How To Plan a Garden
A goal for most gardeners is to have an abundance of harvest over an extended period. In order for this to be successful, you need to make maximum use of your space, both physical (garden area) and time.
Each vegetable likes a certain growing condition, generally warm weather or cool weather. None like being buried in snow! This means we can divide up vegetables into cool-and warm season crops. (See table.)
Depending on where you live, this impacts when your growing season is. You should plan your garden so that plants spend the bulk of their time growing in the best conditions. For example trying to grow basil in April may be a challenge in Bishop even if there isn't a frost, but it does great in May or June.
In the low desert areas plan on growing cool-season vegetables in late fall through winter, switching to warm season plants in late February or early March. Short season or heat-tolerant summer plants are recommended.
High Desert / Owens Valley
There are 2 distinct growing seasons in the high desert: cool-season and warm season. Some cool-season crops are planted in fall and overwintered, but most are planted in early spring. Warm season crops are planted after frost season in most cases and grow through the summer.
The University of Nevada Reno has an excellent 15-part series on getting started. Their climate is similar enough to ours that new gardeners will find this helpful.
Mountains & Bridgeport
In the mountains, you only have 1 growing season to plan for. Plant everything as soon as you can and grow short-season crops.
Our planting guides have more information for local conditions.
Q: Do I need to do companion planting? A: Not really. There is not a magical benefit to interplanting, but it is a good way to better utilize limited space and to increase diversity. Just use good judgment. Plant things that come out before the next crop gets too big and overcrowded. Adjacent root crops may not have enough room, etc. Feel free to incorporate flowers too.
Q: Do I have to plant in neat rows or nice squares? A: No. The plants don't care! Rows are convenient to work with devices that have wheels like tractors. Just give yourself enough room to get into the beds and you'll be fine. "Square foot" is a nice system for spacing plants, but if you remember give big plants more room than small ones the result is the same. Plant however you want.
Q: How much do I plant? A: Plant what you'll use. If you plant too big a garden tasks such as weeding and watering don't get the attention they deserve. I'd rather have 6 healthy tomato plants than 2 dozen wormy, mis-managed vines covered in weeds, for example. This chart has common amounts to plant and storage information for many crops grown in California. (Note the timing information is only marginally helpful outside the low desert areas.) Gardening at a Glance
Fortunately planting a garden is not hard, at least in terms of knowledge required. It may still be a hard day of work!
Most vegetables are planted from seeds. Seeds are inexpensive and give you, the gardener, the most flexibility on what varieties you can grow. Not all crops are directly sown in the garden. In our area we usually use transplants for tomatoes and peppers, and potatoes are grown from "seed potatoes" which are just chunks of tuber ready to plant.
Transplants are either purchased locally or sown indoors about 8 weeks before they are planted outside. The University of Minnesota provides this guide on starting seeds indoors. Put transplants into the garden green-side-up when growing conditions are right.
This fact sheet has information on seed planting techniques you can use in your garden to better plan for your harvest. Garden Planting Techniques
A good rule of thumb: plant seeds 3 times deeper than their width.
Gardeners may be concerned about GMO seeds. There are no GMO varieties of vegetables on the market to consumers. You couldn't plant them if you wanted.
Heirloom varieties usually have a good story. Most have good flavor especially if grown in their "native" area. But they are not inherently better. Many are more prone to diseases and physiological issues in our deserts. They are fun to grow, but if you're just starting out, stick with varieties available locally and take the descriptions in seed catalogs with a grain of salt. A notable exception is 'Chileno' peppers. They love it here.
Don't over-water or over-fertilize seedlings.
The first place to start with planning a garden is selecting a suitable site and enhancing the soil. Pick a site that drains well and gets full sun.
There are very few places outside southeast Inyo County that have heavy, clay soils so finding good drainage is not an issue.
Most of our communities have soils derived from sources in the Sierra. They tend to be well-drained, free of accumulated salts, and have a good soil pH. Those communities, however, whose soil is derived from other mountain sources such as Chalfant may have alkaline soils that will need adjustment with sulfur before planting. See our soils page for more information about your local soil.
If your soil is suitable and you will be growing vegetables in it, this fact sheet will show you how to prepare the soil for gardening. Preparing Your Soil for a Vegetable Garden
Most soils are improved by incorporating compost into them. That applies especially well here where many soils are excessively well drained and hold few nutrients. See our compost page for more information.
Your crops will need a source of fertilizer. This sheet has some recommended rates of common products that can be used pre-plant. Suggested Pre-Plant Rates Don't use too much fertilizer, especially on root crops like radishes.
Here is some helpful advice for new gardeners:
- Go easy with tillage. Tilling very dry soil or wet soil will have negative consequences. A good rule of thumb is the soil should be dryish but still cool. You should not be able to easily make a clod, but you should be able to make a loose clump with some work.
- Feel free to add compost anytime you till or turn the soil
- If you have terrible soil, grow vegetables in raised beds where you can better control the growing conditions
- Test your soil before planting
- Avoid adding wood ash, lye, hydrated lime
- Few soils here are so acidic that they need limestone or dolomite added. You may see this in gardening books written by writers east of the Rockies. Local soils range from just right (pH 6.7) to alkaline (pH 8.4). None of those soils needs to have pH adjusted.
- In Chalfant try adding about 2 lbs of elemental sulfur per 250 sq. ft. of garden. You can buy it locally.