January is a Good Time to Start Planning Your 2021 Home Vegetable Garden

By Amanda Greene, VCE Southside Master Gardener While the temperatures are chilly and cold outside in Southern Virginia, you may be dreaming of spring when plants begin to emerge from their winter sleep. Winter is also a great time to start preparing your garden for the spring and summer vegetable planting. This article will discuss several of the things you can do.
A garden plan is a great help for planting a successful vegetable garden. (1) Map your garden. First, measure the outside of your garden space. Using graph paper is an easy way to start, where one square equals one-square foot (or scale to the size of your garden). You can also use plain paper, a computer program like Excel or Word, or an online garden-planning tool (which usually has an annual or monthly fee). Next, plan planting rows, squares (e.g., square foot gardening), and/or garden beds. Do not forget to include space to walk between your plants. I like 3-foot paths in my garden so than I can easily push a wheelbarrow between rows, but 2-foot paths may also work. Consider showing any buildings, large trees, or shrubs on your map that will shade your garden during the growing months. Add where North is on your map. Aim for a garden that gets 6-8 hours of sun unless you are trying to grow shade plants. If you are going to plant in different seasons such as Spring, Summer, and Fall, make copies of your garden map for each season. (2) Decide what you want to plant. Once you have decided what you want to plant, look at the seed packet or the plant tag on any transplants you have bought. First, determine how much sun a plant needs so you can plant your vegetables accordingly. For example, tomatoes need full sun for at least 6 to 8 hours, while lettuce will tolerate a shadier spot. Second, look at the expected height of the mature plant. Determine if the plant will need trellising like pole beans or caging/supporting like tomato plants. Be aware that trellised or tall plants (e.g., sunflowers) may shade shorter plants, so plant these on the north side of your garden. Next, determine how much space is needed between mature plants. For example, summer squash have big leaves and require about 2 feet between plants. Once you have information on plant needs, you can look at your garden map and choose the best location for your plants. (3) Succession and relaying planting. What do you do when a plant has finished producing and you pull it up? How do you avoid the feast or famine of ripe vegetables? If you want to improve the yield from your garden, consider succession and relay planting. Succession planting refers to planting something new in a spot vacated by spent plants. This is often done when planting a spring, summer, and fall garden. Planting cucumbers after green peas is an example of succession planting. Relay planting consists of multiple plantings of one crop such as radish, lettuce, bush beans or cucumbers to provide a continuous harvest. Relay planting is often done on a time-based schedule such as every two to three weeks. You can use the planting dates and days-to-harvest information on the seed packet or in the seed catalog to plan for succession or relay planting. When planning succession and/or relay planting, you may want to have more than one copy of your garden map. This will also come in handy when reviewing the previous year’s map to assure good crop rotation. (4) Starting seeds and buying seedlings/transplants. Some seeds like sunflowers grow best when planted directly into your garden. Other seeds like summer squash may be started in seed pots/trays or direct planting into the garden. Starting your own seedlings indoors will give about a 4 to 6 week head start before the recommended planting date. Another option is to buy transplants from a garden center. With a little planning and preparation, a new or experienced gardener can grow their favorite vegetables. Some helpful resources on garden planning from the Virginia Cooperative Extension include: Virginia’s Home Garden Vegetable Planting Guide: Recommended Planting Dates (https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt.../SPES-170.pdf), Planning the Vegetable Garden (https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext.../426-312-PDF.pdf), and Intensive Gardening Methods (https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt.../426-335.pdf). While we all are practicing ‘social distancing’ and Halifax County buildings are still closed to the public due to COVID-19, if you have gardening questions, you can reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to wmccaleb@vt.edu. If you are unable to email, you can call and leave a message at the Halifax Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at (434) 830-3383. Be sure to give us your first and last name, telephone number, and the nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is routinely checked. Someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask, practice ‘social distancing’ and make a garden plan for 2021.