrot out, the green top will produce a flower the next year that produces carrot seeds. However, letting this natural process happen could mean your variety changes from year to year because of pollination.
Our Experiment with Sweet Potatoes
Since we specialize in growing potatoes, I get so many people asking if we grow sweet potatoes. One year, we gave it a try. We got some cuttings in the mail, watered, and waited. The cuttings came much later than my other seeds and by the end of the season, the sweet potatoes were tiny, puny little things that never became a substantial potato. Why?
Regular potatoes like cool, moderate weather. Sweet potatoes are tropical so they like it hot & humid all the time. Wait, Utah does have hot summers, wouldn't that work? It might except our growing season isn't long enough. Sweet Potatoes need 120-170 days to mature. But you shouldn't plant them until 3-4 weeks after the last frost date because they are extremely cold-sensitive. So if we plant them around May 22, the earliest we could harvest would be mid-September. For our farm, that's too late.
Although it doesn't work for us, you could try them in your backyard if you don't mind the wait. Just remember, you have to take them all out of the ground before the first fall frost (or else they will die and rot).