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Connecting You with Your Food, Farmers and Community

Vegetable Garden Planning

Thinking about growing a vegetable garden this year? Stores are rolling out colorful displays of garden seeds and our inboxes and mailboxes are piling up with catalogs promising the best vegetable garden ever in 2015. Before you purchase a single seed or plant, take some time to plan. A well thought out garden will be much easier to care for, and a well cared for garden will yield more of the home grown produce everyone loves. Planning can also save you money, since you are less likely to have "eyes bigger than your garden" and overbuy seeds and plants.

Deciding What to Plant

  • Start with easy to grow vegetables—suggestions: lettuce, cucumbers, green beans, cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers
  • Grow what your family likes to eat—why waste space on produce no one likes?

Deciding How Much to Plant

  • How big should your garden be? 100 square feet is a typical small vegetable garden, but you can start smaller or larger than this. It is more motivating to start small, be successful and expand later than to start big and become overwhelmed.
  • Are you planting only enough for fresh consumption or do you want to preserve some of your produce for the winter months?
  • Match planting to expected consumption—Research typical yield per plant; this can vary widely depending on cultivar and/or growing method. Seed catalogs and packets can help with this.
  • Only plant needed amount and a little extra for insurance.

Growing Seasons and Growth Characteristics

  • Group any perennial crops such as asparagus or rhubarb to one side to allow for easy tilling and/or access to planting beds
  • Group crops by maturity. This aids at harvest time and also prevents earlier maturing crops from shading out later maturing crops.
  • Arrange crops by height to avoid shading out shorter crops.
  • Plant in rows/beds running East-West to avoid shading effects from tall crops like sweet corn or indeterminate tomatoes

Correct Spacing

  • Draw a sketch that reflects the actual space you have to work with. Use a tape measure and graph paper if needed. Take the time to consider the most efficient use of this space. Knowing what space you really have, combined with the spacing required by the crops you want to grow, will tell you if you have "eyes bigger than your garden".
  • Crops planted at the recommended spacing will be more likely to grow and develop properly, reaching their full yield potential. Remember that plants compete for food and moisture in the garden; planting too close will reduce the nutrients available to the plant and reduce yields or result in no yield at all.
  • Proper spacing also reduces stress on plants by assuring good air circulation and adequate access to moisture and nutrients. Less stress will make plants less susceptible to pest and disease attack.
  • Correct spacing is not all about the plants; it can make care and harvesting easier on the gardener! Plants that are spaced to allow adequate growth and development should also allow for easy access by the gardener; this makes it a lot easier to keep up with harvesting, and spot problems while they are still minor.

Succession Planting- Harvesting Multiple Crops Over Time with Efficient Use of Space

  • May follow other crops from other season—Example: lettuce planted as a spring crop, followed by green beans planted for a summer harvest in the same space
  • Steady supply vs feast-or-famine—planting smaller amounts, staggered in time or maturity date spreads out the harvest rather than one big harvest—Example: Multiple sweet corn cultivars can be planted all at once, but differences in maturity date will stagger the harvest.
  • Renewed quality—Example: Green beans decline in quantity and quality after the second or third picking on a given plant. By making several plantings at 1-2 week intervals, when one planting is beginning to decline, the next planting will be just starting to produce.
  • Intercropping—plant an early, quick maturing crop in between a slower, later crop—Example: Plant radishes and carrots together in the same row/bed. Radishes are ready to harvest in as little as 30 days. Once they are harvested, the carrots will continue to grow and be ready to harvest 60-80 days from planting. Intercropping can also help suppress weed growth by shading the ground with the early crop until the later crop catches up.


  • Temperature extremes can affect growth of plant—Cold temperatures slow growth, reduce nutrient uptake, and may inhibit germination and pollination. Extreme heat can cause flowers to abort and pollination to fail. Lack of moisture that often accompanies extreme heat will make these issues worse and may damage the plant
  • Spring cold temperatures inhibit uptake of phosphorus, result in purpling of foliage on many crops
  • Peppers drop flowers if day temperature is above 90°F or evening temperature is above 65°F.
  • Tomatoes drop flowers if day temperature is above 85°F, if night temperatures are above 70°F, or night temperatures are below 55°F


  • Average date of the Last Spring Frost for Central Illinois, zone 5B: April 15
  • Frost Free date for Central Illinois: May 12 (on/about Mother's Day)
  • Average date of First Fall Frost for Central Illinois: October 15
  • Illinois Frost Dates & Growing Season:

Grow earlier or later in the growing season by using season extension methods:
  • Cover individual plants—Use commercially available (ex. Wall o' Water) or homemade (ex. Milk jug) to protect plants; most often used in early spring to protect young transplants from frost
  • Cold frame—unheated structure with glass or plastic to allow sunlight to penetrate and provide warmth; typically fairly small in size
  • Hoop house—larger version of a cold frame consisting of rigid hoops draped with transparent plastic; may be placed over a row or bed
  • High Tunnel—like a giant hoop house; many are large enough for an adult to stand up in
Plant appropriately hardy crops for each season
  • Very hardy (cool-season) crops

Plant 4-6 weeks before average frost-free date

Examples: kale, broccoli, cabbage, radishes

  • Frost tolerant (cool-season) crops

Plant 2-3 weeks before average frost-free date

Examples: lettuce, carrots, beets, peas

  • Tender (warm-season) crops

Plant on average frost-free date

Examples: sweet corn, cucumbers, green beans, summer squash

  • Warm loving (warm-season) crops

Plant 1-2 weeks after average frost-free date

Examples: melons, peppers, tomatoes, winter squash

Web Resources

Watch Your Garden Grow, University of Illinois Extension


A Taste of Gardening, University of Illinois Extension


Illinois Vegetable Garden Guide, University of Illinois Extension


Common Problems for Vegetable Crops, University of Illinois Extension


University of Illinois Plant Clinic


Illinois State Water Survey--Soil temperature & moisture


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