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In Part 1 of Planning Your Garden, we talked about why planting a garden is important, the types of gardens, and how to plan what to plant. In this installment, we’re going to discuss when to plant, different gardening methods, the design of your garden, and give you some tools to use when planning.

When to Plant

There are several things that determine when you plant your garden. Two are your last frost date and your planting zone.

Understanding Frost Dates

The Last Frost Date is the average date of the last frost for your area. This, coupled with the First Frost Date will give you the length of your growing season. This is important to know when planning your garden. If you properly plan, you may be able to get 3 separate plantings – spring, summer, and fall.

It is good to remember these points about first and last frost dates, however.

  1. They are based on historical data – past performance is no guarantee of future results
  2. There is a 30% probability of frost before the First Frost Date and after the Last Frost Date
  3. Temperatures are colder at ground level, so frost can affect plants even if the air temperature is above freezing (another good reason to use containers or raised beds).
  4. Your individual location may have different weather than the nearest weather station.

In spite of all the uncertainty around frost dates, they are still a good rule of thumb to use when planning your garden. The last frost date is especially important because seedlings are very tender and may die if it gets too cold. If starting plants indoors, you don’t want to put them out too early only to have them freeze.

The degree of cold will determine the type and amount of damage that a frost will do. There are three degrees of frost: light freeze, moderate freeze, and heavy freeze. You will hear these terms used in weather reports. The chart below shows a breakdown of each and the damage they cause.

Freeze Types

Freeze TypeTemperature RangeDamage Caused
Light Freeze29° to 32°F (1.7° to 0°C)Tender plants are killed
Moderate Freeze25° to 28°F (3.9° to -2.2°C)Widely destructive to most vegetation
Heavy Freeze24°F (-4.4°C) and colderHeavy damage to most garden plants
Source: Old Farmer’s Almanac

If you aren’t sure when your last frost date is, check out the Old Farmer’s Almanac Frost Date Lookup Tool. You’ll need to double check the results, though. When I put in my zip code, I got results for a town with an elevation 2000′ higher than where I live (with a last frost date of May 31st). They have a much shorter growing season than I do. So, I put in the zip code for the next town over and actually got results for a closer climate station. (with a last frost date of May 15th). The new climate station is still 500′ higher in elevation than I am, so I feel more confident using their dates.

You can find out your elevation through a simple Google search. Just type “altitude” followed by your city and state. That will give you a great ballpark idea. If you live in a very hilly area or there are massive elevation changes, you may want to use an app for your cell phone. There are a variety of apps. Some give you just the altitude, where others also provide weather information including barometric pressure. Most are free, but come with ads; ads can be removed by purchasing the “paid” edition. Look at the offerings for your type of phone and find one you like.

Understanding Planting Zones

Hardiness Zone Map
Hardiness Zone Map
Source: USDA

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes a Hardiness Zone Map. This map takes the average annual minimum winter temperature for the country and divides it into 10°F zones. These numbers are based on data from the past 30 years. The higher the number, the warmer the winters. The warmer the winters, the longer the growing season. Some plants benefit from cooler temperatures and wouldn’t thrive in higher zones, where others need the warmer climates.

If you know your Hardiness Zone, you will know what plants will thrive in your area, weather-wise. This has nothing to do with soil type, however. That’s a whole different discussion.

Key Legend for Hardiness Zone Map

The USDA has an interactive Plant Hardiness Zone map where you can enter your zip code and it will tell you what zone you are in. You can zoom in or out on the map and make sure you have the right zone. When I zoomed in, I found that I’m right on the border of 6b and 7a. Because I plant in raised beds and containers are on concrete, they will stay warmer (concrete retains and radiates heat). I will use zone 7a for my planning.

Seed catalogs and most online retailers list the Hardiness Zone for the seeds/plants that they sell. Some cheaper seeds bought in stores (especially those at Dollar Tree) don’t use the official zones, but instead just list minimal zones and planting date ranges. A wonderful tool to use when planning when to plant what in your garden, is the customized Planting Calendar from the Old Farmer’s Almanac.


As helpful as the frost dates and hardiness zones are, there are also microclimates that aren’t reflected in the USDA map. You will need to consider your own area to see if this might apply to you. Areas may be warmer due to blacktop, concrete, or other heat absorbing materials. Other areas may be cooler due to small hills and valleys. Your own backyard may even be warmer or cooler depending upon factors such as wind, shade, or the lack thereof.

Even within our own backyard, we have areas that are much cooler or warmer than others. Our next door neighbors have an absolutely HUGE tree which provides shade for the back side of our greenhouse for most of the morning. The greenhouse itself provides shade for most of the afternoon. Because of these two factors, I am able to plant peas (a cool weather crop) in the raised bed on that side and get harvests into July! That is practically unheard of in the high mountain desert where I live.

Success Factors to Consider when Garden Planning

In addition to weather, there many other factors that can affect the success of your garden. These are important to consider when planning your garden. A few are addressed here.


All plants need light to germinate and grow. Plants convert the energy in sunlight into the nutrients they need to grow. They combine the carbon dioxide found in the air with water found in the soil and the energy of the sun to create their own food through a process called photosynthesis. But not all plants need the same amount of light. Some plants love full sun and will thrive no matter how much sun they get. One example of plants that love full sun are Tomatoes. But even full sun-loving plants can have too much of a good thing if temperatures soar.

On the flip side, some plants are tender and can not withstand the heat of full sun. They still require sunlight to grow, but will wilt and wither with too much direct sunlight. Leafy vegetables and Brassicas are examples of plants that thrive in cooler temperatures and lower amounts of sunlight. If you live in an area with warm temperatures and lots of full sun, you will need to grow these plants in spring or fall as they will droop and shrivel in the heat. As an alternative, you can provide a shady place for these plants.

When planning your garden, make sure to consider the height of nearby plants. Make sure that smaller sun-loving plants are planted to the south and/or west of taller plants. Plants that prefer a little less sun appreciate the afternoon shade afforded by tall or vining plants. These can be planted to the north and/or east of trellises or taller crops.

Soil Type

The type of soil you have in your garden will greatly impact the growth of your plants. Soil needs to be loose enough for the roots to grow and expand. If you want large plants that will produce lots of food, you need to provide enough room for the roots to grow. In a study by Cornell University, they found that the mass of a plant’s roots, is roughly the same as the above-ground growth.

If your soil is full of clay, which is very dense, or rocks, which provide no nutrients, you will have difficulty growing your garden. These issues can be corrected by removing the rocks or amending the soil with lighter materials such as coconut coir, sawdust, or Perlite. These amendments allow for better drainage, improved aeration (roots need some air, too), and a healthier root system.

If your soil is too sandy, it may not hold enough water and nutrients for the plants’ growth. In this instance, the soil needs an amendment that will improve the water retention. Peat moss and Vermiculite are great options for sandy soil.

For more information on soil amendments, check out the Colorodo State University Extension Service page on Soil Amendments. They even have a downloadable Fact Sheet all about Soil Amendments.


As stated above, plants need light, air, and moisture to properly photosynthesize their food. Once you understand the type of soil you are working with and the needs of your plants, you will have a better idea of how much watering you will need to do to keep your garden healthy.

It is important to know the needs of your plants. Too much watering can wash away needed nutrients in the soil, while too little will starve the plants. A few things to know about plants and water, as presented in The Mittleleider Gardening Course are listed below.

  • Over 80% of a plant’s weight is water. Tender, crisp, flavor-filled vegetables need water often, generally on a daily schedule.
  • A continuous “pipe” runs from the tip of the deepest root to the end of the highest leaf in a plant.
  • Every time a plant begins to wilt, it has already stopped growing.
  • In addition to keeping a plant from wilting, water is necessary to carry nutrients from the soil to the plant roots. Dry fertilizer can do nothing until it is dissolved.
  • The larger the leaf area of a plant, the more water it requires for transpiration
  • Since soils are not dams for storing water, it is false economy to supply excess water during irrigation. When you see standing water, the soil has reached “field capacity” and can hold no more.

How to Water

Water needs to be applied at the ground level. It does no good to sprinkle water on the leaves of your plants. Sprinkling water on the tops of plants can also promote fungus such as mildew and mold growth. The water you see in the morning (and may confuse with dew) is actually water leaving the plant through a process called transpiration. The more leaves your plant has, the more water it will lose and need replaced.

Beware of overwatering, though. Overwatering can result in standing water which is a breeding ground for mosquitos. One of the best ways to provide consistent watering is to automate it. Set up an irrigation system that delivers water to the roots and base of plants daily without waste. You can put your watering system on a timer, or just connect it manually each day.

It is best to use irrigation water, or other non-municipal water, for your garden such as collected rainwater or well water. The chlorine in treated tap water can have a detrimental effect on plants. If tap water is all you have, consider filtering the water you use on the garden. We use a garden hose filter to remove Chlorine and other harmful substances from our garden water. Our filter lasts for 10,000 gallons, enough for a gardening season for a garden our size.

Different Gardening Methods

There is no right or wrong way to garden. You can till or not; use traditional fertilizer or only organic; plant directly in the ground or in raised beds; plant in dirt or in water; spread your plants out or have them closer together. There are “experts” who will advocate for each of those choices. But, the real choice is YOURS. A lot will depend on your location, type of soil, and space available.

There are a number of different techniques or methods of gardening that are popular. These include No-Till, Back to Eden, Conventional, Square Foot, Hydroponics, Permaculture, and many more. There are pros and cons to each. We’ll give the highlights of some and more information on others in this article as well as where to find more information. When planning your garden, you can choose one or more of these methods.

No-Till Gardening

No-Till gardening relies heavily on the use of compost to create a perfect growing medium for your plants. The ground underneath is left undisturbed to enable the ecosystem to remain in a more natural state. By placing the compost on top, it also forms a protective barrier for the ground holding in moisture and placing nutrients where they will be delivered to the plant roots when watered.

No-Till gardening is effective in both raised beds and in-ground gardens. The basic no-till method involves making raised rows in the garden out of compost, and other additives such as coconut coir or peat moss. Plants are then transplanted or direct sown into these raised rows. It is especially good for raised beds where all the preparation needed for a new growing season is to add the organic top layer.

There is one caveat, however. The no-till method only works if your garden soil is already good. If you have poor soil, adding organic matter to the top isn’t really going to help. In that case, you may need to till up your garden for a few years until you have improved the quality of the soil.

One of my favorite YouTube channels, MIgardener, has a great video on the pros and cons of Till vs. No Till Gardening. Check out his videos for more information.

Back to Eden Gardening

A popular no-till offshoot is Back to Eden Gardening. In this method, the ground isn’t tilled, but rather covered in wood chips. Plants are then grown in the wood chips more like they would have in the wild. Back to Eden gardening involves little watering and no weeding.

The idea behind growing in wood chips is that it simulates the forest floor and provides nutrients and protection as the wood chips decompose. There are a number of people who love this method and many who haven’t seen the success they hoped. If this method appeals to you, I would suggest trying it out in just a section of your garden until you have a feel for how it will work for you.

Conventional Gardening

Conventional gardening is the most familiar and common method. Most of the other gardening techniques are an offshoot in on way or another of conventional gardening. In the discussion between organic and conventional practices, “conventional” usually means using synthetic chemicals and fertilizers to achieve a maximum yield.

We will use conventional to refer to gardens where plants are placed either directly in the ground or in raised beds, typically in rows or mounds. This method involves loosening the soil and adding amendments to prepare the soil for planting. These types of gardens are fairly easy to plan. While loosening the soil may work faster with a tiller, it is possible to accomplish with a shovel. This makes this method one of the least expensive techniques available. Most gardening books assume that you are using conventional gardening, unless they are otherwise labelled.

Square Foot Gardening

The raised bed is divided into square foot sections for planting.

MEl Bartholomew created the Square Foot Gardening method in the 1970s to enable people with smaller areas and less experience to grow productive gardens. Square Foot Gardening involves building up the growing area to a depth of 6-12 inches, usually within a frame. The area is then divided into 12″ by 12″ sections, thus the name square-foot. You plant different crops in each section. are planted with varying densities.

We used pushpins and colorful twine to mark off the sections in our raised bed. Our raised bed was deeper than 12″ because I wanted to save my back and be able to sit on the edge to weed. What I found was there was very little weeding to do.

My biggest weeding issue was the Elm trees that wanted to grow in my garden. One of our neighbors has a tree that absolutely blanketed our yard with elm seeds. I spent quite a bit of time picking elm seeds and then small elm trees (the seeds I missed) out of my beds, but I didn’t have any weeds to pull!

For more information on Square Foot Gardening, check out the All New Square Foot Gardening book by Mel Bartholomew. This popular method is also integrated into a number of garden planning resources.

Hydroponics (and Aquaponics)

All of the methods we’ve discussed so far involve growing plants in soil. Hydroponics and Aquaponics both use water. The difference between the two methods involves fish. In Aquaponics, the fish provide the nutrients to the plants and the plants filter the water for the fish. It is a mutually beneficial setup. Just don’t forget to feed the fish.

Where Aquaponics uses fish to provide the nutrients for the plants, Hydroponics uses specially formulated grow solutions. These solutions are available in normal and organic formulas.

Both methods involve the use of “pods” with circulating water to provide nutrients to the plants. One big advantage to this method is that there is no dirt. This is especially desirable for crops like lettuce, celery, and leafy greens.

The environment does need to be controlled, however, to keep the water at the correct temperature for both fish and plants. A pump is also needed to aerate the water and move it around from “pod” to “pod.” The startup cost for both Hydroponics and Aquaponics is a little greater than gardening in soil, although with the rising lumber prices, raised beds may now be just as expensive. Smaller Hydroponics setups can be rather inexpensive to build if you’re considering one for just a crop or two.

Permaculture Gardening

What exactly is Permaculture? It’s a contraction of the words permanent and agriculture. It’s the philosophy of creating a garden of perennial crops that are only planted once, but cultivated repeatedly. The biggest problem with permaculture is that most of the vegetables we eat are not perennials, but are annuals that must be planted every year.

There is also an intentional effort to design components of permaculture gardens that can fulfil multiple uses. A tree might provide support for a vining shade-loving plant, for example. Some of the most common permaculture crops are fruit trees and berry bushes. If you have the room for some permaculture features in your garden space, they can add to your food security with little extra effort.

Mittleider Method

In the mid-1970s, Jacob Mittleider developed a grow-box gardening method that was extremely productive. He shared his method around the world for more than 40 years. It is based on getting the highest yield out of the smallest space. Many plants are grown vertically and close together similar to square-foot gardening. The plan also uses supplemental feedings of natural mineral nutrients like Hydroponics, but without the expensive setup and equipment.

The Mittleider method works in both raised soil beds and grow boxes. We used this method in our grow boxes last year. To the extent that we followed it, we had incredible yields and lots of food harvests. When we failed to properly feed our plants, they didn’t do as well. This method is NOT a “plant and forget” approach, it does take effort. But if you are serious about providing food for your family, this is one of the best ways possible.

For more information on the Mittleider method, visit the Food for Everyone Foundation. They offer gardening seminars, books, micro-nutrient fertilizers, and help for most gardening issues.

Planning Tools

Once you have decided what you want to plant, when to start, and what gardening method you want to use, the next step is to actually lay out your garden plan.

There are a number of tools that can help when planning your garden. The best tools are interactive and customizable. This is because no two gardens are the same. If your garden is an odd shape or size, it may be difficult to use an electronic layout planner. No matter what method you use to plan your garden, the simplest method is to use paper and pencil. Notice I didn’t say ink. You need to be able to erase. Your design will change many times before you’re ready to plant.

Online Garden Layouts

If you are using the square-foot gardening method, the Gardener’s Supply Company has a Kitchen Garden Planner to help. They have several pre-planned gardens that allow you to get a quick start on a garden plan. They also have a Plan Your Own Garden option where you click and drag your plants to the grid you design. I used this is the method to plan my raised beds last year.

Another resource for planning your garden is the Garden ‘Planner from The Old Farmer’s Almanac. They have teamed up with growveg.com on a fantastic digital planning tool for planning traditional gardens, containers, raised beds, and even Square Foot Gardening. The Garden Planner can help you decide what to plant, know when to plant it, and provide advice on your specific plants. It also comes with a Garden Journal to track your progress and plan your garden. I am planning to use this resource this year.

Now that you have determined what you want to plant, using what method, and know your time frames, it’s time to discuss HOW to start your plants. In our next installment of this gardening series, we’ll discuss the different methods you can use to start your plants.

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