Plan Before You Plant

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER, 20 Mark and Ben (his son) Cullen are seen in the Star studio for logo photos. The two will be co-writing the weekly Urban Growth column in Homes & Condos. September, 20 2017

by Mark and Ben Cullen

As a father-son team, we both tend to tear into things.

We are not reckless, just action oriented.  Indeed, spontaneity can be fun.

However, action orientation has costs, particularly where vegetable growing is concerned. We have lost count of the number of times we have had too many transplants for allotted space, or not nearly enough.  Or we have overlooked adding one of our favourite food plants at planting time.   

The best way to avoid disappointment is to create a plan – and there’s still time.  Here is how:

  • Start on paper. A computer software program could work, but gardening should be an excuse to step away from the computer.  Start with a pencil and paper. Decide on what scale makes sense – grid paper is useful, using one square to represent one square foot or 1/3 of a metre if your garden is reasonably geometric. If your garden is more organically shaped, then lean into your artistic abilities.
  • Draw a timeline. With your map in front of you, you will need a calendar to plan the timeline for garden planting. Time is as important as space, so it is important to consider both as you go.  For instance, in April, plan on sowing directly into the garden carrots, peas, lettuce, mesclun mix, beets and onions. 
  • Early in May, when some frost can still be expected, plant out transplants of kale, leeks, cabbage and Swiss chard.   Write in your calendar.
  • The Plan.  Space is scarcer than time in most gardens. Let your plan guide you and make notes on the timeline as you go. If you do not already have perennial food crops established, we encourage you to start your rhubarb patch and a trench of asparagus (asparagus is planted in a 30 cm deep trench and back filled with quality soil as the plants mature over six to eight weeks).  Start asparagus as one year old roots rather than by seed, which are finnicky and take longer to establish.  A planting of 20 asparagus roots requires a row about two metres wide and three metres long.
  •  A single rhubarb plant will require a square meter. Rhubarb is best divided from an established plant.  Ask friends and family for a slice of theirs. Transplant the root before they leaf out.  Colour these in on the map – red for rhubarb, green for asparagus – and make a legend or simply write them in.
  • Look at the whitespace on your map, space where you have an opportunity to plant something different or unexpected.  Take time to imagine what you want to see there. This is a dreaming exercise, so do not think too hard.
  • Remember that the rule of the new generation of gardeners is that there are no rules.  Mix up ornamental plants with your edibles as you please. After all, you are only trying to please yourself.
  • Almanac or Seed Catalogue. When you have an image of the garden you wish to plant, browse through the Harrowsmith (all Canadian) almanac and seed catalogues. You will find information to populate your plan and timeline – required spacing and days to maturity.
  • A vegetable garden plan includes important information:
    • Find the crop you want to grow and how much space it will require.
    • Fill that space on your plan.
    • Look for “days to maturity”, a reference of days to harvest from seeding.  Work back from harvest to mark the planting date on your timeline. Most crops benefit from succession planting – so start with the earliest planting date and add another sowing or planting every two weeks until final harvest.
    • Cycle through the plan, your imagination, seed catalogues, almanac, and your timeline, keep going until your plan is fully populated.  Remember that the plan is meant to change, it is just a guide to help you maximize the use and productivity of your garden space. 

Step back and appreciate the work of art you have already created, without even putting a trowel into the soil. With your plan and timeline at hand, there is no way you can go astray creating a gardening masterpiece in 2021.  

Keep in mind that a little impulsiveness can add to the fun.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.