The digital gardener
Using your computer to plan, organize, and keep track of your vegetable garden
By Gloria Boyer
If you think vegetable gardening is all about dirt, seeds, and being outside in all types of weather, think again. Nowadays, you can find loads of information online about gardening, and you can even plan and design a garden from the comfort of your easy chair—or at least your office chair! The only things you can't do on the computer are actually plant and maintain the garden. As the saying goes, "you can't plow a field by turning it over in your mind."
There are lots of websites devoted to all aspects of gardening. You can find sites to help you learn about plant identification and plant care. Other sites can help you with the design of your garden, landscaping, or even a deck or patio design.
Some sites offer plant care calendars customized to specific climate zones.
University extension services offer a vast collection of resources and information specific to a particular region. The Internet can also guide you in the use of compost and organic gardening techniques to build the soil and make plants strong enough to resist diseases and insects. And you can read reviews of gardening books on the web—good books are a must for getting through the winter!
Plan before you plant
Whether you're planting a container garden or an acre, it's important to have a plan. What are you going to plant? How much of it? And where? To answer these questions, consider making a diagram of your garden space. You could make a freehand diagram on graph paper, showing what will be planted where, but why not use a program like Microsoft Office Visio to create the diagram instead? That way, if you need to change things, it's easy to revise the diagram. And Visio has lots of shapes and patterns to choose from.
You can also download software to help you design your garden. Search the Internet and compare the software options you find. Some garden design software is even free!
Use Microsoft Office Word or Publisher to create labels for your garden. Labels can be fun to make—get your kids involved by letting them draw pictures of the different vegetables, then scan the images in to your computer. Labels can also include information such as date planted and growing season.
As part of your planning, think about using raised beds. Raised beds have some advantages over planting in rows. Because the beds are above ground level, it's much easier to weed and work with the plants. You can sit on a stool next to the beds and do your work, rather than bending over. Also, because you're not walking on it, the soil isn't compacted and stays healthier.
Why can't we all just get along?
Some plants just don’t like other plants, and if planted together they might not thrive. Don’t plant potatoes next to tomatoes or squash, onions next to beans, or tomatoes next to broccoli. Many gardening websites have information about this, so do some research before finalizing your plan.
It's also a good idea to rotate vegetable families to different locations from year to year, to avoid stressing the soil and to prevent pests from gaining a foothold. It's best to avoid planting the same vegetable family in the same spot more often than every three or four years.
To manage rotation more easily, plant vegetables from the same family together, and store this information on your computer to refer to each year. You can use a Microsoft Office Excel spreadsheet to help track what's planted where from year to year.
Here's a table showing some of the most common vegetable families.
Onions, garlic, scallions, shallots, and leeks
Kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts
Cucumbers, squashes, pumpkins, and melons
Peas and beans
Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and potatoes
Prepare the soil
As you wait for planting time to arrive, dig up the area you'll be planting and make any amendments to the soil. Mixing compost or other organic matter into the top three or four inches of soil will help nourish and strengthen your plants. You can even start preparing your garden beds in the fall, to get ready for the following spring.
Most plants grow best in soil that has a fairly neutral to slightly acidic pH. You can get a soil testing kit online. If the soil in your area is acidic (below 7 on a soil pH test), mix in some elemental sulfur. An alkaline soil (pH above 7) could benefit from the addition of lime or peat moss. Adjusting the pH of soil can take months or even up to a year, depending on the current pH, so it's usually best to stick to plants that like the type of soil you already have.
Soil texture is also a consideration. A very sandy soil might drain too quickly, so adding some organic matter such as compost or peat moss helps. Heavy clay soils can benefit from the addition of sand to aerate and allow for better drainage. Check the web for information on local soil conditions.
Plant your garden
The big day finally arrives when it's safe to start planting. All danger of frost is past, we hope, and the weather is warm enough now. Be sure to check gardening sites to make sure the date is acceptable for your climate zone.
Read the notes on seed packets or the instructions that come with potted plants, to make sure you give your plants enough elbow room. Crowded plants don't thrive. After planting, water deeply, then add a layer of mulch to help prevent weeds.
To keep your vegetables producing throughout the summer, plant a new crop every two weeks. That way, your produce won’t all ripen at the same time, overloading you with so much that you’ll have to give most of it away. After all, you don't want to be one of those zucchini people, do you? You know the ones—they're always trying to foist their extra zucchini on unsuspecting friends.
Same time next year
Next year, when it's time to plan your garden again, you'll already have records on your computer of what was planted this year and where, so it'll be easy to rotate your plants and set up a new plan. Here's wishing you happy gardening (and even happier eating)!
About the author
Gloria Boyer is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. Formerly a network administrator, she now writes about Windows networking. She's also a poet, an artist, a dancer, a juggler, a gardener, a cat lover, and not particularly tall.
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