Sure, winter is in full spring. As I write this it’s snowing outside and the temperatures are expected to drop into the teens over the next few days. So why even talk about gardening?
Well, I’m not actually talking about planting a garden. I’m referring to planning a garden! Now’s the time to begin thinking about your own objectives for the coming 2010 season. Let’s face it there’s not much else going on so what better time than now? Come March and you’ll be way too busy outside. So what are the things you can do right now?
One of the most important items on the garden checklist should be a Master Garden Plan. I generally keep mine on the computer, but in years past I would just buy a cheap calendar and make my notes on it. Just about now in December, you’ll begin to see the seed catalogs for the 2010 growing season and there’s a reason why the send them out now. That’s because a lot of experienced gardeners know that in order to have success in July, you must do a lot of thinking in February and March!
I like to break my plans into four categories; 1) Soil improvement schemes and raised bed expansion, 2) ordering the plants I want to grow 3) figuring when they should be started and 4) getting my seed starting area in the basement ready for operation.
Most soil improvement should actually be done at the end of the prior season while the soil was still workable. Last August, I made sure to take the compost pile I had created during the course of the summer and applied it to my two main raised beds. These measure about four feet by eight feet each and easily integrate any compost I am able to generate. (My third and smaller raised bed was built just last year and was constructed with store bought blended soil that still has time release nutrients in it. So, that one I’m not really worried about). I also made sure to test the pH of the soil and found I was OK there. You want to see a reading of about 6.7 to 6.9 or slightly acidic. Otherwise I would have added lime of sulfur depending on how much to soil was either too much acidic or alkaline. Another thing to make sure of is to keep the soil in each bed damp. We’ve had plenty of rain so far so there are no problems on that score. But, if the rain or snow doesn’t fall for any reason, make sure to water down the beds just enough to keep them on the damp side. Even though there are no plants growing at this time of years, you still have microbes in the soil that need some moisture to survive. A soil with lots of microbes is a soil that will produce a lot of crops.
I currently have about 64 square feet devoted to vegetables and have found this is plenty for two people. I practice the Square Foot method of gardening because I don’t like to have to work very hard. So on a good year, 64 square feet produces about 60 to 70 pounds of produce with not a lot of work. If you have a larger family or if you simply want to produce more veggies just go ahead and expand the number of raised beds you have. I like to keep mine at four by eight feet as that size is easy to erect and maintain. One last note concerning the care of the soil in a raised bed. Never work it when it’s damp and never, ever walk on it. Doing so will destroy its ability to grow anything other than weeds!
Planning and Ordering Seeds
I think that planning for what to grow is one of the best things you can do during the cold winter months. It’s a lot of fun to sit in the easy chair and dream about future harvests as you thumb through the seed catalogs. It’s also a great temptation to order everything in sight! But, please be careful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bit off way more than I could chew in the seed ordering department. Some years, I’ve had packages of seed that never even got opened! Stick with just a couple of varieties of any one plant. If you do have extra seed, check with the neighbors who also have gardens to see if they would like to trade some. This is one of the best ways to obtain seed that can cost an arm and a leg if you order them from commercial growers like Park Seed or Burpee. My personal plan includes anything that is expensive to buy at the store. Like romaine lettuce, bell peppers and tomatoes. I also like to grow green beans because they are prolific and actually improve the nitrogen content of the soil. Another good bet are fast growing seeds that can be grown close to other plants that take a little longer to mature. I will often use the radish as ‘markers’ also by planting them among carrot seeds. When the radish begin to show I know also where the other seeds were sown. Then the radishes are up and harvested long before they interfere with the carrots. Also, techniques like square foot, succession and inter-planting can dramatically improve your yield per square foot. With some practice, good planning and a little luck, you can get one to two pounds of produce per square foot in the course of a season!
Seed Planting Schedule
I think one of the most demanding aspects to a successful garden plan is knowing when and how much to plant. If you are starting everything from seed it can be quite a challenge indeed. You also have to able to ascertain just how much you can start at any given time. In my basement, I have a large table over which are grow lights. The total setup will accommodate about 100 seedlings and that’s all! Since some seedlings need up to a month or more on the grow table before they can go out, I have to really be able to plan well.
Whenever possible I try and start all my plants from seeds. The reason for this is very simple. I’m a rather cheap bastard. I know that if I go to a nursery and get starter plants I will be really paying a high premium for my vegetables. If, on the other hand I grow seeds from seed, they are vastly cheaper. Also, I make it a point to trade unwanted seed for seed I can use to further reduce costs. The one area I do not scrimp on is the potting mix I use to get the seeds germinated and growing in. I always use fresh bags of sterile potting mix that has a little bit of fertilizer already in it. By doing that and by using larger than ordinary cells to start my seeds in, I can get them going early on (as early as February for lettuce) and then hold them until the weather stabilizes enough to plant them outside. You can also get a jump start by building and using a cold frame. Because I spent an afternoon a couple of years ago building two simple frames, I’m enjoying fresh romaine lettuce even now in the middle of winter. I’ve even made a number of You Tube videos to show how this is done along with updates!
So, enough with the excuses! Get going and start your dream garden today!