Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The January Garden To-Do List

Every year, usually around May, I realize with a sudden flash of fear and clammy palms that it will be another one of those years where I will always be at least one week behind. This year, that happened today, IN JANUARY, the same day I found my favorite seed catalogue in my mailbox.

Thankfully, I am no true homesteader. My life and livelihood doesn't rely on getting onions into seed trays anytime in the near future. In fact, I fully intend to wait until the end of February to do anything along the lines of starting seeds. Hell, I don't even have a garden to speak of! A whole new year of garden planning and seed ordering and seed starting awaits!

So, to keep you from breaking into a cold sweat sometime in March, here's a quick reminder: Gardening starts in the winter. (Other things that homesteaders do in January include ordering hives and bees, hunting small game, and trying not to freeze to death) So start your gardening adventures now and stave off winter boredom. Here's how:

The January Gardener:

-Plan garden
-order seeds

Planning your garden
This time of year is when you can day dream all you want. If you don't have a garden, plan your garden now. Helpful tools include John Jeavon's guide: How To Grow More Vegetables, which I would go ahead and buy. I would go ahead and scour your library's garden section and talk to anyone you know who has a garden and ask for tips.

Here are some of my garden-planning tips to live by:

- Don't over do it! (I have always overdone it.) No one person needs, in their first (or even third) garden enough space to have a small farm, unless you intend to sell produce and farm. If you are a part-time gardener, figure out how much time you'd like to spend in your garden and about how much produce you'd like to harvest and plan accordingly. You will never eat a 20 foot row's worth of lettuce, and 20 feet of tomatoes is only plausible if you intend to can them.

- Plan your garden out on paper, and work from concepts to details. First plan out where the garden will be and how big you want it, then move onto how to lay out beds and how to make the beds (double digging, sheet-mulching, etc.), and only then figure out what to plant where. When figuring out what to plant where, your future self will be grateful if you plan in a simple vegetable rotation plan.

- When thinking about where to put your garden, consider important details such as shade (you want good southern exposure), runoff, soil compaction, soil structure, previous gardening in the area, and anything that grows in the area that might thwart the garden (such as a black walnut tree or thistle).

- Plan your garden close to home. A garden in a distant back corner of the yard is not a garden you will ever tend to. put your garden somewhere that will require your attention - preferably on the front lawn staring you down on your walk to your car. That way, you will see every weed popping up and will be compelled to actually work in your garden. If you refuse to plant in the front yard, at least plan your garden next to a path you walk on every other day or so (such as the path to your compost). You will want to be in the garden at least 3-4 times a week (depending on the weather), so plan accordingly.

- Do not lay down anything permanent, like stone paths, for the first few years. Just trust me on this one.

- If there are deer where you live, you will want a fence. The easiest dear fence is wire stretched across posts- one string 2 feet off the ground and another at 6 feet up. If there are rodents, rabbits, and groundhogs (who just don't respect fences), I'd invest in a garden-friendly cat.

Ordering Seeds

-Once again, don't overdo it. (and once again, I always do). Seeds don't last forever (most don't at least), so buy only as much as you need, which is a surprisingly small amount

-Catalogues are always cheaper than buying at nurseries. Fedco, Seed Savers Exchange, and local seed libraries such as Hudson Valley Seed Library are awesome, grass-roots sources for seeds grown, saved, and kept alive by family farmers and the like. Most other seed catalogues carry seeds owned by major conglomerates such as Monsanto without letting you know.

- Quick vocabulary: Organic seed refers to seed grown by certified organic standards. Organic farmers are required to use organic seed. You can grow your plants organically even with conventional (read: non-organic - grown with chemicals and whatnot) seed. Open Pollinated (also known as "OP" or "heirloom") refers to seeds that are bred and saved using traditional seed saving techniques. Seeds saved from plants grown from open pollinated seed will produce a second generation true in kind. You can only save seed from open pollinated plants. Open pollinated plants are not hybrids. Hybrid seeds (commonly listed as "F1" in catalogues) are high-performing seeds made from two very different varieties of plants that were forced to cross. This forced cross creates a seed that will produce a plant in its first generation (F1 refers to the first generation cross) that has certain favorable traits - usually productivity. However, any seed saved from plants grown from hybrid seed will produce a second generation of plants that is completely confused and not true to kind. This is because seed breeding is actually a long and extended process that requires the stabilization of traits over several generations. If you want to know more about seed saving, check out this book. In general, I would buy OP for the variety and the beauty, with the exception of sweet corn, which, in its OP form, isn't actually sweet.

- Don't even bother buying: seeds to commonly found perennial plants that need to be split or grow abundantly. Instead, talk to your friends and neighbors and see if you can split some of their plants. So many people have rhubarb that needs to be split, or bee balm that you can transplant, etc. that it just doesn't make sense to wait 3 years for the plants to mature. Things that fall into this category include: comfrey, mint (which grows so abundantly that it would be a sin to pay for - excepting special varieties) almost all flowering bushes, most perennial herbs (which are easier to propagate by cuttings or transplanting than seed), etc.

-Certain things aren't typically grown from seeds - and so you shouldn't look for the seed. The examples of these are potatoes and garlic (which should have been planted in October anyway). Also, people tend to buy onion sets rather than seed - which are second-year onion bulbs which will grow faster and easier than seed.

Enjoy your garden plans and don't stress too much! We're all in this together.

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