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Planning a backyard garden for spring means getting started now

It is the middle of January, cold, and the ground is covered with snow. I know I cannot be the only one thinking about warm spring days and fresh grown produce from my own yard.

So, how do we get started?  It is never too early to start planning — in fact, it is almost too late.

The average garden is about 20 by 30 feet (600 square feet), but if you are a new gardener, 100 to 200 square feet should be plenty. What you don’t want to do is create a monster garden that will crush your enthusiasm mid-summer when the weeds are coming on strong.

A good way to start choosing what to plant is to think about what vegetables you like to eat, and make a list.

Next, find a spacing chart online or look at seed company catalogs to figure out your spacing and the size of the plants once they mature. A general rule is to plan taller plants to the north so shorter plants are not shaded.

Once you know what you want, draw it out on graph paper. This will give you perspective on how much will fit in your garden. Now is not the time to go overboard and plant too much or too closely. Think realistically about what type of space you will need.

You can order and start your own seeds indoors, but another great way to start a small garden is to buy plants from a local nursery.

There are some other considerations when planning your backyard garden, like companion planting! For example, tomatoes like to grow with onions, cucumbers and nasturtium. So you might consider planting low-growing cucumbers on the south side of your tomatoes, with some nasturtium on the sides.

There are three reasons for companion planting:

  1. Some plants draw beneficial insects into your garden.
  2. Some plants repel bad bugs.
  3. Some combinations increase flavor.

As your garden size grows, rotating crops every year becomes important also.

So, now that you have an idea of what you want to grow and how it goes together, it is time to pick a location to place your garden. For this, we get to fast forward to June.

You want to think about how your space looks with all the leaves on the trees, because your garden needs six to eight hours of full sun. It is ideal to pick an area that is slightly elevated and drains well. Also, place your garden near a water source if you can — it will save you time all summer long.

When do you plant? That depends on the plant, but there is great advice on the backs of seed packets, and you can find some charts for our area online.

The first year that you start your garden, you are going to want to roto-till the area very well — about 8 to12 inches deep. Roto-tillers are very expensive. Do not go out and buy one, because after the first year you don’t want to till again. It can be damaging to the soil. It’s best to rent a tiller or look in the classifieds for someone who does tilling.

The bottom line is, “Just grow it!” Gardening can be fun. It can be relaxing. It can save you money! And everyone looks cool with dirt under their fingernails.

If you want to learn more, try out some of the Unity Gardens free gardening classes and visit us online at

Happy gardening!

Mitch Yaciw is the garden manager at Unity Gardens in South Bend. Along with Sara Stewart, the Unity Gardens executive director, he plans on bringing you stories and tips about growing food and community through gardening on the brand new Flavor 574 blog Growing With Unity. To make sure you don’t miss a thing, subscribe to the Growing With Unity email newsletter.

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