Gardening 101 - Catching Up

Posted on Jan 30, 2013

Hello again! Well, it is the end of January and there is a lot that can be done now and in the next weeks as you get ready for your spring garden.
We’ve found that having a plan and sticking to it makes gardening a much easier chore. Yes, some call it a chore and some call it ‘nirvana’; however, almost everyone will agree there is nothing quite like the satisfaction and gratification you and your entire family can achieve from growing your own.
So, let’s catch up. If you are a gardener who doesn’t have a “formalized” plan or if you are growing your own garden for the very first time, there are a number of things you can do to prepare and get ready for the upcoming gardening season, starting now, in order to avoid that last weekend rush to fix the tiller (or buy one), to rush out to the local store to buy your seeds or plants, hoping they have not already run out (and usually paying higher prices), and suffering the inevitable blisters and aching back that trying to get it all done in one weekend will net you.
One of your most valuable tools may be your own garden journal. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, though we have seen some that include calligraphy-style writing and gorgeous photos. The purpose of your garden journal is to remind you in the years going forward what worked and what didn’t; what you planted and what you wished you had planted; which crops performed best and which were utter failures (yes, you will have those—everyone does); what fertilizers you used to feed and what solutions to deal with pests; where you purchased your seeds or plants; where the best prices were; and even a map of your garden so the following year you can rotate your crops to different spots, making the necessary nutrients more available throughout each season. Whatever information you think you may find useful next year should be jotted down this year.
Now through February 2, 2013
Let’s get started! Now is the time, if you have not already done so, to check the viability of seeds left from previous years. For the most part, seed packets contain more seeds than the average backyard gardener will plant. If they’ve been stored in a cool, dark and dry place, any seeds you bought last year should still be good. Onions, parsley and parsnips may be exceptions to this rule. The germination rate for these usually declines greatly after the first year. (A hint: Onions like cooler temperatures, so plan for both a spring and fall planting.) Most other vegetable seeds have a longer shelf life, many of them surviving up to 4 or 5 years when stored properly.
You can test the viability of leftover seeds by sprouting a few. Just scatter about 10 seeds of each vegetable type on a separate damp paper towel. Fold it up, place it in a clear plastic bag near a heat source, like a sunny window, making sure you mark the bags with the type of seed. Check them after two or three weeks. If more than half the seeds have sprouted, they are good to go; on the other hand, if less than half have sprouted, throw them all out and start fresh this year.
We recommend you mark each seed packet with the year you purchase it and don’t waste your time checking viability after 5 years. Beware seed packets sold in “discount dollar-type” or “merchandise clearance” stores, as these are often older and the germination rate may be quite diminished as a result. Some seed packets will have a sell-by date and some will even have a date they were packaged, so check for that date. Generally speaking, peppers, beets and okra will be viable for 2 years; tomatoes, spinach, beans, broccoli, carrots lettuce, cucumbers, and peas will germinate well for up to 3 years; and cabbage, Swiss chard, turnips and squash will be good for 4 years.
Now is also the time to check your stored produce from the previous year. This will include home-canned, frozen, dried and cold-stored items. Adjust your planned garden for those vegetables you don’t need to grow this year or need to grow in smaller quantities. By the same token, if you ran out of salsa or canned tomatoes halfway through this past year, you will want to plant more of those vegetables to preserve a larger amount. It’s very disappointing to run out and have to resort to store-bought canned goods when you have become accustomed to the fantastic flavor and much lower cost of your own!
Inventory and stock up on seed-starting supplies and tools. Many gardeners have their own methods for starting seeds and your list of supplies may differ greatly from your neighbors’. For example, “old pros” may start their seedlings in Dixie cups or egg cartons, while others prefer the mini table-top seed starting trays you can buy. The first option requires you providing the soil mix for germination and feeding your seedlings, as well as finding creative ways to keep the moisture consistent and enough sunny window space to keep every seed happy. The second option comes in different sized trays, with the soil and nutrients already in place and a plastic dome for moisture retention. The trays are space-savers and look much neater on your kitchen table than a collection of paper cups and egg cartons, though some of our gardeners claim to be happiest when the family is relegated to eating in the living room or standing up to eat while the seeds are “baking.”
As you complete your inventory, make a list, and then stock up on what you need to get started. If you’re making your own seeding mix to fill your own seed-starting containers, we suggest using 1 part sphagnum peat moss to 4 parts fine vermiculite. Though there are many commercially made and homemade recipes for seed-starting mix out there, we think simple and inexpensive is best. Then, you can either prefill your seeding containers, letting them sit until ready to plant, wetting them as you sow your seeds, or you can mix your seeding mix in a large plastic bucket or container, mixing with enough water to make it very moist (not soaking wet), and filling your seed starting containers with already moistened planting medium as you sow your seeds. Do what works best for you.
Slow-growing herbs, such as parsley and thyme, as well as many others, can be started now for transplant into the garden later. In fact, if you have a growing light or the ideal southern-exposed winter window, you can grow many herbs in indoor pots year-round or move them in and out as the weather allows.
If you have not already done so, you should order your asparagus crowns now. Asparagus comes in both female and male plants, the male plants producing the most desirable spears in terms of size and texture. The crowns you order should be one year old and preferably male. Jersey Giant, Jersey Knight and Jersey Supreme are our asparagus varieties of choice. A perennial vegetable, you will want to prepare your bed where it can remain undisturbed for the next 20 years or so. Asparagus should get plenty of sunlight, and the soil should be loosened and should be at a temperature of about 50°F. Ten crowns is the recommended amount to feed one asparagus lover for a year; multiply this by the number of asparagus lovers you plan to feed and plant extra if you are an “uber-asparagus fan,” so you can freeze some to last through the winter. Asparagus can also be used as a great ornamental and a wonderful border or hedge plant, with the plants, after harvesting, being allowed to grow to produce tall, ferny-looking tops. Think outside the garden-box when deciding where to grow your asparagus. Also remember that you should not harvest the first year, allowing your asparagus bed to more fully mature before harvesting the second and subsequent years. (A really good reason to get started now!)
February 3 through February 16
This brings us to the most exciting part of your garden preparation. Start planting some seeds. Cold hardy vegetables, such as celery, onions and leeks, can be started now. They tend to germinate somewhat slowly, so getting an early start is essential. These vegetables can also survive spring frosts and can be planted in the garden as soon as the soil starts to thaw and is dry enough to be worked. Gloves are optional!
Check the compost pile and turn it if it has started to thaw. If you have a tumbling composter bin, all the better; if, however, you don’t have a compost pile or bin, it’s never too late to start one. This is the place to discard dead leaves, grass clippings and other biologic yard debris, as well as any vegetable waste from your kitchen, such as the tops of radishes or potato skins. Cooking with butter or bacon grease? Don’t throw those leftovers in the compost pile, though egg shells are an exceptional source of natural calcium for your vegetable garden. The interior of most compost piles will still work their magic over the winter, albeit a lot more slowly. Compost is one of the most economical and planet-friendly options for providing exceptional nutrition for your vegetables and flowers, as well as having superb soil-building properties.
Some gardeners will test the pH of their soil now, though ideally this should be done in the fall, with the “fix” to raise or lower the pH taking some time to occur. The ideal pH for growing the healthiest vegetables is between 6 and 7. Inexpensive pH testers are available or you can check with your local Country Extension office. These same people can make recommendations as to what amount of ground limestone (to raise the pH) or granulated elemental sulfur or sphagnum peat (to lower the pH), should be added. Gardens will grow with pH levels below 6 or above 7, just not as well, so if yours tests low or high, keep this in mind for your “to-do in the fall” list—another good entry idea for your personal garden journal.
You should also have all of your garden tools either repaired or replaced by now, and sharpened as needed. You cannot believe the difference a sharp hoe or spade can make when it comes to the ease with which garden work can be accomplished, and handles for shovels, spades and hoes are replaceable and much cheaper than buying a whole new tool. Start your electric or gas tools, change the oil, replace spark plugs, and ensure every single one is in good working order. A broken tool, hand or power, can derail the best garden plans.
Pssst! Valentine’s Day is a great time to buy your avid gardener something other than a box of chocolates or bouquet of blossoms, neither of which will last. A large basket (big enough to carry out to the garden to harvest with) filled with seed packets, fancy garden gloves, garden markers and the ideal card or poem can show how very thoughtful you are.
February 17 through 23
At this point, any seeds that take 10 to 12 weeks for maturation, such as celery, should be sown in your seed-starting trays now, or very soon, in order to be ready for transplant when you are. Broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage also fall into this category and your tomato plants will grow best if you start them soon, in larger seed-starting containers, allowing them to develop a stronger root system before putting them in the ground or in your outdoor containers.
It is also the time to start your dill, cilantro and faster-growing herbs for indoor pots, planting those herbs you will use to prepare or preserve the harvest from your garden.
Our goal is to help you, novice or expert gardener, have a more stress-free and successful growing season and harvest. Has this helped? We sure hope so. Look for our next article on February 22 as we provide you with helpful suggestions for what you can do during the month of March, in advance of planting your vegetable garden in June.
This series of articles is sponsored by Garden Harvest Supply. You can find them online here www.gardenharvestsupply.com.

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