Monday, November 10, 2014

Early Season Garden Planning: Why Plan Early

After the winter crop is in, it’s time to pull out the garden journal, seed catalogues, and notebooks to prepare for the next season! While some people wait for January and February to start planning, I choose the brisk and beautiful month of October. The first frost on spinach leaves fills me with anticipation for sweet leafy greens and a new year of planting. With a hot cup of tea I get down to business concocting new ways to grow food for two in our two bedroom apartment.
   It is easy to let the months drift by until all of the sudden plants need to be in the ground and all you have are the seeds you didn't really like from the year before. I have done this too many times to get caught again. Early planning starts out every season well and prepares both the garden and the gardener for the work ahead.


        Every year seed catalogs are sent out in January and February just as the winter blues set in. As a seed catalog enthusiast, I order early copies and keep the previous year's religiously. Favored varieties like Amish Snap Peas and non-genetically modified Early Girl Tomatoes are snapped up by gardening ninjas leaving those who savor each catalog description in the dust.
     Seed availability depends upon where and when you order. Larger companies, like Johnny's have a larger store of seed, but there is a trade off. Some of their seeds are genetically modified and Johnny's is owned by Monsanto involved with Seminis, a seed house owned by Monsanto (9/10/14).  I prefer to support smaller companies that cultivate dying varieties, both unmodified and rarely hybridized. My current favorites are Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.   Orders late in the season long after the spring blitz are less likely to have unavailable varieties.
    When I plan my garden and order my seeds early, I know right away if I need to change a variety or plan a second order for late winter. After my seeds arrives, I can have an order form or online cart for any last minute needs. This gives me extra time to double check my plan and make sure I have every seed I need before the seedlings need to be planted. This year I realized after two different seed orders I hadn't ordered any Patty Pan squash and my favorite variety of snap pea wouldn't be available until next year. Fortunately, I am planning in October for what I need in January and there is still plenty of time to find the best plants.

      I am a dirt nerd and have been known to romanticize long days of canning, weeding, or hauling prickly dead squash plants. I like to focus on what is going right whether it is germination rates or bumper crops of tomatillos.  While these things are great, in order to improve my skills and grow better food I need to be closer to the hard moments. It is also easy to cloak an entire year in failure because tomatoes rotted, the corn had worms, and for every weed you pulled five more came up.
The longer we wait to plan for the next year, the more rose colored (or bleak) the previous year becomes. Gardening is hard work!
 I keep a detailed garden journal of every plant from germination to yields to avoid letting my memory color the reality of the season.  Every year as the garden becomes more consuming the journal gets less legible. By planning early, I can still remember what most of my notes meant.

     Whether you garden year round, use season extenders, or enjoy summer's bounty there is always a cycle to get the most from the ground. It needs rest, feeding, seeding, weeding, and harvesting. All of these things find their natural place in the cycle of the seasons. In order to get the most out of their garden, summer gardeners need to compost and mulch in the winter, prep seedlings through out the spring and summer while they plant, maintain, and harvest during the summer and fall. The more seasons you work, the more of these things you will be doing at any given time.

     The longer you give yourself to plan, the better the product will be. There is a ton to manage every year from compost to companion planting. I can prepare in case things go wrong. I have had mice eat all my peas, tomatoes freeze because we planted too early, and whole flats of seedling die unplanted. Nothing ever goes perfectly, but I have learned to plant lots of extra seedlings and have seeds in reserve. Planning gives me more room to recover. From a sustainable approach early garden planning prevents me from having to use potentially harmful products and helps to work on my longterm goals to steward the land around me.  This creates a natural flow to my garden from season to season in order to reach its full potential.

     By late fall saved seeds and stored food are ready to be assessed for the coming year. The cans of sauces, jams, pickles, and ferments have started coming off the shelves for fall meals and winter gifts. As each can is used we can determine how much time and work went into it and what we got out of it. A quart of tomato sauce from a pound of tomatoes made with a couple dozen others on a sixteen hour work day in July will be gone in an hour or two, barring leftovers. Every family will value different things. What do you miss? What was gone before the jar lids had time to seal? Will you have enough applesauce to make it to the next autumn? You can buy more or less seeds depending upon how you answer these questions. Also, you can determine whether it was a better use of time to make your own or buy from a local provider. I usually reassess every couple months and adjust the next season's plan accordingly.
  It is time to do germination tests on the new seeds. Seeds from open pollinated plants will develop characteristics suited to your area. However if the germination rates are on the low side, it is good to buy a few back up packets.


    When Homestead Revival began, I lived in a chilly zone 4 microclimate where we grew seedlings in February or March to plant short season varieties in late May, but we could still get snow in June. We could grow broccoli year round. Now I live in zone 8b with roughly four months of frost threat. This week marks eighteen weeks before the Last Frost Date, so I have seeded all of my brassicas for next year and hope to get broccoli and cabbage before it is too hot for either.
    Zones are usually discussed in landscaping, but it is a huge factor in food crops. Extreme weather causes buds not to set and limits which foods will thrive. If I waited until March to plant, none of my early season crops could survive. In my zone I can plant an early spring garden, plan two summer harvests, a fall crop, and greens all year.
    Early planning helps me get the most out of my zone, avoid prime pest and disease times, and ensure that my plants will set seed at different times, so I can save them for the following year.

      Early planning is key to the success of any garden. Knowing what I need to do to feed my family reduces stress and increases my productivity. After the months of hard work it is tempting to take a break. I would encourage you to take a little time each day to plan and prepare to reach your next garden goals.

In my next post we will be looking at seed orders and how to determine what is best for your garden.


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