Winter is for garden planning

It’s time to plan the 2020 vegetable garden! Or at least time to start thinking about it.

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Looking forward to summer harvests

Times have changed – I used to be thrilled when a seed catalog showed up before Christmas, and now it’s “What? The first week of December and only two catalogs have arrived? Don’t they love me anymore?” But I’m sure more will be along soon. Flipping through pages of lavishly-illustrated vegetables and flowers is a great way to spend a winter’s hour or three, but it’s oh so easy to be tempted into buying more seeds than you need. As someone who’s done this multiple times, I’ve developed some strategies for keeping the seed frenzy under control. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my process.

  1. Go through the seeds I already have. Mine are sorted by type. First I examine each group and throw out those that are probably too old to germinate well (I’ve been using 3 years as a guideline) or that didn’t do well for me before. Then I make a sorted list of what’s left.
  2. Assess available space for planting. The best way to do this would be to draw a map. Actually, if I was really organized, I’d have a blank map of my garden space ready to go for each year, with a method for noting succession planting by season. You should do this. I don’t. I am bad at two-dimensional visualization, so I attempt to map three-dimensionally in my imagination, and it would be a disaster except that I’ve done it enough times to have a sense of what I have room for. I also know that things never work out in practice as neatly as they do on paper.
  3. Have a budget in mind. Since I have a relatively small garden, available space sets my seed budget pretty neatly, but if you have a big garden and/or tight funds, you may have to write this down and stick to it.
  4. Go through the list of seeds I have, and make a new list of what’s missing that I’d like to grow. This is the place where catalog browsing fits in. It’s okay to go a little wild because this list will be edited later.
  5. Make a realistic plan for what grows where in what season. Try to keep in mind what’s been learned from previous years, for example that okra planted as a summer succession crop may not produce heavily until mid-September, and tomatoes will keep going into October, and peas sometimes get a slow start in the spring. Oh, and I planted garlic this fall; don’t put something else there until July.
  6. Make a more-or-less final list, and then try to put together an order from one or at the most two catalogs. A few items will be lost along the way, but I probably didn’t have room for them anyway.

There are multiple factors to keep in mind, like trying not to grow the same families of plants in the same places too frequently (“crop rotation” is a big name for how this works in a small space, but it’s worth shifting around a bit), and consequently what will work in a raised bed or directly in the ground; I have both in my community garden plot. At home, I have some containers and a raised trough planter, so I work those in too. I always grow eggplants in containers on my deck (this is a successful anti-flea beetle strategy) and if I wrap the trough planter with fencing against deer I can grow beans or cucumbers or something else (I have “Ground cherry? Plant where?” on my list). I’m also considering trying carrots there (short ones on the edge or longer ones in the middle), but beets planted for this fall didn’t do too well, so is that a lesson? Turnips did fine, though.

One corner of my garden plot is now reserved for flowers that I can’t grow at home due to deer pressure, like tulips and zinnias. The zinnias I grew there this year were too tall and flopped over into my neighbor’s space, so I will try shorter ones next year. Okra did well, but if I’m growing it again I need more of it; it’s silly to harvest five pods at a time. But then that space isn’t available for tomatoes. I used up some good space for a brilliantly successful roselle hibiscus:

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but I should be able to fit that in at home next year in some newly-cleared sunny space. Zucchini did well; maybe put those in the raised beds and they’ll do even better? Too well? Do I have room for butternut? Is it worth growing onions or sweet potatoes this year? Hm, maybe not. Potatoes, though!

I enforce some stern restrictions on myself while looking through catalogs, too, based on the seeds-I have list: no, you’ve got SO many pepper seeds, keep your eyes off that page, the only new seeds you need are for shishito and that’s IT. Hey, I see plenty of cool heirloom tomatoes listed here already; how about a reliable disease-resistant producer? How about just ONE, okay? You can look at lettuce all you want. We’re almost out of lettuce. Except that I bought an extra packet of Buttercrunch because I forgot to check whether I had any left. Oops.

This is my method; we’ll see if it works better this year. Bring on the seed catalogs!

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By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener

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