If you’re looking out your window and you see snow-covered grass and a thermometer that says it’s below freezing, you’re probably thinking I’m insane for posting a gardening post in January, but trust me, right now is a really important time in the life of a gardener—it’s planning time!
Come about the first of November, most gardeners are so sick of gardening that they can’t even stand it. We just want to spend a day not weeding or raking or shoveling—as great as the harvest was, we’re ready to be done. We’re almost wishing for a hard freeze to come in and end it all for us. As much as I love gardening, dude, it’s a lot of work (especially when you cultivate as much space as we do and do the majority by hand). And after about eight months of working the land, we’re sore and ready for a break.
Then you get that break. You get to relax through the holidays. Then, before you know it, it’s the beginning of January and the seed catalogs start showing up. At first, you put them aside and think, “it so isn’t time yet—I’M NOT READY,” and then another one shows up with some fun looking plant on the front, so you start flipping through and before you know it, you’ve starred 300 varieties that you want to plant in next year’s garden and you’re knee-deep in graph paper building new beds and you are itching for the weather to be warm enough to go outside and get your hands dirty. Gardening, I just can’t quit you.
As crazy as it sounds, we’re already working on our garden for this summer—and not just in graph paper form. We’ve had what they call the “January thaw” around here the past week—a stretch of warmer-than-normal days that we almost always get in January before it turns frosty again in February, and we’ve been using these days to help get our garden ready for Spring.
We’ve been out there tackling some tasks we neglected last fall. We’ve been cleaning up our beds and dressing them with mulched leaves and compost (and covering them with straw to protect the soil). We’ve been repairing our garden fence—the deer did a number on it this Fall. And our puppy has been doing her part by helping chase away the moles.
Still, even though we’ve been able to do some work for the past few days, we haven’t been able to do what we’re really itching to do—PLANT! I can’t wait to get my hands in some dirt and put some seeds in the ground. My planting schedule has our first batch of seeds starting February 1st, so it’s right around the corner. Yay!
Last year, because Juniper was making her arrival right smack in the middle of gardening seasoning, we went easy on the garden—only planting about half of our growing space. But this year, the plan is to go all out! We’re going to plant the entire 5500 square feet of our current growing space, plus we’re expanding the garden forward, adding an additional 20 feet—for a total of just shy of 6800 feet of gardening space. That’s four times the size of our house! It occurs to me that our “garden” isn’t really garden-sized anymore. We’re closing in on small farm territory—especially when you consider our other growing spaces (we’re starting to fill in our acre of designated orchard space this year, too).
A garden this size requires some pretty intense planning. Like previous years, we’re using the Mother Earth News vegetable garden planner. Honestly, it has some quirks that make it a little annoying to use—but it’s definitely the best option out there for planning on this scale. We’ve been working on this sucker for a while now, and while I’m sure it’ll still change as we come closer to planting time, here is the plan we’re currently working with (you can click the image to see a larger version).
- We’re focusing on a preserving garden this year—meaning high quantities of the veggies that are good for canning, freezing and drying like roma tomatoes, sweet corn, green beans, and peppers.
- We’ve included space to try out new-to-us varieties in the garden. Part of the fun of gardening is trying out new fruits and vegetables to see if you can grow them. Newbies this year: peanuts (our climate might be a touch too chilly to grow them—but we’ll see), sunberries and ground cherries (two fruits that grow like vegetables—as annuals), tomatillos (both green and purple), and rutabagas (they’re so delicious, and store so well).
- Since we’re organic gardeners, we do a lot of companion planting—meaning putting certain plants together that have been known to help each other thrive and help keep away pests and diseases. Which is why when you look at our garden plan, you won’t just see a “row of corn” but you’ll see corn interspersed with dried beans, winter squash, marigolds, nasturiums, and radishes. It makes planting and planning a bit complicated, but it helps keep our garden producing well without synthetic pesticides or herbicides.
As far as varieties go, we’ve planned on 112 different varieties covering 42 different types of fruit and veggies. With tomatoes alone, we’re planning on growing 15 different varieties! That’ll equal out to approximately 2,000 individual plants in our garden this year—700 of which we will start indoors in the upcoming months.
So how do we figure all this out? Here’s our method for planning our garden each year:
1: Take inventory.
We take an inventory of both our growing space and seeds. What do we still have? What can we use again? What varieties did well last year? What do we need to try new varieties of? We keep all of our seeds in a fridge in our basement, and we keep detailed notes (in Moleskin’s garden journal—love).
2: Shop around for seeds.
This is when the seed catalogs come out! Once we know what we need and what we want, we start flipping through our catalogs to find varieties that fit our needs (like say, we’re looking for a good tomato variety for drying). We compare and contrast, and it’s really our idea of a fun Saturday night!
I keep track of all the varieties we are growing in a massive spreadsheet. In that spreadsheet goes both new varieties we’ll be ordering, as well as varieties we already have the seeds for.
The spreadsheet is SO helpful when it comes time to start seeds. All I have to do is sort the data by the start date, and then I can see what varieties I need to start on a particular day. Then, I just scroll over to the column that tells me how many seedlings to start and that’s how many seeds go in the soil. My first year seed starting, I just kinda winged it, and ended up with WAY more plants than we could use (even after giving some to all my family members). I ended up throwing out perfectly good seedlings—and wasting those seeds. No more seed wasting! Planning is good, kids.
3: Plan it out.
I then start laying out our garden based on the spreadsheet in the garden planner. This takes . . . forever. It takes me weeks (or even months) to get the plan right. And even with all that work, we almost never follow it 100% when planting time comes.
Once I do have the plan somewhat finalized, you can generate a plant list in the app—telling you how many of each variety will be going in the ground. From that list, I populate the last two columns of my massive spreadsheet—how many seedlings we need to start and how many we want in the ground. And that then informs how many seed packets we need to buy, and, of course, how many seeds we need to start.
4. Plant and adjust.
We usually print the plan out large, and the fold it up and keep it in our garden tool basket, so we can refer to it all season long (you should see the paper by the end of the season—it’s barely hanging on).
Without a doubt, we’ll have to adjust our plan as we get out there. Spacing is always off for something. Or some seedlings won’t do well. Or we’ll have thought a row was wider than it was. But the plan is a really great starting point, and it helps us organize all of our ideas while we’re still cooped up during the winter.
Now that you’ve seen our plan (and learned how we made it), let me tell you a little bit about some of the bigger method changes we’re planning on tackling this year. Gardening is an ever-evolving hobby—you’re always looking to do things better from year to year! Here are the things we’re adjusting from previous years:
Seed Starting Rack
We’ve been starting seeds for years, and had great success until one thing happened—we got a cat. A bored indoor kitty and tons of flats of soil sitting on warming mats is not a good combination. We tried blocking her out, but she’s shifty and always found a way in to kill all of our fragile little seedlings.
This year, we decided to throw some money at the problem, and build our own seed sprouting rack that takes up little floor space—meaning we can stash it behind a closed door in a small room in our basement. No kitties allowed!
Shelves like these specifically made for seed starting start at (gasp) $500! But I knew we could make it much cheaper. I found a nice, strong 48″ wide wire shelf from Home Depot, and when combined with eight shop lights, it becomes a seed starting shelf—for only about $150. And we can fit a total of 1,300 seedlings on the six shelves (if we needed that many) using 2″ soil blocks we make with our soil blocker.
Of course, we haven’t used it yet, so time will tell if it’s really a better system, but I’m hopeful!
Another big change we’re doing this year is how we block weeds. In previous years, we’ve prevented weeds by putting down wet newspaper around our plants in the garden and then covering that in straw—it worked well, and was free (because newspaper is everywhere), but it was really labor intensive. Getting on your hands and knees to lay out 5000 square feet of newspaper was incredibly taxing.
This year, we’re trying out a similar idea (paper to block weeds), but in a more user-friendly method—rolls of paper mulch. They are big rolls of newsprint-style paper that is designed to break down slowly over the season—nothing to throw away at the end of the year, no yucky chemicals leaching into your soil, and it’s easy to lay down, just roll it out, tack it in, and you’re done. We’re excited to see how it goes! It’s pricey, but it might be worth the labor time we save not putting down squares of newspaper all over the garden. We’re also doing a test with just run-of-the-mill kraft paper (like the kind you would have in big rolls in your art classroom in elementary school) to see how that works. If it ends up working well—it’s a much, much cheaper option with the same idea.
This will be the first year we’re going 100% no till. We’ve been working to get there for a few years now, and we finally are to the point where our beds are deep enough that we don’t need to till before planting.
Red Mulch Film
We’re doing a bit of experimenting with colored plastic mulch this year. Studies have shown that red fruits and vegetables (strawberries, tomatoes, etc.) perform better when they are mulched with red plastic mulch film (like this). Something about the type of lightwaves that reflect off the red mulch onto the underside of the plant’s leaves make them really, super happy. So this year, we’re doing three beds of roma tomatoes—two without the red mulch and one with. I’ll be interested to see if we have much difference.
Extensive Cover Cropping
We’ve been cover cropping the past few years, and our soil is improving considerably from it. This year, we’re going to really focus on cover cropping with quick-grow cover crops when early crops have been harvested (like peas and potatoes). If we plan it just right, we should be able to get a cover crop in after spring crops but before fall crops go it in a lot of places.
We’ve learned so much over the past few years, and it feels like this year a lot of it is coming together. There will always be more to learn, but we’re hopeful we know enough this year to make it for a pretty great garden! Because I’m a goal-setter, I, of course, set some goals for our garden too:
- Produce 2,000 pounds of food. Sounds like a doozy, right? It’s actually a lot less that it sounds—less than a third of a pound of food per square foot of growing space (for reference, a big head of lettuce weights just shy of a pound—and we grew onions two years ago that were 1 1/2 pounds each!).
- Donate 500 pounds of food to local food banks. Last year, we donated a little over 100 pounds of produce to our local food pantry—and that was with a much smaller garden. This year, we want to go big and donate a lot more.
- Reduce our grocery bill by 50%. This one is something we’ve always struggled with. You’d think that because we were producing a ton of fresh fruits and veggies each summer, our grocery bill would dwindle, but I’ve never been great about building menus and grocery lists that spotlight what is coming off in the garden at that time. Once the garden starts producing, I’d like to drop our typical grocery budget to about half of what it is during the non-growing season.
- Keep our garden (relatively) weed free. This sounds easy—you just, uh, pull the weeds, but fighting weeds is probably the biggest issue with organic gardening. It is a constant struggle with the amount of growing space we have. In past years, we’ve stayed on top of it for a while, but then, the summer heat comes, and we just get overwhelmed by weeds—which wrecks our production. This year, we’re doing a little more prevention to keep the weeds from ever sprouting, and we’re hoping to stay on top of those that do make it through. If we are vigilant about weeding this year, it should really help for future years because there won’t be any seeds to sprout in the future.
- Put up 1000 jars of food. This is a whole other post for a whole other time, but I have plans to put up 1000 jars of food this summer—and part of hitting that goal relies on a well-producing garden. I would love to be able to avoid the grocery store as much as possible next winter!
- Spend an hour a day in the garden. This is more of a self-care goal for me than a garden specific goal (although, it will help keep our growing space in check)—I love spending time in the garden. It makes me happy. It helps me feel refreshed. The fresh air and sunshine is good for me. But I always feel like I have to devote whole days to really make my time “worth it”, and it’s hard for me to carve out a whole day away from work to spend playing with plants. The truth is, just an hour a day can accomplish a whole lot in the garden—and accomplish a whole lot for my mental health, too! My goal is to spend an hour a day this summer in the garden—it’ll be like my daily workout!
I’m not sure how many of you are interested in gardening posts (raise your hands if you are!), but I’ll probably do a few garden updates throughout the season to keep you apprised of how our epic 2015 garden goes. Bring on Spring!