By Cassie Johnston
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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).
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:
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).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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!
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I like the gardening posts, keep them coming! I know Broken Plow was put on indefinite pause but any of those gardening/homesteading posts I would happily read over here :)
I don’t garden myself, but it’s nice to read about you guys doing it haha!
Hi Cassie! I’ve been using roll paper instead of newspaper under straw for the last 2 years in my much smaller garden and I love it. Much easier to lay down (although definitely a 2 person job, and try not to do it on a windy day or you’ll go crazy) and not that expensive. One tip – I’ve been using thicker, builder’s paper from Home Depot or Lowes, instead of the art kraft paper. The thicker paper really holds up better if you’re just doing 1 layer – although nothing is as good as whole newspaper sections. My Home Depot has it in just plain brown kraft, and it’s usually in the painting aisle with the drop cloths.
I would love to see more gardening posts myself, especially the harvest posts.
That’s awesome! I’m so glad to hear it works. My once concern with it is that it doesn’t break down as well as the marketed “paper mulch”. Have you had any issues with it decomposing over the winter? I would love to do a weed mulch that helps feed the soil!
How’s it feel to get Junebug on your back?
I am so envious of your garden. My yard is too small and too sloped (I have to very carefully walk, almost sideways, down it) and too much is city access so I can’t use it anyway.
I wish I could have a garden like yours. I need to work on learning when is a good time to buy a bunch of produce for processing. I don’t know how to can yet, but I want to work on my own winter stockpile even though I can’t grow my own produce yet.
I live vicariously through you and Craig with all the gardening, so I love seeing these posts.
Loving, loving, loving backwearing! My hands are so free!
I can’t believe its already that time again! I need to get on my planning very soon. This gives me hope that spring really is coming soon!
Yes, all the gardening posts, please! We had a teeny tiny garden last year (our first), and I’m so excited for all the improvements we’ll make this year! I love reading your gardening posts, so keep them coming!
you guys are amazing!!!! I am in total awe. My mom is a gardener (on a much smaller scale) and as much as I love the thought of gardening, I’ve just never got into it but I soooo want to! We rent and only have a front porch. I wonder what I could grow in such a small space? It’s something to consider. Anyway! I can’t wait to see updates
I love your gardening post! I keep telling all my friends that I am going to have to start growing tomatoes and peppers this year as that is what southern girls do!
I love the gardening posts! I’m fortunate to live in a warmer climate – our chance of frost is done; I planted potatoes yesterday, and will be planting peas soon. I’m totally impressed with your garden plan and your goals – awesome!
I love the garden posts (I’m a plant biologist by training so I always get excited about plants)! I’m really excited to see how all your plans work out and am looking forward to reading updates. I have a small backyard at my house but it’s mostly shaded, so I’m going to be stuck with small-scale and back porch container-gardening for a while. I’m really interested to hear how things go this year with you guys managing such a big garden in such an environmentally-friendly, smart way.
Thank You sooo much!
I’ve always loved when you talked about the garden here or over at the broken plow. I have always been so confused and get so frustrated in trying to plan a garden , so this post has just made my day! I’m looking forward to seeing how your harvest goes this year. Best of luck!
Love your gardening posts, as I do not any space or enough sun to even attempt a container gardenette. CAUTION: There is an adorable human attached to you!!!
Please continue garden posts! The more the merrier for me :) … Stealing ideas!
I adore these posts! I’m not at a point in my life to be able to do this yet (student!) so I love living vicariously through your family! I honestly can’t wait for the day when I can do more than a pot of two of tomatoes!
Y’all are amazing!!! I love reading about your garden, though I don’t garden myself. I’d love to read updates!
Just wanted to say that I love your gardening posts! I don’t have much to work with now, other than a small herb garden, but it’s so inspiring seeing how you organize everything! I remember having my own garden when I was a child and my parents let me put whatever I wanted in it. So fun. I hope you get to do the same with your Juniper.
Gardening posts: the more the merrier for me! Stealing ideas :) … btw, do you have a favorite seed source?
Love Territorial Seeds, Seed Savers, Baker Creek, Johnny’s Seeds, and Peaceful Valley! :)
I use Seed Savers and they’re based in Iowa, my home state. Planning a trip there this summer!!
Super excited to see how your garden does this year. The plans sound so much fun. Here in PA, we had a warmish week between Christmas and New Years so my boyfriend took care of cleaning out the rest of our garden that we never got around to in fall. We are expanding our garden this summer (nothing near your size) and I’m super excited. I also want to can more since we are completely out of freezer space thanks to all the wild game my boyfriend got this winter so far. Can’t wait to read more gardening posts in the future months!
I love the gardening/lifestyle/fitness/home/baby posts! I love how in depth all of your posts have been lately. :-) Keep ’em coming
Raising my hand! Love the gardening posts!
Bring on the gardening posts! I loved these in years past (both here and on the Broken Plow blog). Last year, we only planted tomatoes in containers and some herbs, since we were in an apartment with nothing but a sunny front porch. We had good success with what we did plant, though. Since we just bought a house on 4+ acres, I’m itching to do quite a bit more this year. Your posts are super-helpful and give me all kinds of great ideas – can’t wait for spring!
I’d love to hear how your seed starting shelves work out. What kind of bulbs are you using in the lights? I’ve tried to find grow lights here (fairly large Canadian city) but haven’t had any luck.
I’m envious of how much space you have to garden – I’d love to enlarge our garden, but we don’t have much room in our yard.
No special lights. Just the regular shop lights from the hardware store—even the regular bulbs work fine, but you’ll get even better results if you spring for the daylight/full spectrum bulbs.
My seed starting setup is one long, 2-bulb shop light over a countertop in the basement. I have one “cool” tone fluorescent light bulb, and one “warm” tone fluorescent bulb. Together, they probably span ~2500-5000K. This is a cheap way to get the full spectrum without buying more expensive full spectrum bulbs. The light temperature range should be printed on the box.
Hand raised! Please keep the updates coming on what worked, what didn’t, and other lessons learned. Can’t wait to hear how it goes
Raising both hands here! We neglected our garden last summer (which worked surprisingly well) because I couldn’t crouch down to weed and thin thanks to SPD, and then we didn’t plant cover crops because, well, we had a newborn this fall. The garden currently looks aaawful, but I’m (naively) looking forward to getting out there this spring to get it ready. Hopefully baby will enjoy hanging out on my back while I do so!
Yes, please keep the garden posts coming! So inspirational! Can I ask what you do with the ground cherries? Or plan to do?
I’ve never had them before, so I dunno! The word on the street is they are good for fresh eating or making preserves.
Ground cherries are a lot of fun – they come in their own little ‘brown paper bags’, which is just the coolest thing ever! We get them in our CSA from time to time. They are great to just snack on and are also tasty in a pie! One lady at one of the farmers markets here uses them in traditional salsa to add a little tartness and texture – you’d never know they were there unless she told you. Never had preserves with them before, but I’ll bet that would be delightful, too.
The first time I bought ground cherries, I sliced them in half and put them on some flatbread with ricotta and herbs and baked it until the cheese was a bit browned and the cherries were warmed. It was SO good.
These are absolutely my FAVORITE posts you do and the reason I read your blog so please PLEASE continue them! I would love to see a garden post each week but I understand you have to do what you think is best. That’s my vote though!
Wow – this all sounds fabulous! I’m excited to see and read about how your gardening plans pan out. Good luck and happy planting :)
love garden updates! I’m converting a huge area of my urban backyard to garden space this. We’re going to use the Ruth Stout method of deep mulching. I’m hopeful it will work well.
I love to read about gardening and learn more. Your garden sounds amazing! We have four 4×6 plots in our back yard as well as 2 flower beds we use as growing space. Any advice for transplanting? I always seem to have trouble with that.
Make sure to read up about what plants transplant well and which ones don’t—some plants hate to be disturbed and will do really poorly if you start them indoors before moving them to their permanent home.
I’m just commenting to express how annoying and frustrating the ad video player is on your site. There was no way to shut it off or mute it, I ended up turning off the sound on my lap top. It also really slowed down my computer while on your site, and I’m on a new computer! I get needing advertising dollars, but it made for a really poor experience on your website.
Hi Jennifer! I’m so sorry about that—I hate those kinds of ads, too, and try to keep them off my site as much as I can. Unfortunately, I don’t have 100% control over what shows and what doesn’t. The next time it happens, if you don’t mind, copy the URL that the ad links to, and then I can block it from ever showing again (that’s the only way I can fix it). Thanks for the feedback!
I’m a lurker, fellow food blogger and fellow gardener (going on 18 years now). Just popped in to let you know that if those are Gourmet ads, I had the same problem and one of my readers told me about it too. So I contacted the ad company and asked them to remove all video ads from my account. It took them 15 minutes and they were replaced. It hasn’t effected income so definitely a good option.
Love your garden post!!!
Thanks so much, Deborah! :)
One day I will have a garden! When I’m all grown up and ready to settle down. Not sure when that will be. But I would love to gorw some of my own food.
YES, yes, yes to more garden posts( and I hope everyone else is saying the same, ha!)!!!! Love them! I’m the same way, ready for harvest and for it to be over, but then so excited to get outside before winter is even close to being over! This year we dug our first real garden at our new house. I learned some things about the space last year and that helps with my planning this year. This week I made my list of what to plant, now I just need to draw up the design! Sooo excited for spring to get here! and can’t wait to follow along on your garden journey. So jealous of your land and set up! Garden posts are my favorite so I hope you can swing writing more into your schedule. Also, it would be fun to see what meals you make this summer with your bounty and also your canning plan.
Thanks, Cass! Happy gardening!! :)
the planning that you put into the garden is admirable. I live in los angeles and have a total of 12 raised beds. For Christmas, I received a huge plastic container of Baker’s Seeds (I have over two hundred heirloom seeds now) and need to figure out appropriate companion planting. Do you have a favorite resource for companion planting? I will definitely be using the garden planner this year. This weekend the weather is supposed to be in the 80’s but I will not be lulled into a false sense of security and start planting (as I have done with terrible results in the past). I am going to the beach with the kids instead…
The MEN Garden Planner has companion planting recommendations built right in. :)
I was going to ask about companion planting too. Any advice for those of us who aren’t investing in a garden planner? (I only have a 200 sq ft community garden plot) I want to know what to plant next to what!
Honesty, my advice is to grow what you like to eat, and pick out varieties for fun! There are so many cool heirloom tomatoes out there. :)
Doh! I just realized you asked about companion planting, not what to plant (can I still blame baby brain with a 7 month old?). This list is a really nice comprehensive one that we use, too: http://www.ghorganics.com/page2.html
I’m so excited to watch your garden unfold this year. It’s amazing how much you’re planning to give to a food bank and put up in cans!
LOVE gardening posts. I only do backyard/square foot gardening but I love it and love reading about much larger endeavors.
Okay, now I’m dying to get outside and garden. It’s too bad it won’t really happen for me this year, with the exception of some potted herbs. Next summer, baby. Next summer. Although I’ve definitely got the planning itch. Soon it will be time to order some seeds from Veseys.
Thanks for the garden eye candy! :)
I love these posts! As someone who can’t seem to grow one lonely vegetable, what you guys do is a dream but also daunting to the max. I would love to read more about the topic and tips you have…keep them coming!
I am not a gardener (I believe I found your site through simplicity/minimalism), but I am a planner and I felt interest in gardening for the first time ever while reading this post! Keep em comin :)
First off, the new layout is OFF THE HOOK AMAZING. Love, love, love it. It’s so fresh and clean, but still warm & inviting. Awesome job!
Now, about this garden plan… um. WOW. I am so excited for you guys! I would love a big garden like this! We plan on doing one in our backyard this year, but it will only be about 500 square feet or so, since we don’t have much more space than that. This post was helpful in getting me thinking about how we’re going to plan out and prepare for this garden though, so thanks for sharing! :D
Also wanted to chime in and say that I love that you are posting about the garden again!
I don’t know if it’s the season for these things yet, but are you also planning on growing mushrooms/sugaring (getting that delicious sap out of trees) again? I remember reading about those things on The Broken Plow and would love to hear more!
I just had to re-read this and just loved it all over again! Since we are finally getting to some good weather here in the Midwest it’s hard not to get excited about gardening! I’m definitely very interested in updates on the garden itself along with the canning plan updates. We don’t have a working deep freeze at the moment so canning is a much more practical solution for us so getting more ideas or tips in that area would be great! Love all of your posts though and can’t wait for things to unfold :)
I love your gardening posts. My garden was kind of an epic fail last year (oops) because I was pregnant, tired, hot, and didn’t buy my house/get my yard until June which meant LATE garden. I want to be super prepared this year and these posts help tremendously! I love the advice and learning about gardening!
I know I’m extremely late in the comment :-), but I was wondering if you played around with lasagna gardening/sheet gardening? I’m planning on doing this for the other half of my gar den that I’m not planning on cultivating this season.
Yup! We do no-till, so it’s a similar idea. Instead of tilling, we just layer new organic matter on it each Fall and Spring. In the Fall, we usually do a cover crop with a layer of shredded leaves and compost. And then top it off with straw to protect it throughout the winter. And in the Spring, we normally dress with another layer of compost.
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