Assistant Professor of Horticulture
Iowa State University
It is winter time, time to get our Christmas decorations out, spend time with friends and loved ones, talk about snow, and plan for the next gardening season. Yes, you heard me right, next planting season! For those willing to plan carefully and timely, gardening can be very worthwhile experience come spring and summer. Winter is the best time to start planning your garden and get things ordered and organized. Being well-planned and prepared will guarantee successful establishment and production of high quality, fresh, and flavorful vegetables in the next growing season. Here are certain topics to start thinking about:
Site Selection and Dimension
An ideal location is an area exposed to full or near full sunlight with well-drained, fertile soil, and minimal slope. If not done in the fall, plan on a soil test in the spring. This will tell you exactly what and how much to add to address the fertility requirement of the crop. Most vegetable plants require at least 6 hours of direct sunlight. Make sure the site receives ample light, if that is a constraint one can still grow crops that require less light (leafy greens). Level ground is best for growing vegetables as it is easier to cultivate, plant, and irrigate than a plot with increased sloping. Access to water is also critical while identifying the site. Given these parameters, determine how much space is available for your garden. The garden should be of a size that is appropriate for you to manage. Size of the garden would depend on a number of factors including how much time you want to spend, size of the family, duration of sunlight available at your garden site, soil conditions, and also on how much you want to grow. It would be helpful to draw a scale model of your garden space to get a visual understanding you’re your garden.
Choosing What to Plant
Depending on what your family would like to eat and share, plan the produce you want to grow. Select vegetables that fit into your regions growing period in terms of heat requirement and maturity dates (Table 1). For every type of vegetable there are a number of cultivars to choose from. Seed catalogs entice you with beautiful pictures but select vegetable type and cultivar based on aforesaid criteria. Some important traits to look for in vegetable cultivars/varieties include disease resistance, high yield, fruit quality (size, shape, and color), and early maturity. To find out vegetable cultivars/varieties that are recommended for home gardens in Iowa you can download the publication PM-0607 Suggested Vegetable Varieties for the Home Garden from the Iowa State University Extension Store.
Table 1. Approximate days to harvest vegetable crops in Iowa. Maturity or harvest days are directly influenced by growing conditions (optimum temperature, moisture, soil fertility status, etc.)
VegetableApproximate Days to Harvest
|Approximate Days to Harvest
|Slicing Cucumber (transplant)
Planting Plan and Ordering Seeds
It is helpful to draw a planting plan that contains plot dimensions, crops and amounts to be planted, dates of planting and estimated harvest, planting location for each crop, and specific spacing between rows. Prepare a list of vegetables you want to grow based on their growing seasons (cool season vs. warm-season). Cool-season vegetables such as radishes, peas, onions, cabbage, etc. can be planted early spring and then again in the fall as they can withstand some frost. Warm-season vegetables such as cucumber, tomato, pepper, eggplant, etc. are planted after the soil has warmed up and the danger of frost is over. Crops classed as cool season thrive best under cool conditions (average daily temperatures of 70°F or less), while warm-season vegetables grow better during warm temperatures (average daily temperatures ranging between 70 to 90°F). It is important to make a note of the planting dates, cultivars/varieties and amount of seeds required. Ordering seeds in winter months is the best as it pretty much guarantees the availability of cultivar/varieties that you are interested in growing. Often times seed vendors provide discounts on early seed orders.
Irrigation is often an afterthought after we have planted our crops. Not much planning is done when it comes to irrigation, which is not ideal. Plan on installing a trickle irrigation system as it require much less water, delivers water directly to plant roots, reduces water loss, operates under very low pressure, and is environment friendly.
Tools and Implements
Tools such as shovel, spade, hoe, rake, and trowel are widely and commonly used in home gardens. Winter is a good time to go through your garden tools and equipment and assess their condition. Hopefully you are storing your tools away from sun and rain.
Weather elements can damage tools and can cause rusting of metal parts. Rust can be prevented by wiping a light coating of oil on metal surface. Well-cared for tools are easier to use, deliver quality output, and last much longer.
Whether you are an experienced vegetable gardener or are gardening for the first time, it never hurts to plan in advance. It just takes a little bit of knowledge and some planning to successfully produce your own food. So, next time you sip a cup of hot chocolate this winter, feel good that your garden is already planned for a rewarding and bountiful summer ahead.