Garden planning can quickly become overwhelming but there is a way to simplify things. I’ll show you the top-down approach to garden planning where, with some standards in place, you can collect your thoughts and get on with the fun stuff.
For more, see 45 Ridiculously Simple & Helpful Eco-Beneficial Garden Tips.
How To Plan a Garden
Whether you are starting a garden from scratch like I did or ready to plot the way forward with what you have, there’s a way to make garden planning much easier.
Think of it as a top-down approach.
Before ever choosing plants or collecting inspirational pictures, decide the big picture—the big philosophical picture.
Then, with standards in place, you have a basic operating system ready to go.
I’ll show you what I mean.
1Set Your Compass
The most helpful garden tip—to guide your garden decisions for years to come—is to determine the big picture—your big picture—and let it lead the way.
We may think of our gardens as our private spaces where we get creative with plants—and they should be, but the effects of our choices extend far beyond our patios or backyards.
What we grow, if we spray, and how we spend our garden budgets, all have a tremendous, cumulative influence on the economy and the environment.
Everything we grow and buy matters.
By establishing personal standards, we have a lens to filter each garden decision.
Here’s my own example.
Above all, I want everything in my garden to support the local eco-system—to play a supporting role in the web of life. And, ideally, I want my dollars to go toward businesses that share these aims.
It’s an imperfect journey, not a destination, but something I will always work toward.
Yes, I grow all sorts of vegetables, herbs, fruits, nuts, trees, shrubs, and vines but the overarching aim is to ensure they help and do not hurt the earth. I want the food and beauty but as sustainably as possible. And, if I can grow surplus food to give to neighbors, all the better.
This approach is a long ways from how many of us were taught to garden years ago. Back then it seemed to be—unapologetically—about dominating nature for a picture perfect outdoor space. There was a naïve sense of entitlement that completely ignored any damage we were doing.
If you’ve outgrown that approach like I have, it’s a relief to consider the legacy while keeping things simple.
I do this by running each garden decision through some basic questions:
- Will this benefit the eco-system?
- Does this plant belong here?
- Is it non-invasive?
- Will it support local wildlife?
- Will this action cause any harm?
- Am I voting with my purchases?
- What happens if I leave this “problem” (pest or disease) to sort itself out?
It’s a long way from my early days where I impulsively bought pretty plants and hoped for the best.
But now, the way forward is clear.
2Map It Out
With your compass in hand—hopefully aimed toward eco-beneficial actions—it’s time to get into the details.
Depending on your resources and garden style, this process may include some combination of research, mind-mapping, brainstorming, doodling, and dreaming. Or hiring help.
Getting a plan on paper (or tablet), even if it’s going to change—as things always do, is a great way to dial down the overwhelm.
What kind of garden do you want? What’s the vision—both long and short term?
This is where we start figuring out the tangible, fun stuff.
I created the Empress of Dirt Gardening Planner & Notes for this purpose. It’s a digital file with an assortment of printable forms. It doesn’t tell you how to garden or what to grow. It simply provides a framework—with handy forms—to fill in and expand on so you can plan your garden your way.
However you approach it, this sort of planning is most helpful. Plot your way, map out the steps, keep notes, learn as you go, and adapt as needed.
We are so fortunate these days to have so many excellent resources at our fingertips. Books, websites, forums, magazines, garden clubs.
The trick is to ensure the information is reliable and applies to our climate and growing conditions.
I write specifically for gardeners in hardiness zones 4 to 8 in Canada and the United States where we likely have many plants and animals in common.
But, even within these parameters, there will be differences with our soil, water, light, weather, and where we grow. Backyards, patios, balconies, and community gardens all need special considerations.
Knowing this, no two of us will use the same collection of resources. And that’s part of the adventure—you really have to dig in, try things out, and learn as you go.
4Use Checklists & Calendars
I’ve always been a checklist person and garden tasks are no exception.
My seasonal checklists walk through the basics throughout the year. Even if your specifics are different than mine, it’s helpful to read through the lists and take note of items that do apply.
On a practical level, our garden tools and supplies can take over. Before you know it, the shed is overstuffed and we have more plant pots than we know what to do with.
No matter what your space, I’m a big fan of getting everything sorted, paired down to essentials, and stored in a manner that makes it easy to find what you need and put it back when you’re done.
This has tips on getting organized as a gardener.
And don’t forget to keep your seeds in good shape. With germination rates diminishing over time, keeping them properly stored and sorted helps avoid over-buying while using them up in good time.
This explains the best storage practices for seeds.
And this shows two easy ways to keep seeds organized.
With your compass set, a big picture plan, and trusted resources at hand, it’s grow time.
Empress of Dirt
Printable Garden Planner & Notes
An assortment of basic garden checklists, undated calendars, and note pages for planning and tracking your gardening season.
This is a digital file (PDF format) you save to your device to print as much as you like for your own personal use. It is not a physical product.
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Digital products are not available in EU, UK, and Northern Ireland due to tax regulations.
Find Your Frost Dates & Hardiness Zone
Average Frost Dates | Use this calculator at Almanac.com. Enter your city and state or province to find your first and last frost dates and number of frost-free days.
Ecoregion | Learn about the native plant and animal species and environmental conditions specific to your region to better understand why your garden choices matter.
Learn More: Understanding Frosts & Freezing For Gardeners
Eco-Beneficial Gardening Books
Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants | Doug Tallamy
Garden Allies: The Insects, Birds, & Other Animals that Keep Your Garden Beautiful and Thriving | Frederique Lavoipierre
The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife (How to Create a Sustainable and Ethical Garden that Promotes Native Wildlife, Plants, and Biodiversity) | Nancy Lawson
The Pollinator Victory Garden | Kim Eierman
A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat for Native Pollinators: Ontario and Great Lakes Edition | Lorraine Johnson, Sheila Colla | All the information gardeners need to take action to support and protect pollinators, by creating habitat in yards and community spaces, on balconies and boulevards, everywhere!
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛