Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Time to Plan the Garden

When the snow comes down and there is finally a chance to rest from all the outdoor chores, the avid gardener inevitably turns to seed catalogues and gardening books and dreams about next year’s load of heavy labor. It might be a form of insanity, but then again it might be a healthy instinct—now is the time to plan out the garden, go through seed inventories, and get those seeds ordered. Time to plant will be on us before we know it, and planning the garden ahead saves time and energy in spring and summer.

The first thing to do when planning a garden is to determine what your overall goal for gardening actually is. If you just want to add some flavor and nutrition to your table, your planning task is easier than if you want to start moving in the direction of food independence. But either way, here are some things to keep in mind while you are planning.

Grow what you like to eat. Don’t grow beets and turnips just because they are good storage crops if you are not going to eat them. But at the same time, be a little adventurous. Just because you didn’t like something as a kid doesn’t mean you won’t like it now, especially if you find new ways of cooking things. I try to plant a new thing every year. Last year I planted okra for the first time, and it was a great success. Some of my traditional plants like squash and cabbage did very poorly, but the okra thrived and added a welcome change to my dinner plate.

Make sure that what you grow is suited to your climate and soil type. Some plants have a long growing season and can’t reach maturity in northern climates. Others prefer cool weather and need to be planted in spring or fall in climates where the summer is hot.  There can also be considerable variety within a species of when you can expect a crop to mature. Seed catalogues usually list the number of days to maturity for the varieties they offer. Pay attention to the number of days and make sure that your growing season is long enough for a particular variety. You should also take into consideration what diseases affect your area. Your local county extension office can be of great service in all of these matters.

If your goal is to raise a substantial portion of your own food and put it by for the winter, then planning becomes more complicated. Here is something to consider. How will you preserve it? Freezing, canning, drying, and live storage are the major options. Some vegetables do better with one method rather than another. Corn out of the freezer is delicious, dried corn makes a nice chewy snack, but canned corn is cooked for a long time under pressure which changes the flavor and uses much fuel. Tomatoes, on the other hand, do not undergo a significant flavor change in the canning process, and they are good out of the freezer. The live storage time of both corn and tomatoes is limited. Root crops, such as potatoes and turnips, as well as cabbage, will keep a long time in storage is kept in a cool damp place where it will not freeze. Some root crops such as parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes can be stored in the ground all winter. (I love them. It is such fun to go out to the garden in the middle of February and find food!)

Now is time to go to the library and do some reading. One book that I use extensively in planning my garden is “Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruit & Vegetables” by Mike and Nancy Bubel. I first discovered it at my local library, but decided I needed my own copy for constant reference. It is a good idea to read up on other garden related topics such and soil improvement, pest control, and canning also. There is little time for reading in the summer and fall when the pests and harvest are upon you. And there is nothing worse than being in the middle of a canning project and discovering you don't have the right equipment!

Finally, don’t be overly ambitious. If you plant more than you can care for, your results will be disappointing. I haven’t learned to follow my own advice on this point yet! Just beware!

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