With spring seed catalogs for the next growing season arriving in the mail as early as November, you might think it’s way too early to start thinking about a garden. But, January and February are the best months to dream about spring and all the fun of raising your own veggies and flowers.
There is so much power in a tiny vegetable seed. One corn seed represents a delicious ear of sweet corn. One watermelon seed can become the sweetest, juiciest fruit you’ve ever eaten. One zucchini seed easily becomes a freezer full of shredded squash just waiting to be made into zucchini bread, cake and muffins. During the darkest time of the year, dreams of all the good food you can raise in the spring and summer help to make the cold days pass faster.
If you are new to gardening, wanting to know how to garden, and you just received your first mailbox full of gardening catalogs, you might be overwhelmed by the fantastic number of choices for fruits, flowers and vegetables. A trip to area nurseries can be equally overpowering; so many plants look good you can’t help but over spend and you bring home way more plants than you have room for.
Before you spend a dime on seeds or live plants…
Here are some tips on how to plan your garden:
Save and get the most for your money and space.
- Make a list of your family’s favorite fruits, vegetables and flowers. Write it all down, from tomatoes and eggplants to strawberries and jalapeÃ±os.
- Check the planting zone maps located in just about every gardening catalog, or ask your local Extension agent. Find your location on the map. The zone maps tell you what will or won’t grow in your area. For example, parsnips and peanuts require a growing season of at least 120 frost free days. If you live in northern Wisconsin, you may very well have a growing season of 90 days at the most. As much as you would like to grow parsnips and peanuts, your season will be too short to allow these plants to mature. But you might be eating fresh lettuce and cabbages all summer long.
- Study the garden seed catalogs. The description for each advertised seed packet gives an estimate of how long it will take that plant to grow. Before you order seeds, make sure the growing time listed for the seed falls well within the range of your zone. Luckily, plant researchers have worked for years breeding plants with shorter and shorter growing seasons. So it’s possible to raise a short season tomato. On the other hand, if you live in the deep southern part of the United States, you might find your springs and summers are way too hot to successfully raise lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and radishes, which are all cool weather crops. See if you can’t plant these plants in the late fall and grow them over the winter.
- Talk to people in the know. Pay a visit to your county extension agent or the folks who run nearby plant nurseries. These people are a wealth of information about what grows best in your area, and when to expect frosts. They might have suggestions for seeds to try. Also, pay attention to gardeners in your area. Most gardeners LOVE to talk about their gardens. They might even give you vegetable samples to try. Beware of the zucchini season, though. You might end up with your arms full of summer squash!
- Match the information you’ve gathered to your list of favorite vegetables, fruits and flowers. Choose the varieties you think will work in your area and that you might want to try. The beauty of raising your own vegetables is that you have so many wonderful varieties with which to experiment. We love lettuce fresh from the garden. In a typical year, we raise 16 different varieties of lettuce in the spring, ranging from loose leaf and romaine to butterhead, and varieties of loose leaf lettuce in the fall, because the growing season is shorter in the autumn in Missouri.
- Consider space, time and ambition.Unless you live on a farm in the country, space for a garden can be very limited. In a high rise apartment in a city, you might be restricted to a few pots on your balcony. Although you can pack a great many plants in a small space, there is always a limit to what you can raise. Think about how much time you might spend on a garden. Gardens, even small ones, take work.As the size of your garden grows, so does the workload: the watering, weeding, staking, fertilizing and processing of the foods you raised. If you and your family love being outdoors and can work for hours on the garden each week, go ahead and dig up your entire lawn if you want. When everyone in the family is working or busy in extra-curricular activities, time is short, as should be the confines of your garden. Also, if you live in a community with covenants, check to see if there are any restrictions to size or location of a garden.
When we lived in a small Eastern Montana town, we had just about the tiniest yard in town. But, we were able to raise a fairly significant garden by digging up the yard perimeter inside a tall wooden fence that surrounded the yard.
Now we live in the Missouri countryside and we have tons of space for all those great fruits and veggies we never had room for in Montana, such as pumpkins and watermelons. But we still sometimes get the September blahs, when Mother Nature doesn’t water our garden in time and we just can’t pull one more jar of dill pickles out of the water bath canner. However, we persevere, and come January, we are very grateful for all the vegetables we’ve stored away.
- Consider whether you rent or own your property. Buying long term investments like fruit trees and bushes, or expensive perennials doesn’t make a lot of sense if you rent your property. Consider investing in annual flowers and vegetables and buy your fruits at the local farmers’ market. You can get a lot of colorful mileage from a packet of annual flower seeds, like zinnias and marigolds.
- Draw a map. Before ordering seeds, use graph paper to draw a map of your yard and garden and indicate where you plan to place your different seeds and plants. This helps you visualize your garden and gives you a good idea of just how much room you have. It also makes sure plants that don’t like each other don’t end up together (companion planting). A map also allows you to get right to work planting when the ground warms in the spring, instead of wasting time trying to figure out where everything goes as you plant.
- Save money by taking a seed inventory. If you have leftover packets of seeds from other years, don’t assume they are too old to plant. If kept in a cool, dark place, many seeds can last for more than one year. Usually, the only seeds that need replacing yearly are members of the Alliumfamily, such as onions and chives.Lettuce, parsnips, corn and parsley seeds can be planted one to two years beyond the due date on the packet. Beans, carrots, cabbage, radishes, peppers and spinach seeds are good for three to five years. For super seeds, turn to tomatoes, cucumbers and beets, which can still be good over five years after the package due date.Sometimes, seed companies don’t put a date on their seed packages. In that case, write the date on the package. We’ve had more trouble trying to guess the age of some packages of green beans and garden peas. Last year’s total green bean crop failure was the last straw. We’re buying new bean seeds this year and writing the date on the package!
If you aren’t sure about the germination abilities of your seeds, do this simple test. Fold a white paper towel so it fits inside a clear drinking glass or pint canning jar. Wet the paper towel with water and mold it to the inside of your jar. Place 10 of the same variety of seeds between the wet paper towel and the glass. Keep the towel moist and place it in a sunny location.
Check every day or so to see if seeds have sprouted. If eight seeds sprout, you have a chance of 80% germination, which is very good in the world of gardening. If only three out of 10 seeds sprout, seriously consider buying new seeds this year.
Gardening is Sharing
Of course, once people know you garden, they are more than happy to share. You will receive offers for iris bulbs, 70 extra tomato plants from the old gentleman down the street who enjoys raising tomatoes from seed but doesn’t really plant a garden, extra strawberry plants as some kind person cleans up her berry patch, and heirloom flower seeds which have been in someone’s family since they arrived from the Old Country. Having a plan lets you know whether or not you can take advantage of these kind offers.
So, use the long, cold winter season to dream and plan your garden. Take the time to study all the beautiful vegetables and fruits available, and how you might fit them into your life. When spring comes, you are ready to make your dreams a reality.