Snow blankets the ground from Maine to Washington, while the humid southeast and the sweltering southwest become a bit more temperate. Our country’s vast geographic diversity means winter entails different things for gardeners depending on where they live. Regional experts offer these winter gardening tips with that diversity in mind.
One of my New Year’s chores is to sort my leftover seed stash, throwing out the really old packets and making notes on what to order. If kept cool and dry, tomato seed can last three to 10 years; pepper and brassica seed up to five years; corn, beans and spinach up to four years; and carrots and lettuce three years. Parsley, parsnip, delphinium, larkspur and scorzonera seed rarely are viable for more than a year. You can test viability by rolling a few seeds in a damp paper towel. Cover with plastic to prevent drying out and store at room temperature. Check for sprouts in a week; allow at least two weeks for slow germinators.
Attention hot pepper lovers: If you haven’t tried ‘Czechoslovakia Blacks,’ you are in for a treat. Similar to a jalapeño in heat and shape, they ripen to a lustrous garnet red, have great flavor and bear prolifically. A bowl of them still brightens my table.
The weeds you battled last summer may tell you how to improve soil conditions for next year. To learn more, read Weeds: Control Without Poison by Charles Walters. Another good read in these days of peak oil, global warming and rising fuel costs, Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts, left me thinking hard about my choice of “inputs” such as fertilizer and water.
Start globe artichokes and ‘Tina James’ evening scented primrose (which has blossoms that burst open right before your eyes at dusk) in January — both need exposure to cold temperatures to flower in the same year. ‘Dean’s Purple’ pole beans, purple asparagus beans and ‘Kevin’s Early Orange’ bell peppers were impressive in our 2006 trials — and will add a nice burst of color to your 2007 harvest.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Here in the South, early December is the perfect time for planting garlic as well as more lettuce and other cool-weather greens. Growing your own tomato plants from seed allows you to choose the best-tasting varieties — start them about eight weeks before the last frost in your area. Use commercial seed-starting mix or combine potting soil with an equal amount of vermiculite, perlite or peat moss. Plant the tomato seeds no more than a quarter-inch deep. Optimum soil temperature for seed starting is 80 degrees — the top of the refrigerator or water heater is often an ideal spot.
Be sure to remove any covers as soon as the seeds germinate, and move to a sunny window or under fluorescent lights. About three weeks after the seeds emerge, begin fertilizing with a very weak solution of fish fertilizer. Let the top of the soil dry out between waterings to prevent fungal diseases.
Seeds for the South
Search the catalogs for a few new tomato, pepper and eggplant seeds to start in January, but don’t be afraid to stick with tried-and-true favorites. I tried a couple of highly touted tomato varieties last year — yuck. I’ll stick with ‘Champion,’ ‘Dona,’ ‘Carmello,’ ‘Sungold’ and ‘Better Boy.’ In the meantime I’m busy harvesting ‘Gypsy’ broccoli, ‘Cheriette’ radishes, ‘Buttercrunch’ lettuce and the rest of the cool-season crops that contribute to a 12-month harvest here.
My basic garden philosophy includes using tons of organic matter to ensure that the soil is productive, and concentrating on crops that give the best quality and flavor. If the pests show up, I reach for the least toxic pesticide available.
William D. Adams
What’s on my Christmas gardening wish list? High-quality tools and supplies — the well-made kind that I can use my whole gardening life and then pass on to my daughter. These carefully made tools do exist. At work I use great tools from Sneeboer, a third generation Dutch company. I’m buying them (a piece at a time!) for my home as well.
Want a unique gift for the gardener who has everything? How about a bottle of nutrient-rich, cold-processed fish and kelp fertilizer? Yum! Their plants will love them for it!
In deep winter, take time to inventory and organize gardening supplies. They can be ordered with your seed to save the extra shipping charges.
William Dam Seeds Ltd.
The shortest day of the year is one of my favorites. Plants sense the changing day length, and the day after the winter solstice I begin to see a growth spurt in all my indoor tomato and perennial herb plants, including lemon balm, oregano and thyme. Take this hint and begin to plan your spring garden.
Finish sifting and cleaning the seeds you saved last summer. If you offer some of these to Seed Savers Exchange, you will gain access to other members’ seeds — a collective treasure chest of thousands of rare heirlooms not available anywhere else. During early dark evenings, I love to pick up my garden journal and read last summer’s garden events like a wonderful story. This always sparks new ideas, new possibilities and new chapters for the coming spring. In some ways I think I love gardening most during these quiet winter moments.
Seeds Trust, High Altitude Gardens
In the midst of cold, rainy December, we open our mailboxes and find new seed catalogs. For garden enthusiasts, these lift our spirits and cure the winter blues far better than sitting in front of a full-spectrum light.
Holiday shoppers may want to place a few carefully selected seed packets, a pair of great garden gloves and maybe a nifty tool like the Korean “EZ Digger” in a basket for gardeners on your list. Other popular gift ideas include kits for saving seeds or growing mushrooms, or garden markers. With catalog in hand, start planning for the 2007 garden season. The average item on the American dinner plate has traveled 1,500 miles, so it’s satisfying to know that much of yours can come from your own garden!
Rose Marie Nichols McGee
Nichols Garden Nursery
Territorial Seed Co.
Cottage Grove, Ore.
In the Southwest, the dark days of December are brightened by ristras: dried red chilies strung together and hung from doorways. While many chili varieties can be used to make a traditional ristra, we recommend ‘Española Improved,’ an early-season classic, or ‘Numex Big Jim,’ an extra-long chili we are offering in 2007. Both these varieties were developed through the chili breeding program at New Mexico State University, where the nonprofit Chile Pepper Institute celebrates all things capsicum.
Winter days also are brightened by the harvest of cold-hardy greens from cold frames: the French lettuce varieties ‘Brune D’Hiver’ (‘Brown Winter’) and ‘Rouge D’Hiver’ (‘Red Winter’) develop beautiful rust and red colors as the cold deepens, and make a colorful winter salad mixed with bright green mâche leaves. We love this season, and give thanks at each meal for the stored, preserved or dried bounty of our gardens.
Seeds of Change
Santa Fe, N.M.
We would like to thank Almanac editor Carol Mack and the regional Almanac contributors for lending their expertise to the magazine. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS
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