How to plan a garden now — and challenge yourself to try something new

January in western Maryland is not what you would call “prime” gardening season; however, it is one of my favorite times to start thinking and planning for my upcoming gardens and gardening projects. I am lucky to have several season extension tools that get my fingers back in the soil sooner. My mom has a heated greenhouse and we have two high tunnels that allow us to gain several weeks on our short growing season.  

What is your favorite way to plan for the upcoming growing season? One of my favorite tools is the Home and Garden Information Center’s Vegetable Planting Calendar. It provides great guidelines for telling you when and if you should plant vegetables as seeds or seedlings. If you are starting your own seedlings you can use a traditional calendar and figure out what week you want to have plants ready to put in the garden and then use the information found on the back of seed packets to figure out when you want to sow the seeds (count backwards from your goal date). I often sit down in January and start writing dates on the calendar for when I should sow each plant.

calendar with planting dates

I love to grow hybrid spreading petunias and they are often the first seeds that we sow in the greenhouse because they grow incredibly slow. I purchased a seedling heat mat several years ago and it has been the best investment for getting better, faster germination rates.  

I try to challenge myself to try at least one new vegetable or flower each year so that I can expand my knowledge and get outside of my comfort zone. A few years ago, I tried globe artichokes, which were beautiful foliage plants as well as flowers, although, I have to admit, I didn’t actually eat any of them. 

artichoke flower and foliage

We found that aphids loved the foliage for some reason. You can see the sooty mold growing here on the aphid honeydew (waste). This is a sign that you have an aphid infestation hiding on the underside of the leaves. 

artichoke with sooty mold

Last year I tried eucalyptus! This is a eucalyptus plant growing with other vegetables in the high tunnel. It did well, but would have benefited from having more space. It was just recently harvested for fresh cut flowers in this picture.


I also tried companion planting by adding nasturtium and radishes to our cucumber hills in order to reduce cucumber beetle damage. I have to say, I think it helped, but it did look like a jungle.

nasturtiums and cucumbers

Did you have any gardening disappointments last year? Are there truly any failures with gardening though? Don’t we always learn something from the experience? If you had trouble with a plant disease, you can find a hybrid variety to help combat the problem. Cornell University has a good list of disease-resistant vegetable varieties. This year we are planning to try a hybrid disease-resistant variety of tomato called ‘Abigail’, as that is my oldest daughter’s name.

If you had an insect problem, look for a natural predator that you could attract. Is there a plant you can put in your garden that the bugs can eat or go to, that you don’t care about losing to insect damage? This is referred to as a trap crop or sacrificial crop.

Here are more photos of things I have tried recently.  

purple and green cauliflower
Colored cauliflower, self-blanching varieties. There is no need to tie the leaves up around the heads for blanching.
zinnias yarrow and sunflowers
Left: Mixed zinnias (annual) with yarrow (perennial). Right: Miniature sunflowers are a refuge for all kinds of beneficial insects.

As I look outside at the several inches of snow blanketing my garden, I cannot help but be excited for the upcoming growing season. Having a nice hot cup of tea and the latest seed catalog doesn’t hurt either.

I hope you are inspired to try something new this season. Remember that often we learn the most through our challenges and they often make us more passionate about gardening, so don’t be afraid to try something new in 2021!

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland, edited by Christa Carignan, Coordinator, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension. See more posts by Ashley and Christa.

5 thoughts on “How to plan a garden now — and challenge yourself to try something new

  1. Sharla Woo January 27, 2021 / 9:05 am

    How do you deal with Squash bugs? Is there a companion plant that will deter these pests?

  2. lilyo3 February 1, 2021 / 6:50 am

    I’m interested in what variety of miniature sunflowers you grew; can you share the name?

    • Ashley Bachtel-Bodkins February 4, 2021 / 8:55 am

      These were from a Strawberry Lemonade mix variety. Just note that the flower heads were miniature, but the plants themselves were still 5 feet tall. Lots of blooms on each plant and once we cut them, more blooms continued to come on! They were constantly covered in insects too! 🙂

      • lilyo3 February 4, 2021 / 9:37 pm

        Thank you!

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