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Gardening: Plan ahead by looking back

WHEN LAYING OUT a garden, consider sun orientation, spacing and size of plants at maturity, and don't be afraid to experiment such as mixing annuals in with vegetable crops.

Planning your vegetable garden doesn’t have to be daunting. By starting with your own observations and being open to experimentation, you can develop a garden plan that takes into consideration what you have learned in previous years.
First look back at what happened in your vegetable garden last year. Did your peppers never fully ripen? Was your zucchini overcrowded? Did you feel overwhelmed by all of the tomatoes you had to can or freeze because you couldn’t let yourself abandon any of the seedlings you started?
Taking notes about what went well and what you wished had gone better will give you valuable perspective about your garden and gardening habits. 
For example, last year my husband and I started seeds for tomatoes from a seed pack we picked up on a whim. Our tomato crop was terrible! The tomatoes were mealy, the bottoms were cat-faced and they were unpleasant to look at and eat. 
The previous year we carefully started varieties that a local farmer recommended. They were disease-resistant and tested in our local area, great advice when selecting all your garden crops. We staked and mulched them, following good integrated pest management (IPM) practices to minimize disease and pest problems without the use of pesticides. That year we had an amazing tomato crop.
While annual environmental factors such as amount of rain, sun and temperature fluctuations are generally out of our control, we learned from this experiment that taking time to select the variety and characteristics of our plants goes a long way toward having a better crop.
Reflective observations like this are key to how you approach future garden planning. After making a list of what worked and what didn’t, start a new list of the crops you want to grow this year. Then lay out your garden on paper to ensure that you have room for everything. 
Crowded plants will compete for sunlight, nutrients and water and be more susceptible to disease, so planning will help with proper spacing. You also don’t want taller plants such as corn or sunflowers shading out shorter plants, so think about the direction of the sun. 
Consider the size of the plant when mature and its growth habit. Sprawling plants such as squash and pumpkins need more room and may work best on the edge of a garden, for example. Selecting disease-resistant cultivars and incorporating IPM practices will help reduce the need for pest management. Crop rotation is important to help minimize diseases and pests that overwinter in the soil.
Two years ago we experimented with annual zinnias (Zinnia elegans) in our vegetable beds. We sowed the seeds directly in the soil about four weeks after the last frost. By summer’s end (about 90 days later) we had lovely, though short-lived, blooms that added much pleasure to our late-season vegetable garden.
Based on our notes, we decided the following year to add more annual flowers, including marigolds, nasturtiums and sweet alyssum, in our vegetable garden and have the blooms last as long as possible. This was both for our enjoyment and for the pollinators and beneficial insects that require continuous blooms throughout the season.
We knew that purchasing zinnia seedlings from our local greenhouse or starting seedlings ourselves would give us more time to enjoy the flowers as they would mature sooner and bloom earlier than direct sowing of seeds. We planned ahead and saved more space in our vegetable beds for more flowers.
By taking the time to look back and ask yourself questions, and not be afraid to experiment, you will have more garden successes going forward.
Check out the helpful resources on the University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener website at uvm.edu/garden-resources.

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