Planning and Planting the Garden: Part I

Starting your Seeds Indoors

Once you have selected and ordered/ purchased your seeds, it is time to think about planting some of those seeds indoors, so you will have plants ready to put directly into your garden when the time is right. For the home gardener, these plants often include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant or any other plant that requires a longer growing season than would otherwise exist in your area. However, most seeds can be sown directly into the ground when the soil is warm enough. Just follow the directions on the seed packet or in the seed catalogs to determine when the proper time to plant various vegetables and other seeds is. In fact, your seed catalogs contain a wealth of practical information to help guide you from start to finish as you grow your garden.

To start your seeds indoors, you will need a seed starting medium. Choose a medium (mix your own or purchased) and check the label carefully. Be wary of any pre-fertilized mixes that contain animal products from unknown sources (blood meal, bone meal, etc.) or plants commonly known to be genetically engineered (soy or corn meals, etc.) as they may contain chemical residues (Glyphosate) that are anti-bacterial or other hindrances to a biological system. When in doubt, it is best to select an organic mixture. Vermont Compost Company, Fedco (Fort V Soil) and Coast of Maine are three suppliers that we recommend.

Once you have your seed starting mix, pour it into a large container and add your mineral mix (see previous article about SEEDS from January BFA meeting).

*NOTE: If you are a BFA member, or have attended a meeting, you can purchase an inexpensive pre-mixed mineral blend from Kris to add to your soil. Many of these other ingredients are available through Kris and the BFA stockpile in her garage!

Mix thoroughly and add water to moisten mixture but not saturate it. Then take a soil blocker (available in numerous catalogs and on Amazon), and pack your soil mix solidly into the blocks (we use a 4 block 2” x 2” blocker). Finally,  press down on the handle and your soil blocks will be released and ready to use! Place your multiple soil blocks in a larger container and add your seeds.

*NOTE: You may also grow your plants in other containers, but we recommend the soil blocks as they best mimic a seed’s natural progression in nature.

Don’t forget to Inoculate your seeds with a microbial seed guard ( a.k.a. mycorrhizal seed inoculant) before planting — the more biology the better!

*NOTE: Kris/ BFA sells a dry inoculant that you can purchase at a minimal fee for this as a BFA member.

Just sprinkle a small amount of the powder in each seed packet before planting or add water to the inoculant and pour over the planted seeds.You can also dip each soil block into the liquid inoculant. Doing this will get your plant off to a healthy start!

Looking at the Bigger Picture: Permaculture

While it is easy and necessary to become immersed in the multitude of steps and small details involved in preparing a garden, it is also important to keep in mind that our gardens are also part of a much broader natural realm, one from which we can learn and to which we can contribute. This symbiotic relationship in which we work with Mother Nature rather than against her to promote the good of the whole lies at the basis of what has come to be known as “Permaculture.” Permaculture was created in the 1970’s by Bill Mollison, an Australian ecologist and University of Tasmania professor. He had spent many years out in nature as a wildlife biologist observing how natural systems work and became very distressed at the destruction that he saw going on around him. He decided that instead of being angry about what was happening and reacting against the destruction, he wanted to work on creating a positive solution. Ultimately, this solution would be living based on the patterns he had observed in nature.

By observing nature, Mollison came up with several important insights. He observed that natural systems, such as forests and wetlands, are sustainable. They provide for their own energy needs and recycle their own wastes. He also observed that all the different parts of a natural ecosystem work together. Each component of the system performs important tasks. For example, bees help to pollinate, birds provide pest control, certain plants pull nitrogen out of the air and fix it into a form that other plants can use. So everything does useful work. He applied these and other insights to design and create sustainable agricultural systems.

In the 1970’s he and his student David Holmgren wrote and published some books explaining his ideas. In the 1980s he published his design manual and started teaching permaculture design courses to spread his ideas around the world. By the 1990s permaculture had started spreading throughout the US, although it’s more well-known in other countries around the world. To this day, it is continuing to grow as a global grassroots movement and people primarily learn about it through permaculture design courses and workshops that generally happen outside of academia.

While the definitions and understanding of permaculture have continued to expand, there are a few key elements that remain steadfast:

  1. It has an ethical core. The test is: if it isn’t good for the earth and good for people in a fair share, then don’t use it.
  2. Imitate Natural Systems. Permaculture uses biological resources and natural energies and observes the clever ways nature responds and adapts. Nature cycles the energy resulting in no waste. Efficiency is Natural.
  3. Permaculture uses a set of Principles, Strategies and Techniques

So what does all this have to do with you and your garden? Everything! But for now suffice it to say that there are some very tangible bonuses you can give and receive as a gardener who uses some of the principles, strategies and techniques associated with permaculture.

*Begin your garden with a SITE or SWOT ANALYSIS. As you study the landscape, ask yourself: “What are its Strengths? Weaknesses? Opportunities? And Threats?” Then factor all four of these elements into the assessment of your land. Think about your goals as well and use this SWOT information to move forward accordingly. When you create the garden that suits the reality of your landscape, what was once (or could have emerged as) a problem has now become the solution.

*Do a NICHE ANALYSIS on the plants that go into your garden by considering how each functions. Try to stack the functions in as many ways as you can to mimic Nature and to promote a healthy garden.


*Dynamic Accumulators – plants that accumulate minerals (comfrey, yarrow)

*Beneficial Insectaries – plants that draw pollinators to the garden (milkweed)

* Aromatic Pest Confusers – plants whose odors confuse potential pests (basil)

* Nitrogen Fixers – plants, ground covers, legumes, some shrubs and trees that add nitrogen to the soil

* Ground Covers – clover, strawberries*

*Mulch and Green Manure – dry chopped leaves, dry straw and cover crops or plants grown specifically because they add nutrients and organic matter to your soil as opposed to something you would harvest)

* Structure – Plants with taproots or large root systems that can help indicate and break up tight and compacted soils (Burdock, Jerusalem Artichoke, Plaintains).

* Remediation – Plants that help clean polluted soils or air (Sunflowers, Gingko, and mushrooms).


Observation plays a key role in Permaculture; gardeners need to pay attention to what is happening in nature and to mimic and learn from it as it provides both models and cues for a successful garden. Weeds for example, play in integral role in helping gardeners to know when to plant based on when they appear, thereby alerting us to the soil and air temperatures and the potential arrival of certain pests. Certain weeds pull nutrients from deep in the soil and bring them close to the surface. When the weeds die and decompose, nutrients become available in the surface soil and are more easily accessed by shallow-rooted plants. Weeds can also protect  certain vegetables in the garden and even enhance their flavors, such as Chamomile when planted in companion with onions. Finally, weeds can provide valuable information about the soil and its needs. Instead of viewing weeds as the problem, we need to view them as the solution. For more information on the value of weeds and the roles they play, check out the books below.


It takes more than good soil, sun, and nutrients to ensure success in a garden. Time-honored gardening wisdom says that certain plants, when grown together, improve each other’s health and yields. For instance, some plants attract beneficial insects that help to protect a companion, while other plants (particularly herbs) act as repellents. Additionally, plants that require a lot of the same nutrients as their neighbors may struggle to get enough for themselves, producing lackluster crops. As you plan your garden, keep in mind these relationships and the merits of “Companion Planting.” While tomato plants can provide shade cover for basil plants, for example, basil is a great pest deterrent for tomatoes. Squash plants make a great ground cover beneath beans, which produce lots of nitrogen and can trellis up corn, which is a heavy feeder. Borage has edible flowers but is also an insect magnet for beans, strawberries, tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. Carrots work well near brassicas, lambs ears attract aphids so they stay off other plants, and marigolds deter a variety of insects, especially nematodes. Zinnias attract ladybugs, so when planted near cauliflower, which is susceptible to cabbage flies, the ladybugs are there to control the pest population. Flowers also serve to attract bees which, in turn, act as pollinators for the other garden crops.

On the other hand, there are certain combinations of plants that are detrimental to their individual growth and well being. For example, white garlic and onions repel a plethora of pests and make excellent neighbors for most garden plants, but the growth of beans and peas is stunted in their presence. Additionally, potatoes and beans grow poorly in the company of sunflowers, and although cabbage and cauliflower are closely related, they don’t like each other at all. Taking the time to learn about all of these relationships will result in a garden design that is both realistic and far more successful!



  • Shade regulation: Large plants provide shade for smaller plants in need of sun protection.
  • Natural supports: Tall plants like corn and sunflowers can support lower-growing, sprawling crops such as cucumbers and peas.
  • Improved plant health: When one plant absorbs certain substances from the soil, it may change the soil biochemistry in favor of nearby plants.
  • Healthy soil: Some crops, such as bean and peas, help to make nitrogen available. Similarly, plants with long taproots, like burdock, bring up nutrients from deep in the soil, enriching the topsoil to the benefit of shallow-rooted plants.  

Weed suppression: Planting sprawling crops like potatoes with upright plants minimizes open areas, where weeds typically take hold.


Last but not least, when designing your garden, crop rotation is key. Simply put, crop rotation involves dividing the garden into sections, and planting a different plant family in each section every year. A systematic rotating schedule ensures that every section eventually receives each plant family. Most crop rotation systems have at least four sections, with four rotating plant groups. These include:


*Disease Prevention: The main reason to rotate crops is to prevent the spread of plant disease. Disease organisms can build up over time, resulting in eventual crop failure. Rotating crops keeps these organisms in check.

*Insect Control: Crop rotation also helps reduce insect infestations.

*Nutrient Balance: Different families of plants require different nutrients. By rotating your crops, you keep the soil from being depleted and can target soil amendments to keep your garden balanced.

*Nutrient Enhancement: Some plants actually enhance the soil, so rotating them through the garden can produce free organic soil conditioning.

Tips for Successful Crop Rotation

  • Even small gardens can be rotated—the four areas can simply be sections of planting beds. Although with smaller gardens, it’s harder to keep diseases from spreading from one section to another.
  • Potatoes and tomatoes are actually related, and they’re susceptible to the same diseases – that’s why they’re grouped together. If you have problems with early blight, you may need to separate them and not follow one with the other.
  • Since legumes add nitrogen to the soil, they’re followed by nitrogen-loving leafy crops, which reduce the need for fertilizer.
  • Root crops break up the soil, so they’re followed by legumes that like the loose soil texture.
  • Some veggies—such as lettuce, cucumbers, melons, and squash—aren’t as susceptible to diseases and can go pretty much anywhere you have the space, but it’s often easier to plan your garden by including and rotating everything.


Whether you are a seasoned gardener or a novice, it is important to remember that gardening is an ongoing process that requires time, thoughtful care and observation. No matter how small, every garden is also a part of a system that is constantly changing. When we accept this fact and work with Nature, opportunities to learn and grow abound, as we are given constant feedback and guidance, in addition to inspiration. When we mimic nature, we and our land become inextricably linked to something larger than ourselves, the Permaculture in which we all work towards the common good in our quest to live a sustainable life here on planet earth.


*Increase Biodiversity

*Increase Biomass

*Increase Photosynthesis

*Increase Carbon Intake/ Increase of O2

*Increase Accumulation of Organic Matter

*Restoration of Nutrient Cycle

*Increase in Fertility

*Increase in Filtration and Retention of Rainfall

*Positive Changes in Soil Moisture

*Positive Changes in Relative Humidity

*Positive Changes in Weather

*Positive Changes in Climate



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