DIY Garden Planners

In the tens of thousands of years that people have cultivated the land to raise food for themselves, humans have had to come up with the most efficient ways to plan out just how they will pull it off.  Where will the crops and veggies go?  When?  Who will do all the work and do we need to hunker down with some sharp stones to create new tools, or are we good with what we have?

Some of the historical methods leave us modern folk wondering, “What were they thinking?”  Take, for instance, the Aztecs, who (some say) planted their corn on the tops of plateaus, necessitating several hundred gallons of water to be hauled by hand up the cliff sides in clay pots.  All summer long.  While this undoubtedly helped the human cultivators develop some incredible muscles, one does have to wonder if some different planning could have saved them a tremendous amount of time and labor.  But hey, anything for corn, right?

Other ancient farming methods are quite impressive, like that of the northern Peruvians, who devised ingenious water-catchment systems that allowed them to thrive both in times of drought or the annual floods of El Nino.  Then, of course, we can continue to admire the planning and execution of the Fertile Crescent people, which arguably pushed humanity forward unlike anything before or after.

Later, our grandmothers simply hoed straight rows in their backyards and pulled old tin cans of gathered seed from their pantries, with seemingly no planning at all but rather a sort of intrinsic “knowing,” the loss of which is lamented by the younger generations.

I never saw my mother plan her garden, though every year the mountains of veggies and meandering forest paths of irises drew the admiration of anyone who caught a glimpse.  It just sort of seemed to unfold on its own; each particular season revealing something new, which would pass on in the proper time to be effortlessly replaced by something new and beautiful.  I think she keeps it all in her head.

Most of us can’t do that.  Ancient examples of planning methods are rare, though some discoveries have been found hewn into rock or jotted down on papyrus.

Veteran and first-time gardeners alike are always looking for efficient ways to plan out their garden spaces.  There are many garden planners out there, some very useful and detailed, and some little more than regular notebooks with pictures of tomatoes on the front.  I have tried several, and in the past couple of years, I have added a new element to my planning that I’d like to share.

DIY Garden Planner #1

There’s a fancy way to do this that costs a little more up front but will save you in supplies in the long run.  You’ll need a one-inch, three-ring binder (I prefer the Mead Flex Hybrid Notebook for many reasons, but any small binder will do).  You will also need some paper, wet-erase markers, and some clear plastic to secure in the binder.  (There was a time—probably around the same time that the Aztecs were hauling water up to their corn plants—when manufacturers made plastic pages to be used on overhead projectors.  Those were my favorite, but they aren’t as easy to find locally.)  Alternatives are clear page protectors or clear subject dividers.  On the paper, draw a map of your garden with all its beds, trees, and buildings.  Leave generous space on the page for notes.  Now, placing the clear plastic over your map, use the wet-erase markers to draw in which plants you’d like to go where, and notes about the sun, water, things you want to start from seed that month, and other tasks you need to do that month, like weeding.  It’s important that you use wet-erase markers. Dry-erase drawings and notes will be obliterated the first time you take your planner outside.  Be sure to close your binder when you’ve got the sprinklers going, and your marks should last until you deliberately erase them.  In your binder, you can use page protectors or folders to keep seed packets, as well, which will give you quick access to the information on the packets.

Here’s an example of how this can work:


At the beginning of a new month, simply erase the marks, and using the map, draw in what the garden would look like and make notes about your plans and tasks for each month.  The benefits of this system are that there is very little waste, it’s simple, and pretty flexible.

DIY Garden Planner #2

The drawback to Planner #1 is that you can’t plan very far ahead, and unless you copy your notes somewhere, you won’t have a record of what worked or didn’t work in your garden.

For this reason, I prefer to “waste” paper by making a different but similar garden planner.  I make twelve copies of my garden map and label each for a month of the year.  Your maps might look something like this:

Make a copy for each month of the year.

Note that this is a much more long-term, forward-thinking system than the dry-erase version, and provides a great way to keep track of your garden’s successes and failures.  If you like to give some thought to companion planting, crop rotation, or other more nuanced aspects of gardening, this system will allow you to fine-tune your planning.

You can still keep your paper in page protectors if you’re taking the planner outside around the hoses and dirt, though I always found this to be rather annoying.  Jotting notes on the page protector with a wet-erase marker is pretty handy, but you’ll need to remember to transfer the notes to the paper underneath when you get inside.  Waterproof paper exists, for those looking for a near-perfect solution.

This is the time of year to be sharpening garden tools, sorting seeds, and checking on the compost pile.  Doesn’t it feel good to be outside?  In all your preparations, don’t forget to give a bit of attention to basic office supplies while making your DIY garden planner.  It could be the difference between a mediocre and a high-production garden!


  1. You may want to study a little history… The Aztec decision to plant on the plateaus (high places) as offerings to their gods is well noted in anthropology studies. How easy it is to criticize those you don’t understand…

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