By Steve Peters
Right now it’s hard to imagine anything but cold and snow, especially with rumors that another round of the polar vortex is on the way. Yet winter is planning time for the farmer. The farmer must look past the grayness of January in Vermont and consider the crops that are to be grown and harvested for the season. If you see a farmer looking especially cheerful this time of year, there’s a good chance he or she is focused on the sunny days to come.
Farmers need not be the only ones planning and dreaming of the future, however. If you grow your own food at home – or perhaps in a community garden, like myself – you too should be looking ahead to the growing season. Even if you have just a small raised bed in your yard, there are steps you can take now for a productive season of fresh food.
If you’re already a gardener, your seed catalogs have probably already arrived. These books contain page after page of bright and colorful tomatoes, peppers, squashes, beans, flowers and more. They give us hope, and as the publisher intended, an eagerness to buy a packet or two of everything. But stop – because this is not the first step in your garden planning.
1. First, review your notes (which, hopefully you took at least a few) from last year to see what did well and what did not. Home gardeners are usually too busy, lack enough experience and don’t have high enough quality soil to grow absolutely everything they’d like. Be realistic. If you haven’t grown your own food before, think about the top five or so foods you like the most and start there. Beans, peas, tomatoes, lettuce and zucchini are considered some of the easier crops to grow. It wouldn’t hurt to have a chat with your favorite farmer for tips either.
2. Next, think about how much space you have for your garden. Even the smallest of plots, and even container gardens, can produce an impressive amount of food. However, you need to know how much space the crops you’d like to grow will take. You don’t want to find out in August when your winter squash has wiped out everything else. Consult the seed catalogs, if you have them, or the web for expected space and height requirements.
I’m a fan of the web and Iphone app called GrowVeg for help planning out my garden. It allows you to create a layout of your plot and then place the items you’d like to grow. The crops automatically take up the actual amount of space in your diagram. GrowVeg is also useful for laying out a square foot garden by letting you know how many plants can grow in each foot of soil.
3. Now, take inventory. See what seeds you have leftover or saved from last year. See if any of your gardener friends have excess seeds they’re willing to share. Chances are they do. And seeds often last longer than the dates on the back of package. You can test out their viability by placing a few seeds on a wet paper towel, placing in a plastic bag and keeping in a warm spot. After the appropriate amount of time for the type of seed, you’ll be able to see what has or has not germinated.
4. At this point you’re probably ready to determine which seeds to buy. Again, be realistic and pay attention to the details of each crop. You need to know which seeds can be directly sowed into the ground and which need to be started indoors ahead of time. If seeds need to be started indoors, do you have the space and enough light or do you intend to buy a grow light? And are you going to be available to water and care for them until they’re ready to transplant?
In reality, seeds are not for everyone. Fortunately, many farms sell seedlings in late spring and early summer. These days, I like to strike a balance of starters and seeds. It’s a great way to support local farms while still having the ability to grow your own.
At first I was concerned that I wouldn’t have a chance to support local farms if I had my own garden. But, I’ve learned that even the best planned garden can have unexpected downfalls. Plant diseases, bug infestations and too much rain are a few instances. It’s always a learning experience and there are just some crops that are better left to the skill and attention of the farmer.
While planning a garden might seem like just another chore, I see it as a way of improving my mood on the dreariest of winter days. For more help thinking about the planning of your garden, I recommend theWeek by Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook by Ron and Jennifer Kujawski.
Steve Peters manages the food education, communications and marketing for RAFFL. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald