Within the Backyard | Lay the groundwork | Gardening

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What will your vegetable garden look like in 2021? Where do you get seeds or plants from? What new plants would you like to grow this year?

Many gardeners are preoccupied with all these questions at this time of year. In 2020 there was unprecedented interest in all types of gardening as most of us had a lot of time at home. All the signs suggest that this trend will continue into 2021. Whether you are ready for the gardening season or not, now is the time to start planning.

My mailbox was already flooded with seed catalogs full of beautiful pictures of ripe vegetables and sunshine. It is always a big push to leaf through these catalogs at this time of year and dream of the coming growing season. With the demand for seeds rising again this year, it is advisable to make decisions and place orders very soon.

Anyone who ordered seeds in March likely found some plants hard to come by. Many varieties were simply not available, and it was especially difficult to find some of the less common plants.

For example, “sungold” tomatoes are a family favorite in my house, but those seeds weren’t available until mid-February 2020. I was lucky enough to find some seedlings at a local garden center a little later in the year. But they sold out before I could place a second order to fill some that were damaged by the cold.

Don’t forget that the local garden centers also offer a wide variety of seeds each spring. Just last week I noticed a display was going up. If the trends of 2020 continue, these seeds will quickly disappear. So collect yours soon.

When I do garden planning at this time of year, many of my decisions are based on what I planted last year. Crop rotation is a very important aspect in maximizing vegetable production, pest control and soil health if properly designed.

If I follow my crop rotation plan, I know which vegetables should be planted where in the coming year and how many seeds to buy.

My vegetable garden consists of six or seven beds, depending on how you look at the layout. Although I’ve started working towards a standard size bed, three of the beds that are in place are slightly larger than the others. As my rotation moves to the larger beds, I have more room for that particular crop.

Where there was a large potato bed last year, this year there will be a particularly large tomato and pepper plantation. I like the year-to-year variability, but it requires special attention. We are therefore working on a more standardized bed size to make crop rotation planning easier and we can redesign some beds this year.

Another 2020 trend that I expect to see more of in the 2021 season is container gardening, which offers a whole new level of flexibility compared to traditional sunken gardens. Virtually any vegetable that can be planted in the ground can be grown in containers.

Unlike my floor beds, containers can be easily moved if plants show signs of needing more or less light or other environmental stresses. Additionally, containers can open up a world of gardening for those who cannot take up the space of a traditional garden due to lack of space. They can be placed on porches, balconies, driveways, or almost anywhere with good sunlight.

I just like the flexibility containers offer, and while we have a traditional garden we usually plant some that sit on our patio every summer. They are great for keeping easily accessible vegetables close to the back door and my kids really enjoyed selecting and planting vegetables in their own container gardens.

For more information on container gardening of vegetables, including specific recommendations for soil media and pot sizes for specific crops, visit the University of Illinois Extension’s container gardening website at go.illinois.edu/ContainerVeggies.

Ryan Pankau is a UI Extension horticultural educator serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion Counties. This column also appears on his ‘Garden Scoop’ blog at go.illinois.edu/GardenScoopBlog.