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Planning is something I am usually known for. I’ve been known to go into overdrive planning everything from building our house to taking epic international trips on a budget. But gardening? For some reason, I haven’t applied myself quite as vigorously to that task as people usually assume I would.
After all, I live in an off-grid house that my husband and I built out of trees. We have solar power and are wildly fascinated by all facets of “natural living”. I have been asked on more than one occasion by folks who, upon finding out we live off the grid, get all excited and say, “Wow! So you must grow all your own food, right??”
No. Not yet.
And if you don’t either, don’t feel bad. While I may be an “accidental hippy” by many standards, there is nothing “accidental” about growing the bulk of your own food. It takes a lot of careful planning and consideration.
Are you an experienced gardener planning an entirely new space? Or are you a new gardener just getting started? Whichever you are, fear not! We’ll walk you through some of the important things you need to consider when laying out your homestead garden. Whether you have a small space with small garden potential, or a sprawling garden area with loads of room for fruit trees, plant guilds, and so much space you could feed the whole town, here are the most important things you need to consider when planning your garden.
12 Essential Questions For Planning Your Perfect Homestead Garden
- 12 Essential Questions For Planning Your Perfect Homestead Garden
- 1. What is your garden for?
- 2. What foods/herbs/flowers do you want to grow?
- 3. How much time do you want to devote to your garden?
- 4. How much space do you have?
- 5. What style of garden do you want?
- 6. What can you afford?
- 7. What is your soil like?
- 8. Do you have a water source?
- 9. What is your annual rainfall like?
- 10. How does sunlight affect your growing potential?
- 11. What is your Garden Zone?
- 12. When do you want to get started?
1. What is your garden for?
“My garden is for food, silly! What else?”
Truth be told, your garden may be for any number of purposes. To meet your family’s specific needs, you may choose to garden to:
- Provide 100% of your annual produce needs
- Only provide a portion of your annual produce needs
- Grow the foods you like the most so you always have them on hand
- Preserve the foods you like and/or can’t easily get at the store (tomato jam, anyone?)
- Avoid the use of commercial pesticides
- Avoid the climate and nutritional impacts of buying foods that have been shipped long distances
- Sell fruits, vegetables, or flowers at farmers markets or in a local co-op
- Provide a sense of connection to your food
- To cultivate a variety of medicinal and therapeutic herbs and flowers
- Foster a sense of enjoyment — gardening is fun and, for many, therapeutic!
Your reasons for gardening will have a HUGE impact on the size and type of garden you choose to create. Think about WHY you really want to grow a garden and go from there.
2. What foods/herbs/flowers do you want to grow?
Gardening is one of those things where your eyes can be “bigger than your plate”, so to speak. It’s easy to look at a beautiful seed catalog or trays of plant starts at the plant nursery and think, “I want to grow ALL the things!” But is that practical?
Years ago, I received a survival heirloom seed bucket in exchange for a review. I had fantastic luck with the seeds I grew, but there was a huge problem with it: Survival seed banks are often not curated with your growing season, climate zone, growing space, growing conditions, or personal food preferences in mind.
There were loads of seeds included in my seed bank that, frankly, I was NEVER going to grow. Like okra (no offense to all you okra fans out there). No one in my house eats it on a regular basis, so why would I grow half a field of it? I wouldn’t.
So what DO we grow?
We grow loads of tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, summer squash, onions, garlic, strawberries, green beans, asparagus, and dozens of different herbs and flowers. Those are the things we like and that grow well here. We tend to choose the varieties that not only suit our palates but also grow well in our region. I like to buy them individually to have the maximum amount of control over what we plant and save a ton of money in the process.
I like getting my seeds either from a local nursery, from seeds I’ve saved or from a reputable source like True Leaf Market.
3. How much time do you want to devote to your garden?
A huge garden is all fun and games until it’s time to manage it and work on food preservation. If you want to spend large amounts of time in your garden each day tending and caring for it, that’s great! I feel better mentally and physically when I am down in the dirt getting my hands dirty removing weeds and caring for my plants.
But there was a time not too long ago when the thought of even a little container garden was almost too much. We were in the thick of some major family upheavals with deaths, moving, and all the baggage that comes with that. I wasn’t mentally able to manage a half-acre of crops or prep a lot of food from scratch. And you know what? That’s okay. I’ve cycled back around. I’m sure there will be seasons in the future where I am more up to gardening or less. It happens.
Consider what your current and future needs are likely to be.
- Do you want to start small or are you ready to dive into a huge garden?
- Do you want your garden to be expandable?
- Is your time limited by full-time employment or caregiving?
- How much time in each day do you realistically have to spend on garden tasks?
Bear in mind, the day-to-day work isn’t where the most time is eaten up. Most of your time is spent on the initial installation of your garden space (site prep, soil amendment, planting and sowing, etc.) and again at the end of the season in the harvesting and preservation of everything you grew.
Amy Stross tackles time management in your garden masterfully in her book The Suburban Microfarm — I highly suggest you check it out if you can.
4. How much space do you have?
There is a lot you can do in all manner of spaces, but you still have to be realistic. If you live on a 2000-square-foot lot in the city, you will not be able to grow a 4000-square-foot conventional garden. The math simply isn’t in your favor.
On the flip side, just because you have 15+ acres like we do doesn’t mean you’re required to garden on all of it if you aren’t up to it. But you DO have different options than someone in 2000 square feet.
Look at what you have and then think about what you CAN do. Not what you CAN’T do.
If you live in a small space, or perhaps in a temporary space like a rental home, container gardening can be a great way to grow healthy food at home. Even now, with permanent in-ground garden beds, I still use quite a few buckets to grow things like potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, horseradish, and more!
5. What style of garden do you want?
So far, you have considered why you want to garden, what you want to grow, and how much time and space you have to grow it. Assuming you have a good idea of where you want to go with your garden, now you can decide what garden style speaks to you and your goals.
There are so many different directions you could choose! Consider:
- Conventional row garden
- Square foot garden
- Raised beds
- Container garden
- Permaculture techniques
These are by no means the only gardening methods you can undertake. You can pick and choose elements of different styles or come up with your own all together! For example, our homestead gardens are currently a mix of raised beds (two lined with field stones and one made of bamboo), containers, edible landscaping, hugelkultur beds, and some fledgling fruit tree guilds.
I had hopes for turning one space into a Back to Eden garden this year, but life circumstances prevented me from being able to devote the time to it. This is one of those cases like I mentioned in number 3 where you have to square the time you have with your dreams and manage your expectations. For now, I’m keeping my raised beds and managing them well until I can make a more substantial plan for that area. Hopefully, that will be soon, but time will tell.
6. What can you afford?
I do not want money to be the determining factor for whether you can create a productive home garden. There are a lot of ways to create a large garden full of different crops for practically free. At the same time, some of the ways you want to build your garden beds may be more expensive than you can justify right now. For example, you may have your eye on some beautiful cedar raised beds, but you find them for $200 a pop and you want at least five of them. If that doesn’t square with your budget, go back and ask yourself, “What CAN I do?” Just because the thing you want is out of your budget doesn’t mean there aren’t solutions.
Often, using your resources and identifying what is available is enough to get you going. For example, my good friend who homesteads in the city built raised beds out of bamboo stakes because she has a bunch growing wild in her backyard. Using bamboo and twine she had on hand, she built several enormous raised beds for basically no money at all. Just her time and effort.
If I wanted to do the same thing and didn’t have access to her bamboo, I would have to pay for it, right? But on my property, I have access to loads and loads of limestone. We have an enormous amount of rocks piled up from when we built our house, so I made a few beds by dry-stacking stones. She would have had to pay big money for the same amount of stone that we used, but both of us looked at our unique situations and came up with solutions that fit our realities. And you know what?
Our gardens both turned out AWESOME this year.
Would we both love to replace them with some nice cedar boxes at some point? Maybe. But this is a great place to start.
7. What is your soil like?
To reference my good friend in the city again, she lives at the bottom of a hill with a mix of clay and silt. A creek flows at the back of her property and occasionally brings new organic matter to the soil during floods. Her soil is VERY different from mine.
Our property is approximately 15 acres, but most of it is wooded hillside. About two acres at the top of the hill are cleared near the house. It is far from any natural water source, like a creek or pond, and the ground is FULL of limestone. I mean full. Our property is jointly zoned for agriculture, residential, and…MINING.
Given these factors, I knew that I needed a garden style that wouldn’t require me to dig down too far into the ground. A traditional row garden simply will not cut it up here on my rocky hill, so raised beds and containers work well for us. I have been building healthy soil over time by adding good-quality compost from our compost bin each year.
Your soil may be wildly different, so take time to analyze what you have. You may be able to send a soil sample for testing at your local cooperative extension or agriculture office. Your results will impact what kinds of soil amendments and garden styles would make the most sense for you.
8. Do you have a water source?
As I said, my friend in the city has a creek right in her backyard. She also has access to a reliable municipal water source. I, on the other hand, have no natural bodies of water near my house and have no city water. Being off-grid, we collect rainwater from the roof and filter it in the house with both a whole-house filter and a Berkey for our drinking water.
Given all of these traits of our property so far, we have created mostly raised beds, containers, and edible landscaping with a VERY thick layer of mulch to keep watering to a minimum.
9. What is your annual rainfall like?
This goes along with having a water source, but affects additional things like your garden design. For example, our first garden in our suburban home over a decade ago tended to flood out because we didn’t consider our clay soil and the slope of the yard. Water tended to pool at the front of the garden, which sat at the bottom of a shallow slope and was full of compacted clay that wouldn’t drain.
Keep your local average rainfall in mind when placing your garden beds. Allow for appropriate drainage, but also consider features like swales, which can help direct rainfall in a productive way that works with the land rather than against it.
You may also consider installing rain barrels if your space and living arrangements allow for it.
10. How does sunlight affect your growing potential?
I live with solar power, so I am very aware of where the sun is in the sky, its movements through the seasons, and where shade is created by buildings and trees. This awareness allows me to place plants where they can thrive.
For example, I try to place my heat-loving plants that need minimal watering towards the open southern and western sides of our house since those get the most intense and long-lasting sunlight. Shade lovers live on the east and north sides and get a bit less intense sun exposure.
It took a bit of trial and error to get that right. I knew about the south being more intense since that is where the sun tracks for us as northern hemisphere residents, but the difference between east and west for us is a function of our landscape. We have a tall grove of trees on the east that shades most of the yard through the first half of the day. That’s also typically the coolest part of the day during the summer. Our western side yard, on the other hand, is VERY open and exposed to the elements with hours of full sun. Different plants thrive in these different locations of our property, and my first year I killed a lot of plants through trial and error!
Keeping track of how my plants are doing in a garden journal or planner has been pretty beneficial for monitoring this. I always think I’m going to remember how certain plants did, but inevitably I forget or mix my dates and varieties up. Writing it down in something simple like this has made me pay way more attention.
11. What is your Garden Zone?
Rainfall and sunlight go along with the broader consideration of your garden zone, which is based on the average annual extreme minimum winter temperature, displayed as 10-degree F zones and 5-degree F half zones on the map. US residents can find this easily on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone page.
Even experienced gardeners need to check this occasionally. Due to climate shifts, the zones can also shift. We were zone 6a when we moved to our property and now it’s warmed to zone 6b.
Not a US resident? No worries!
One caveat is that the concept of USDA garden zones can sometimes be difficult to apply to other regions in the world. Finding good data for other world regions proved to be interesting and a bit difficult.
If you need more assistance finding information for your specific area, go to your favorite search engine and type in [YOUR LOCATION] and a search term like “garden zone”, “hardiness zone”, “garden climate”, or something along those lines.
12. When do you want to get started?
Once you’ve hashed out the details on the previous 11, you can get into the logistical planning. This encompasses what you’re planting where, when, and how.
Planning to get started in the spring? Use the winter months to do things like:
- Verify your garden zone and dates of first and last frost
- Brainstorm your garden spaces on paper
- Choose what plants you want to grow and how many
- Research and create a planting plan so you get seeds and starts in the ground at the right time in the right way
- Order seeds and any seed-starting materials you may want (if any)
- Research any materials and methods you may want to use
- Gather any other materials, tools, equipment, etc. you may want so it’s here when spring arrives
I like to use a combination of blank sheets, dot grids, and graph paper planning sheets depending on the type of bed I’m making. Graph paper with a full grid makes it easy to lay out square-foot beds, which are some of my favorite beds to make. I also have some odd-shaped garden beds that do better on blank paper or a dot grid.
We’ll explore the logistics of actually laying out your garden in subsequent posts.
In the meantime, check out these posts to continue your garden planning journey!
- 30 Garden Projects You Can Do For Cheap or Free
- Make an Abundant Container Garden for Practically No Cost
- Awesome Online Gardening Resources for Beginners
- Container Gardening Ideas for Beginners
Ready to tackle this year’s garden with gusto? Check out our printable garden planner!
And be sure to join our email list to get access to the FREE Members-Only Resource Library, which includes a mini garden planner and the cheat sheet for this post so you can plan your garden with confidence: