(Originally published in the March, 2012 edition of the Bayview Bylines newsletter, edited by Mandy Skala)

One of my favorite sayings is, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” I think I first read this bit of wisdom in a book about career planning, but planning is not a skill that is limited to our work life or our closets. If we don’t have a plan when we plant, the chances are pretty good that our gardens are going to end up somewhere other than where we were headed.

My garden planning each spring is a relatively simple four step process. I hope you find something helpful in the description of these steps as you start your garden planning this year.

Step 1 – Take stock. What do you already have?

It is so easy to let the flood of seed and nursery catalogs we receive at this time of year to lure us into buying things we don’t need. Before you take out a second mortgage to place that seed order, inventory your existing seed and plant stocks. Then, when you know what you do have, you can decide what you need or want to fill in the gaps.

When looking over your seed stocks, make sure that your seeds are still viable. Testing your seed is easy and only takes 10 seeds per packet.

• Place 10 seeds on half of a damp but not soppy white paper towel, then fold the other half over the seeds.

• Place the towel in an unsealed plastic bag and set it in a warm spot (approximately 75 degrees F; 24 C).

• Check the towel daily to ensure that it stays damp – do not allow it to dry out.

• Gradually, the seeds in the paper towel will germinate. When germination stops, count the number of seeds that have sprouted. If 5 of the 10 seeds sprout, you have a 50% germination rate. If 8 of the 10 seeds sprout, you have an 80% germination rate and so on. So, if you have a 50% germination rate and you want to raise 25 plants, you’ll have to plant 50 seeds.

• If no seeds sprout, it’s time to place an order with your favorite seed company!

Step 2 – How much to buy?

If you decide that you do need to buy seeds or plants, how much do you buy? Well, partly it depends on whether you’re planting food crops or ornamentals. If you’re planting food crops, you need to determine how many plants or feet of row you’ll need to feed each person in your family. One of the more useful charts I’ve found to help you with this task is published by the Arizona Master Gardeners program and can be found at the following website:


Here’s an example of what that chart looks like for asparagus and snap beans:

Once you’ve decided how much of a food crop to grow, you can determine how many seeds or plants to buy to fulfill that need.

If you’ve decided you need to buy ornamentals for a flower bed or shrub border, you really need to determine how much space the mature plants will have to fill and then purchase plants or seeds accordingly. As an example, let’s say you want to fill an area along the front of a border that is 12” wide by 48” long with Crystal Palace Lobelia. This low-growing, azure beauty has a trailing habit (it’s only 6” tall) and spreads about 12”. So, to fill your 12” x 48” space, you’d need to buy four plants.

Step 3 – Make a list (and check it twice)!

When you’ve decided what you’re going to plant and whether or not you need to take out that second mortgage, make a list of what plants and seeds you’re going to plant and buy and where you want to buy them. Years ago I developed a spreadsheet to help me with this step, and I still use it every spring to build my seed starting schedule and a master list of what is going into the garden each year. Here’s an example of my entry for beans from a couple of years ago to demonstrate the kinds of information I find helpful:

I’m not saying my spreadsheet is the be all and end all of seed starting organization, but it might be a place to start if you think this step would be useful to you.

Step 4 – Prepare a garden plan.

It’s always easier to plan on paper before you make mistakes on the ground! Use graph paper to lay out the dimensions of your garden and to plan your plantings. Your plan should identify all of the crops you’re growing and how many of each will be planted. It can also be used to make note of dates of planting, spacing between rows and projected harvest dates. This might seem like a lot of detail, but there’s no such thing as too much information especially when you’re trying to remember in June what you were thinking in March!

If you’d like to use an online tool to building your garden plan, a new online service called Vegetable Garden Planner is being offered by several of the major seed companies (Territorial House, R.H. Shumway, Jungs, etc.) to help you. You can also access this tool directly by going to:


You can use the Garden Planner free for 30 days and, if you find it useful, pay a yearly subscription fee of $25.00. Gardener’s Supply offers a free online garden planning tool at:


Whether you use graph paper and pencil or an online tool, I hope you’ll take the time to do some planning this spring. While some folks may think that getting organized takes all the fun out of what is the ultimate creative activity, I think most gardeners would have better gardens and be happier gardeners if they kept in mind the admonition of my old Army drill instructor (expletives deleted!): “Why is there always time to go back and fix it when you did it wrong the first time, but there’s never time to just do it right the first time?!”