Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Winter Gardening, Preparing for Spring

I miss Spring!!! I love Spring!!! I need Spring!!!

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Winter gardening is a weak area for me. I suffer seasonal depression, and many times, the gray gloomies catch a hold of me quite badly. However, I am trying to fight this, and I continue to research articles for preparing for Spring.

I love Spring! For me, it is the absolute best season of the year! I love the warm breezes, the lengthening of the days, the Spring rains, the new growth, the green spreading across the fields and trees. I love everything about Spring!

My mother and my daughter both loved Spring, though I must admit, I believe that Fall was my mother's favorite time of year. She was born and raised up north, and she loved the changing of the colors, harvest time, and preparing for the holidays. I was the one who was chomping at the bit to break out the tiller and feel that warmed earth turning under my bare toes. (Yes, I know that this was dangerous and I do not recommend anyone tilling without proper foot wear.) But I was a rebel. I still adore the smell and feel of fresh turned earth!

I have collected several articles about preparing for the Spring, and I hope that they are able to help you through this dreariest part of the winter. (Yes, I know that some people truly love winter, however, I am NOT one of them.)

The weather outside might still be frightful, but if you’re planning to grow a garden this spring, now is the best time to choose a site and prepare your soil. Determine a garden spot that’s sunny most of the day, (keep in mind that bare winter trees will block sun in summer) and where it will be convenient to pop out and harvest something fresh for a meal. Access to tool storage, water, a compost pile and possibly electricity (for power tools) is also helpful.

Consider designating three or four distinct garden plots, which will allow you to rotate crops—a traditional method of plot management in which vegetables with like needs are grouped together. The three main groups are brassicas (cabbages, cauliflowers and Brussels sprouts), root crops (carrots, parsnips, beets and potatoes) and legumes (peas and beans). Make a fourth group with whatever miscellaneous tender vegetables you decide to grow, such as zucchini, sweet corn, celery and tomatoes. Divide your garden plot into three or four areas, and rotate each crop group to a new plot every three or four years to avoid the buildup of pests and diseases that can occur when the same crops grow in the same spot year after year. Planning for crop rotation also allows you to prepare and feed soil in the ideal way for each crop.

Good Soil

Soil is a plant’s essential source of moisture, air and nutrients. Good soil is a living, thriving community. Many small beneficial creatures such as earthworms, wood lice, centipedes, microscopic bacteria and fungi contribute to a healthy ecosystem by converting dead material into organic matter. Topsoil is the rich, well-cultivated uppermost layer in which most plant roots grow. It’s generally around 12 inches deep, although depth varies depending on whether soil has been well-cultivated or neglected. One of the best ways to improve soil is to cultivate deeply, which opens up soil for air and water to penetrate plant roots.

Prepare your soil for growing vegetables by turning soil over in advance, ideally during winter, digging 6 to 12 inches deep. Add organic matter in the form of compost, leaves, rotted manure or seaweed. If you don’t have your own compost, you can often find it for free or for sale in your community; search online for “compost” and your community name.

As the soil starts to dry in spring, finish the seedbed by breaking down the surface into a fine crumble, using a fork and rake. If the soil is not sticky, you can walk on it at this stage, which breaks the clods and gently firms the surface. Apply a balanced organic fertilizer, then do a final raking. Remove excess stones, remaining clods and any weeds. Ideally, you should prepare your seedbed well in advance of the first sowing, allowing time for a first crop of weeds to germinate. Hoe off the weed seedlings immediately before sowing your garden seeds, which will give your crops a head start.

What’s Your Soil Type?

Depending on your soil type and pH, it may also be helpful to amend your soil before the gardening season begins. First, determine what kind of soil you’re working with. The mineral components of soil are clay, silt and sand. A good soil is one that contains a mixture of all three; gardeners call these soils loamy.

• Clay soils are heavy and difficult to cultivate. They can be wet, poorly drained and slow to warm in spring. They do retain moisture through summer. Clay soils can be improved with cultivation, added organic matter and possibly sharp sand.
• Sandy soils drain well, are easy to cultivate and tend to warm up quickly in spring, making them good for growing vegetables, in particular root vegetables such as carrots. Sandy soils do not retain water or fertilizer well, so they tend to need more irrigation and regular feeding.
• Silty soils are not common but are also good for growing vegetables. They generally behave like sandy soils but are richer and less prone to drying.

Determine what type of soil you have by rubbing a small sample between your wet fingers. Sandy soil feels gritty and does not stick together. 

Clay soil feels sticky and rolls into a ball. Silty soils feel silky and smooth. If you have loamy soil, you may be able to feel all of the constituents in the mixture in varying proportions.

Soil pH is also an important factor—soils above 7 on the pH scale are alkaline and soils below 7 are acidic. The ideal pH for most vegetables is 6.5, just slightly acidic. Soil testing kits are readily available from garden centers. They’ll advise you on natural materials you can work into your soil to raise or lower the acidity, achieving a pH range that will allow your plants to take up the nutrients they need.

To make soil more acidic, many test kits recommend adding lime; to make it more alkaline, add wood ashes. Autumn is the ideal time to apply lime to the soil, but you can apply it in winter if the soil isn’t frozen. Beware that it is difficult to reverse the effects of liming, so use small quantities and monitor the effects before adding more. Never apply lime at the same time as manure, as the two react and produce ammonia, which will scorch roots. Also keep in mind that soil’s pH is not constant; you might want to test every few years. Tests will also reveal any toxins in your soil. If you find you have toxic soil, don’t worry. You can either add several feet of uncontaminated soil and compost, or grow food in containers or raised beds.

A Few More Garden Tips

Winter is the best time to start a few other helpful garden habits. To save money later, think now about ways to conserve water once the garden is growing. Peruse garden centers and catalogs for large water catchment tanks (check out Rainwater HOG modular tanks) or drip irrigation kits. Adding mulch to garden beds also helps conserve moisture—you can begin accumulating natural mulch materials such as leaves and twigs at any time.

Starting a compost heap will also save you money over buying organic fertilizer, and it provides a no landfill way of disposing of garden, yard and kitchen waste. To start a compost heap, you just need a way to contain it—for example, a circle made with chicken wire. (Find instructions to make a compost bin from old shipping pallets.) You can compost much of your kitchen and garden waste, including eggshells, vegetable peelings, rotten fruit, grass clippings, leaves, old potting soil, tea and coffee grounds, newspaper, plain cardboard and yard waste. Do not compost pet feces, meat or fatty foods. If the compost heap is dry, water it occasionally. Compost usually takes three to six months to mature. It’s ready when it resembles crumbly dark brown dirt and smells earthy but not unpleasant. If possible, have two heaps—one rotting down while the other is building up.

It’s a good idea to plan your food storage in advance, too. Set aside space in the basement or garage if you plan to store long-keeping crops such as carrots, onions and potatoes through the cold months. You might also want to make room in your pantry or consider investing in a chest freezer if you want to can, ferment, dry or freeze garden produce.

Janus, who lends his name to the month of January, was the dual-faced Roman god of gates and doors.  He also was called the god of beginnings as it was commonly believed that you needed to go through a door or gate in order to enter a new place or beginning.

The god was depicted as looking forward and backwards at the same time--forward towards new beginnings and back towards the past.  It's an appropriate symbol for this month as it's a time when gardeners are thinking about last year's garden in order to look ahead to the new growing season.

If you are like many gardeners, you probably keep notes on annual seed and plant purchases, past garden successes and failures, and even new things to try.  It's a good idea to review these before you start planning your seed and equipment orders.  Maps of past gardens will help you rotate plants and avoid overcrowding when planning spacing of plantings.

January is a good time to start a garden journal or even just a file where you can store articles clipped out of newspapers and magazines, or lists of ideas you want to try in the garden.  A good place to get a few new ideas is by taking a class or joining a garden club.  Most gardeners love to talk about gardening and won't mind sharing some of their tried and true methods and products with you. 

Next, check the seeds you saved and stored from last year's garden.  Discard anything that is damp, diseased, moldy, or in otherwise bad condition.  Look over what's left, and determine what you need to order.

You also should take a look at squash, potatoes, root crops, and other vegetables and fruits in winter storage.  Although conditions may have been ideal when you harvested and stored them in the fall, the cold, wet winter may make that location too wet or damp.  Toss anything that has spoiled or has soft spots.  The same goes for summer flower bulbs like dahlias and gladioli that you saved to plant this year.

As many avid gardeners have discovered, it's wise to plan your seed order with other gardeners.  This will allow you to save money while growing a wider variety of crops and flowers.  In addition, some seed companies offer discounts or free seeds for early bird and/or large orders.  Just don't fall into the trap of ordering more than you can use.  That's where the notes you kept from past years will be useful.

If you need to replace a tiller or want to add a few new gardening tools to your inventory, start comparison shopping in January.  Granted, some of this equipment won't be available for purchase in garden centers for a few more months.  But by studying catalogs and magazines, talking to friends, and even surfing the Internet now, you will have a better idea of what you want and won't waste valuable time in the spring deciding what to buy.

The same goes for landscape plants.  Although you wouldn't be able to plant them now, even if you could buy them, this "down time" in gardening is perfect for planning.  Start thinking about what you need to fill in gaps in your landscape or what new plants you'd like to try.  It may help to take a walk around your property to visualize where landscape improvements are needed or where you might put in a new flower bed.  Think about color, scents, textures, and shapes.  Then scout out companies that carry what's on your wish list.

No yard or garden is complete without statuary, gazing balls, sundials, and garden whimsies that make the space uniquely yours.  Shop now for what you'll need in the spring to accessorize your lawn, garden, and flower beds.  Use your imagination.

This January get creative in the workshop.  Build a bat house or a birdhouse or two.  Paint garden furniture. Construct artificial lighting set-ups for growing houseplants or starting transplants indoors. Or install a composting bin in your basement, adding a handful of red worms to turn your vegetable table scraps into rich compost for the garden.

What to Plant in Your Spring Vegetable Garden

During January spring seems like it will never arrive, but it is actually the best time to get ready for your cool season vegetable garden.

Cool season vegetables are those that can thrive during the shorter days and cooler temperatures of spring and fall, In fact, some vegetables such as kohlrabi and kale actually develop  better flavor when nipped by frost.  Lettuce, collards, snow peas, cabbage and broccoli are a few examples of cool season vegetables. Summer favorites like okra, squash and tomatoes require long, hot days to grow.

So you are looking out the window at 2 feet of snow wondering what you can possibly do now to start your garden  the first thing  to do is place your seed order. When your order arrives, it may still be too early to plant the seeds outdoors, but many cool season vegetables can be started from seed indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the frost free date in your area.  Some transplants can be put out a few weeks before the frost free date as well.

Now I foresee the comments from readers in the Deep South already, “This doesn't apply to me!”  Well, you are right.  You are already mid-way through your cool season vegetable garden time frame, but there is still time to plant. 

On the flip side, gardeners in the extreme north have such a short growing season that they will plant their cool and warm season vegetables practically side by side.

Last Frost Dates by Zone
Zone 3 1 May / 31 May
Zone 4 1 May / 30 May
Zone 5 30 Mar / 30 Apr
Zone 6 30 Mar / 30 Apr
Zone 7 30 Mar / 30 Apr
Zone 8 28 Feb / 30 Mar
Zone 9 30 Jan / 28 Feb
Zone 10 30 Jan or before
Zone 11 Free of Frost throughout the year.

Before you start sowing seeds and planting it's important to know what the last frost date is in your area.  This will determine when your spring growing season begins.  There are several on-line sites where you can find this information using your zip code or by checking frost dates of near-by cities. These are average dates that may differ slightly year to year but they give you a basic window of time in which you can create a planting schedule.  Another good source of local, reliable advice is your area's County Cooperative Extension Service or check with knowledgeable members of local gardening clubs.

I don't want to mislead you, even though many of these vegetables are regarded as cold tolerant, they can all be wiped out by a sudden, severe drop in temperature. It's important to be prepared with something to drape over the crops if an overnight cold snap is expected.  Simply cover your crops with newspaper, old sheets or frost blankets. Just remember to remove the covering the next morning.

So that brings us to just what types of vegetables should we plant.  Here is a list of common cool season vegetables with a few tips to help you produce a bountiful spring garden.

     Arugula – Sow seeds in the garden as soon as soil can be worked in spring. They will germinate in about 7 days and are ready to harvest in 3 to 4 weeks. For a continuous harvest, sow seeds every 2 weeks until temperatures heat up.
    Beets – Sow seeds in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked. Beets prefer a well-drained, sandy soil. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers as this will encourage top growth at the expense of root development. As with all root crops good soil aeration is key to uniform, robust development. Consistent moisture is also important. Keep areas weed free to avoid competition for nutrients.
    Broccoli – Broccoli seed can be sown directly in the garden 4 weeks before the last frost date in your area or set out transplants 2 weeks before the last frost date. The ideal day time temperature for broccoli is between 65 and 80 degrees. Feed the plants 3 weeks after transplanting into the garden. Use a low nitrogen fertilizer.
    Cabbage – Start seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last front date or plant transplants in the garden 2 weeks before that date. Direct sow in the garden immediately after the last frost date. Cabbage plants are heavy feeders that require fertile soil rich in organic matter and consistent moisture.
    Carrots – Sow seeds in spring about 2 weeks before the last frost date. Carrots need deep, loose soil to form a robust root. Keep the bed weeded to avoid competition for nutrients from other plants. Too much nitrogen will result in forked roots. When the seedlings are about 2-inches tall, thin them so there is about 1 to 4-inches between them. Cover the shoulders with mulch or soil to keep them from turning green and bitter.
    Collards – Collard transplants can be planted 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost date in your area. Plant in fertile, well drained soil with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8. Rich soil encourages rapid growth and tender leaves, which are the best tasting collards.
    English Peas – Direct sow in the garden 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost date in your area. They will germinate in soil temperatures as low as 40 degrees F. Seedlings will survive a late snow and short periods of temperatures down to 25 degrees F.
    Kale – You can plant kale in early spring, about 3 to 5 weeks before the last frost date. Cover with frost blankets during severe cold. Similar to collards very fertile soil is ideal to encourage rapid growth and tender leaves.
    Kohlrabi – Kohlrabi is similar to a turnip, but is actually related to cabbage. Set plants out 4 weeks before the last frost date. Protect young plants from freezing temperatures with a frost blanket. Cool temperatures enhance the sweet flavor.
    Lettuce – Sow lettuce any time in spring when the soil is workable. Lettuce is more sensitive to cold than other cool season vegetables and should definitely be covered during cold snaps. The ideal day time temperature is between 60 and 70 degrees. Fertilize with fish emulsion, which is high in nitrogen. Lettuce will grow in partial shade and actually appreciates the shelter from intense late spring sun.
    Onions – Onions can be grown from sets, small bulbs, or transplants, which look like scallions and come in a bundle of 60 or so. Either method should be planted in early spring as soon as the soil is workable. Long-day varieties are suitable for Northern gardens and short-day varieties can be planted in the South. Place time release fertilizer in the planting hole so that it is close to the roots. Follow the fertilizer's label directions.
    Potatoes – Greening of grass is a good indicator of when to plant potato sets, dried potato pieces with 2 to 3 eyes. In my zone 7 garden that occurs in March. Soil should be loose, fertile and well drained. As the tubers mature, cover with soil to prevent burning.
    Radish – Sow radish seeds in the garden about 4 weeks before the last frost date in your area. No feeding necessary, but soil should be fertile and well drained. They are quick to mature so check them regularly. They are ready to harvest as soon as they are of edible size.
    Spinach – Spinach seeds can be sown over frozen ground to germinate as the soil thaws. Transplants can be set out 4 weeks before the last frost date in your area. Fertilize when the plants are about 4 inches tall. Spinach prefers very fertile soil to encourage rapid growth and tender leaves. Once the days get long and warm it will bolt, meaning that it grows tall, blooms and becomes bitter tasting. For grit-free leaves select plain leaf varieties such as Giant Nobel and Olympia.
    Swiss Chard – Swiss Chard is one the more beautiful vegetables in the garden. Bright Lights and Ruby are favorites for adding color to the garden and the dinner table. Plant or sow seeds 2 weeks before the last frost date in your area. Thin to 6-inches apart when seedlings are 3-inches tall. Water regularly.
    Turnip – Plant 2 weeks before the last frost date. Any well-drained soil will do. Consistent moisture is key for healthy root development. Although it is not necessary, the greens will be the most tender if you plant in a fertile soil.

Good to Know

Vegetables need 7 to 8 hours of full sun daily. Cool season vegetables get by on 6, some can even be planted in partial shade.

Framed Bed Soil Recipe: 50% existing garden soil, 25% aged manure, 25% compost or humus

Gardeners in tropical regions plant & grow cool season vegetables in fall and winter.

 Make a Plan

To start your spring garden planning, begin with a plan. Write out the goals you hope to accomplish with your gardening projects. Do you plan to grow fruits and vegetables or do you simply want to grow flowers? Be sure to take into consideration your expected time constraints for the spring and summer. Don't bite off more than you can chew and overload yourself with more garden than you can keep up with as that will only leave you frustrated and disappointed.

Consider whether you will be doing all of the gardening by yourself or will you have help from family members. If you are planning a vegetable garden, think about the vegetables you might want to grow.

If you plan to just grow flowers, think about whether you want to plant them in the ground or grow everything in containers. Do you already have perennials planted and if so, how can you build upon what you have?

Mark Your Spot

Even though it's winter, you can still be marking out the spots where you want to plant your garden or gardens. You can begin preparing your spot now by placing newspapers on the ground to begin killing any grass that might try to pop up on those warm winter days. Newspapers will biodegrade into the soil.

Use stakes to mark corners and you will have all winter to ponder and be sure that the spot or spots you have chosen will be appropriate. You can keep track of the sunlight and shade on the spot (remember that when trees leaf out, the sunlight and shade will change so be sure to take that into account).

Do Your Research

Spend some time researching recommended planting dates for your area. Research plants that you would like to grow to learn more about their needs and care requirements. Reading about spring and summer gardening on cold winter days can make the days much more enjoyable.

Pick Your Poison (Plants)

While you are doing your research, take some time to pour over seed catalogs. Search the Internet for seed companies that offer catalogs and request to have catalogs mailed to you. Peruse these gems to determine what plants -- fruits, vegetables, bushes, flowers, trees -- you would like to try and begin to make a list based upon your family's needs, your location and your time constraints. If your family doesn't care for squash then don't spend your time and energy growing squash. Choose plants that your family will enjoy and you can make use of.

Do you plan to "put up" your garden harvest? Now is the time to be looking into preserving your future harvest and adding this to your plan.

Draw It Out

Draw diagrams of your plans and keep them with your written plan. A drawing can help you better visualize what you wish to do and will keep you focused. When the winter is getting long, pull out your drawings and make any adjustments or simply daydream about the coming garden season.