Playing in dirt is a gardener’s delight. We may tend to think of planting early crops such as peas, salad greens, and potatoes as the beginning of the gardening season. In truth, the work of gardening begins long before that, and it starts in the living room or the den in the dead of winter.
Seed catalogs begin filling up mailboxes in early January, if not before. The timing is perfect. Gardeners have had time to recover from the frenzied days of garden planting, maintenance, harvest, and preservation. January’s short and often sunless days make gardeners yearn for summer. What better time to browse the pages of seed catalogs than on some of the longest nights of the year?
A good seed catalog offers more than just seed--it will be filled with growing tips and inspiration, too. With several catalogs in hand, you can compare varieties, package sizes, and prices before placing your order.
The luscious color photographs gracing the pages of many seed catalogs are almost too much for gardening fanatics to bear. Our wish lists grow long with old favorites as well as exotic new varieties, the descriptions of which are too alluring to ignore.
But January means more than drooling over the pages of seed catalogs. It means paring down that wish list to something manageable. Before finalizing order forms, it’s time to develop a garden plan. There are software packages for this purpose, but I prefer paper and pencil (with plenty of eraser). I use graph paper and a ruler to create a to-scale reproduction of my garden space.
Putting your garden plan on paper makes it come alive. It's also a good tool for planning future crop rotations.
Once I’ve laid out the garden plot on paper, I use my ruthlessly pared down wish list to determine the best planting location for each vegetable type and variety, keeping things like companion planting and space limitations in mind. I use information from my catalogs to ascertain how much space a packet’s worth of seed will fill. I refer to Barbara Pleasant’s Home Grown Pantry and my own experience to determine how much I need to plant to have enough—but not too much. If my freezer still has squash from two years ago and some of the pumpkins in the root cellar rotted before I could get to them, perhaps I should cut back on those crops this year.
I save previous years’ drawn layouts, too. Comparing these plans is an important management tool. I want to rotate crops for both pest control and soil quality. I might remember where everything was planted last year, but I want at least a three-year rotation, and it’s hard to keep that much information in my head.
To control my urge to try every kind of seed I come across, I’ve developed a formula of sorts. While the bulk of my garden space is reserved for trusted varieties, I allow myself a few luxuries. Each year I give myself permission to grow from one to three new-to-me varieties. (Last year it was watermelon radishes. Other years, the garden has featured cucamelons, Swiss chard, popcorn, and kiwanos.)
Sometimes the new seeds don’t work out. Popcorn was fun and a conversation piece, but it took up too much precious garden real estate for too little return. Other times, as with Swiss chard, the audition has led to new favorites. But to make room for them, something must give. If I’ve consistently had back luck with a vegetable and it’s readily available at our farmers’ market, I might forego it in the future.
I set aside space for favorite herbs such as dill, basil, parsley, and coriander, too. And, of course, I reserve plenty of room for my family’s favorites which include Christmas limas, Who Gets Kissed corn, butternut squash, sugar snap peas, and that old standby, summer squash.
Once my husband and I discovered Christmas lima beans, we knew they'd become a garden staple. Besides being tasty, they're a visual delight.
I also give myself permission to grow one just-for-fun plant. One year it was Pumpkin-on-a-Stick (actually a decorative member of the eggplant family). Another year it was Love-Lies-Bleeding, a variety of amaranth that looks strikingly like mauve dreadlocks. Hard to resist. It’s an edible, but I found trying to winnow the almost microscopic grain a little too tedious. Looking at it was pleasure enough.
With a plant like love-lies-bleeding, any gardener is bound to be a little bit happier when doing summer garden chores.
Once I’ve filled in my garden diagram, I have a pretty good idea what seeds to buy and how many packets of each. Finally, I can place my order. Just in time, too, because a few types of seeds need to be started indoors as early as February. See, January’s just the right time to get started on this year’s gardening.
Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts by following this link. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal where she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.
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