If snow is blanketing the ground and the next seasonal event you’re thinking of is Valentine’s Day, a lovely spring garden may seem months in the distance. While that’s true, the planning should start now. The beautiful lettuce and tomatoes you’ll harvest this summer require some forethought. Here’s how to plan in winter for a garden in spring.
Order Seed Catalogues
Many gardeners like leafing through seed catalogues by a January fire. And yes, “leafing” is an intentional pun. Seed catalogues can be a great way to see what plants are available. Does your local grocery store run out of white eggplant, so you’re left with only purple? Now’s your chance to enjoy white eggplant in your own space. Do you like the idea of heirloom basil? Check out the herbs your great-grandfather grew. Or maybe you want a dwarf pepper. Look to your heart’s content.
Determine Your Climate
Seed catalogues are only dream books until you determine what you can actually grow in your area. If you crave an orange tree and live in Florida or California, it’s doable. In Maine or Minnesota, not so much. Plants vary a great deal by how many warm months they need to produce. There are also big differences in when you can plant and how late the harvest can go. Too cold in early spring or late fall can kill your plants.
Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes a map of plant hardiness zones by temperature. It’s searchable by state or zip code. It will give you average temperatures in your region by month. Cross-reference with the conditions your desired garden needs.
Assess Available Sunlight
Plants need certain conditions to grow well. The fact that you have an unused patch behind your house may not be sufficient. Assess how many hours of sunlight occur in the available area during the summer. Many plants need about six hours of direct sunlight on average. If you get less, develop your garden plans accordingly. Choose vegetables that can do with less, such as leafy greens like spinach and lettuce. If large shrubs or trees shade a plot that is ideal, think about pruning or getting rid of them to let your garden grow.
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Explore Slope and Size
Once you’ve assessed the available sunlight, next look at the slope and size of the area. You want a flat or nearly flat area. It’s much more difficult to irrigate, weed and plant on a slope. For size, measure the area. Determine how much space your plants will require. Can you plant three tomato plants in the space in the middle? Four? Where would the carrot patch go? Can herbs go along the border?
Consider the Water Source
As you map the chosen area, think about your water source, which is often overlooked in planting gardens. Aspiring gardeners suddenly realize they need a very long hose! Walking back and forth to fill a watering can might get old very quickly.
As a general rule, gardens need one inch of water per week. How will you get it there? Will it be time-efficient and convenient? Can you catch rain water in a barrel to use for green growing?
Test Your Soil
It’s wise to test your soil before making the final decision on what to plant. Some soil is sandy, and some is clay-like. Some soil is more acidic than others. If your state has a near-by agricultural extension, many offer free or low-cost soil testing. As a result of your testing, you’ll know which fertilizers to use, if any, and how well your chosen plants can grow.
Make a Map and a List
It’s a good idea to draw a map of your garden. Graph paper allows you to draw it to scale, so make some sketches to determine how much you can actually plant. Hypothetical options give you a sense of what’s possible. Draw a few options, but be realistic about how much space each plant needs — and how big it will be when grown.
For each planting, make a related list of space, amounts to be planted, dates you’ll need to plant, dates you actually plant, and when the harvest will start. A map and a list will remind you that cool-temperature vegetables — such as peas, onions and cabbage — can be planted early this spring and again in the fall. Vegetables that need warmer temperatures — like peppers and tomatoes — shouldn’t be planted before the ground is thoroughly warm and there’s no chance of frost.
You’ll have hours of pleasure in the garden following these tips, and you’ll also enjoy plenty of good, healthy eating. Enjoy!