It’s that time again: the days are getting longer, but at least here in Portland they’re not quite long enough to entice most of us back out into the garden; attractive seed catalogs have been arriving for months, and the colorful stacks are calling to be rifled through. The potential energy of this moment is tremendous.

We see the new year as a chance to state our intentions, set goals, and turn over a new leaf or two. It’s a perfect time for planning and design—for figuring out what we have and what we want, and deciding how to get from here to there. This type of activity is at least as important (and in some ways, even more so) in the realm of the garden than in other aspects of our lives.

During planning time—we refer to it as “the off-season,” although the garden itself doesn’t really take time off—we try to consider gardening activities along three dimensions: space, time, and personality. Below are some tips to help you focus attention on each.

SPACE: Know thy site. The primary question here is not how much space you have, but how you will utilize it. Whether you are working with a windowsill or some acreage, you will need to know its dimensions (we recommend mapping your space on graph paper), recognize contextual factors (things like north/south orientation, soil quality, wind strength/direction, sun exposure, water supply, animal behavior, etc.), and be able to distinguish those features you can change from those you can’t. You’ll also need to consider the space needs and growing habits of different crops.

Example (1/3): On a residential site that is conscientiously maintained as a natural habitat, the southern exposure is grassy, open, and significantly sloped. The homeowners decide that they want to grow food there, and agree that it would be much easier if the space was terraced, maximizing both available growing space and accessibility. With that decision, they have already started space-planning! They could continue by researching designs for the terrace structure, then deciding if they will hire out the work or do it themselves; calculating the prospective square footage of their growing area, then determining what crops will occupy how much of that space; observing and testing their soil makeup, then budgeting for appropriate amendments; deciding how they will get water to their crops, then looking for a watering system to meet their needs; and noticing their pets’ preferred potty spots, then (if possible) training them to go elsewhere.

TIME: Know thy schedule. How much time do you have to put into gardening, and when do you have that time? It’s all well and good to have hours to spare in the colder months, but what’s on your calendar during harvest season? Do you work long hours through the summer, vacation at predictable times, sleep during the day, or have anything else that sets limits on your available time? Whatever your schedule is like, there are plants available that can be maintained in accordance with it. If you are mostly interested in growing things that you don’t have time to care for, though, you might start thinking about hiring a garden maintenance service or yard-sharing with a neighbor or friend who has a complementary schedule.

Example (2/3): The folks planning to terrace their site are both retired middle school teachers that attend community center classes most mornings and care for four grandchildren after school three days a week. They take a five-week summer vacation every year to visit the rest of their family in the southeast. They could start time-planning by finding out when their first crops need to be planted, then scheduling the terrace-building project well in advance; creating a garden timeline/journal, so that they can record what they’ve done, and when; and placing their vacation on the family Google calendar, then putting feelers out for who will maintain and harvest their garden during their absence.

PERSONALITY: Know thyself. The final, and perhaps the most important, set of considerations is centered on the gardener’s unique needs and wants. This can involve quite a bit of reflection. For instance, you may want to grow all of your own produce, but have only a couple of square feet to work with. You may need help doing the physical labor of a garden, or be blessed with especially motivated neighbors with whom you are looking forward to sharing garden duties. Do you have children or grandchildren? Pets? What do they like to eat? How are you going to involve them in the garden? Your answers to these questions and ones like them will help determine your use of space and time, and ultimately decide what crops you devote attention to and which you leave for someone else to grow.

Example (3/3): Family is the #1 priority for our example planners, and they hope to make their garden a family affair. They want to work with their grandchildren in the garden when they’re together, and hope that they will become invested and continue to visit it through the summer—and, if things go well, even act as the primary caretakers through their vacation. Their personality-planning could include reminding each other of their food preferences, then asking their grandchildren what they want to eat from the garden; discussing each of their upcoming activities, then starting to plan garden tasks around their schedules; and researching donation programs through community gardens and food banks, just in case their garden yields something they like but their grandkids don’t care for in their absence.

If, after reading this, you’d like to have some guidance and company while asking these questions of yourself, we will be offering one more planning class this winter. Please join us!