Planning your vegetable plot is an essential winter job, but making the most of the space you have is essential. The Growveg garden planner claims to take a lot of the hard work out of this annual task. But is it up to the job?
Every now and again in my gardening life I have a rush of blood to the head and think I’ve got things sorted out. I fetch graph paper and a pencil, and draw out lovely rotation plans for the garden. These show me what’s going into each part of each bed over a whole rotation, and each time I do it I think I’ve got it sorted, and all I’ll need to do the the future is follow my writ-in-stone plan.
Except life’s not like that. It’s been said that gardening is all about experimentation, and I do a fair bit of that: but for me gardening is also about having inconveniently lumpy work commitments, taking occasional awkwardly-placed holidays, and generally being a bit disorganised. This means that every couple of years I have to re-think the whole rotation, much to my annoyance. Given that I don’t like leaving soil unoccupied for long, it’s a complicated little jigsaw to put together.
Enter the Growveg garden planner, the most comprehensive of its kind. It’s an internet-only application with a 30-day free trial that, for a reasonable annual subscription, allows you to map out your garden like a regular piece of garden planning software. But there’s more to it than that: when you’re dealing with annuals it works out your area’s frost dates and uses them to calculate when you could be planting and harvesting.
These dates get dumped out to a nice colour-coded chart, which is neat because it gathers the information together in one place for you. You can add notes too, such as tweaked sowing dates for specific varieties. The site also politely offers to send you e-mail reminders as these sowing and harvesting jobs become due – impressive, but does it cross the line between utility and nagging? Time will tell.
There are settings for square-foot gardening and split-season gardening (for areas with really hot summers). More impressive yet, you can set the ‘in the soil’ dates for each plant or group of plants to account for succession planting, module-sown starts and so on. Then the software lets you select a particular month to view your plot in, and you can watch particular crops appear and disappear, helping you make the most of your plot and avoid leaving ground empty for long (you should avoid leaving soil empty for longer than six weeks at a time, because rain will compact it and wash nutrients out, particularly if you’re growing on sandy soil).
I was expecting some drawbacks to the software, but was pleasantly surprised at how well it has been thought through. For example, when I wanted to put a plant in that wasn’t on their list (such as a pear tree, oddly enough) they’d thoughtfully provided templates like ‘bush’, ‘tree’, ‘herb’ that can be renamed once they’re in place. A clever piece of anticipation, and the mark of a piece of software that’s had lots of user feedback over several years.
Irritatingly the default setting for annuals is that they are all in the bed for the whole season. In my garden nothing has that privilege (everything is succeeded by something else) which means that each group of plants has to be given dates by hand. This is a bit of a pain in the ass, but once it’s done the custom generated chart makes it easy to see what might go in next.
There’s an FAQ but no help file as such because the package is simple enough not to need one. Instead there’s an e-mail support system and a promise of a quick reply. Now the acid test. How quickly would Growveg.com respond to a support request for a minor issue posted at lunchtime on a Saturday?
I got my answer, along with a helpful screen capture, from the company’s founder, Jeremy Dore, at 11.30pm the same day. Now that’s what I call service. Or possibly insomnia.
Would the program be flexible enough for me to use for my fairly complicated polytunnel planting plan? Much to my surprise, it was – although it was complex enough to be best done in a separate plan rather than done as part of the main garden plan. I was able to:
- create a ‘follow on’ plan for different years. This allowed me to work backward from the hungry gap (a trick I use to make the most of the tunnel when there’s very little going on outside)
- create custom varieties with their own sowing, planting and harvest dates that would more closely reflect tunnel growing
- leave myself plenty of notes to keep track of fiddly things and experiments (of which I have many)
I really didn’t want to like this program when I started out to write this. I’m no Luddite, but I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that growing food is as much about art – about touch and feel and craft – as it is about science. But despite myself, I’m impressed by how well thought-out and flexible this garden planner tool is. It won’t change the way I grow (at least, not much) but it’s enabled me to make the clearest ever plan of my plot, and pulled everything together so that less gets forgotten. And with the free trial, I had plenty of time to play with it and make up my mind.
And as for those nagging e-mails… well, we’ll see.