Spring in the Middle of Winter: Planning and Planting a Vegetable Garden

Winter is the time of promise because there is so little to do – or because you can now and then permit yourself the luxury of thinking so. ~Stanley Crawford

The tendinous part of the mind, so to speak, is more developed in winter; the fleshy, in summer.  I should say winter had given the bone and sinew to literature, summer the tissues and the blood. ~John Burroughs

Living above the Mason-Dixon line is a trade-off, for me. Where I’m from, originally, down South, there is no snow, and no bitter cold wind, but the soil there is also shallow and rocky – it is difficult, in more ways than one, for things to take hold and grow there.

So as I hold my umbrella in front of me against blowing snow like a knight holds a lance, or as I shuffle so carefully up the front steps gripping the banister for dear life, I content myself with planning my garden for spring.

“Gardening?” you say? “I don’t have the time for gardening.”

Well, lady, neither do I. I don’t know what you do, but I work 60 hours a week, in a job that requires me to have a vibrant social life, whether I like it or not. It’s exhausting. And a garden recharges me. As I’ve stated before, it keeps me honest.

“Gardening?” you say? “I don’t even have a yard!”

If you’re short on space and really do want to get into the gardening spirit, use Garden.org’s public garden finder to locate a public garden in your area. Public gardens are spaces usually given over by the city to various neighborhood councils – likely out of odd-shaped or inextricably-located urban space that they can’t use for business development.  Public gardens are growing in popularity for civic, economic, and health reasons. No public garden? Go to your city or neighborhood council and set the wheels in motion to start one!

Don’t Fear the Reaper: Gardening the Lazy Way

I plant two slender rows of tulips and daffodils up front and let the rest of the front flora do what it will. We are lucky enough to have wild lavender and irises, and I let them grow up like weeds.

But in back is another story. We have a long, large, sloping backyard that our dogs are constantly pouring over every inch of. But we also have a 15 ft x 15 ft dog pen, left over from the previous owners, and in a moment of ironic inspiration three years ago, I made it into a vegetable garden. The rest of the yard runs amok – the dogs are forever eating wild onions and wild strawberries that I keep being afraid will kill them – but my vegetable garden remains pristine.

I more or less used the Square Foot Gardening method. Like I said, I don’t have time, and I need things to be simple – nay, easily calculated. Also, Square Foot Gardening relies on raised beds, which means you won’t have to deal with erosion, and you have more control over your drainage and soil content.

You can buy the book, or just read FrugalDad’s instructions and wing it, like I did.

The Holy Trinity of Gardening: Climate, Soil, Moisture

Do it right from the very beginning – if you understand these three simple things, you’ll be fine. Explanations of each follow.

First Thing’s First: Where Are You?

If you’re like me, you need some definite insurance against killing things. So begin by determining your USDA Hardiness Zone using Garden.org’s handy zip-code map. This will give you information about your growing season. This is important because there are almost a dozen different “zones” in North America, all of which can differ pretty wildly from the zone right next door. Also, knowing your zone off-hand makes perusing seed catalogs and packets much easier.

Second Thing’s Second: Soil, Know Thyself

Like I said, where I’m from, the only thing that grows is cotton. As a child, my mother would watch me vainly plan all sorts of flowers from seed packets, never to have them even break through the soil. I kept hoping something I planted would not die – but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. You can’t fight mother nature.

So now, we get our hands dirty – you want to clear the area of rocks and weeds, and work up the soil using a till to see just what you’ve got underneath.

Sand/Silt/Clay Smackdown: Where Jack and I live now has a much more hospitable climate, and fertile soil. The ideal soil content for vegetables has 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay.

But before you start something crazy, like sifting through soil, trying to create three little piles and them measure out ratios, try this instead:

Grab a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball. If it crumbles immediately and completely when you open your hand, it’s too sandy. Likewise, if it retains it’s shape even after you poke it a couple of times, there’s too much clay.

If this still doesn’t work, go all 6th-grade-science-fair on its ass: put two cups of dirt into a jar filled half-way with water. Shake vigorously for a few seconds, then set it down and go do something else. After awhile, you should see the soil separating into three distinct layers: top is clay, middle is silt, bottom is sand. Sand and silt should be about even; clay should be half as much. Eyeball the ratio and go from there.

Too much silt or sand? Add organic matter: till the soil and add some compost. No compost? Grab some peat moss from your local gardening or hardware store, and be sure to moisten it before adding to soil.

Too much clay? Add some moistened peat moss and some sand, but go easy on the sand (it’s harder to “take it back” then it is to add more.) Never add “just sand” to soil, especially if you live in an urban area, as it can bond without organic matter and form a hard, compact soil.

Third Thing’s Third: Monitor Your Moisture Like Noah

Well, the ideal thing is not to fight mother nature. If your soil is dry, plant things that like dryer soil. If it’s wet, plant things that don’t mind The Life Aquatic. Barring this common sense (if your heart just yearns for that strawberry plant), then do your best to control the moisture levels based on the needs of your plants, and remember: too much water will kill them just as fast as no water.

Also, even great soil can turn crusty in hot summer weather. Adding mulch helps absorb water, and ensure that it doesn’t run off the top of the soil. Generally, you need to water a bit more in the summer than in the winter, as water evaporates faster. Likewise, if you live in a very windy region or have a particularly windy spell at certain times of the year, you may need to water more than normal, as air movement also leeches moisture from the atmosphere.

GardenersTrips.co.uk has a neat little list for vegetables in a drought (mmm, rhubarb), as well a battle strategy against a dry siege. The Veggie Patch Re-Imagined also has a more extensive list, and Oregon State University has a pretty good article here.

And We’re Off to the Races – Almost

Buy good quality seeds. I can not say this enough – that packet sold at the local big-box store, crammed away in a dark corner, has probably been there since Kennedy’s administration, or is the second-class lot from a cheap, pathetic breed. Don’t do it – you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Alright then – you’ve been properly chastised. But where do you go for good seeds?

Well, you can strike up a friendship with your local nursery and gardening center – I avoid big box stores altogether and opt for the smaller mom-and-pop places where the owners have been successfully making things grow since before they could walk. But I also rely heavily on MY SECRET WEAPON:

Seed Savers Exchange.

SSE is a non-profit out of Iowa that has been preserving heirloom plant varieties since founders Margaret Ertle and Michael Ott carried over the seeds of the German Pink Tomato and morning glory in the pockets, from Germany, in 1883. Trust me, y’all – they do it up right.

And best of all, they have a glorious, gorgeous, jam-packed, full-color catalog that they publish yearly, and will ship to you absolutely free of charge. Like I said – they’re good folks.

And they do a hell of a lot more than just seeds: they also will ship heirloom transplants (plants that have grown up just enough to be safely moved) of pepper, tomato, and ground cherries. You certainly don’t have to be a member to order, but for a mere $40 a year, you receive 10% off all your orders, their quarterly garden magazine (not available to the public), the annual yearbook (both online and in print) that includes 500 pages of rare varieties, online access to reference texts and forums, and special invitations to their various events throughout the year. Plus, you get to feel good about helping save the world’s endangered garden heritage for future generations – I don’t know if you think about this, but if no one plants certain strains of plants, they can die out, like over-hunted animals; never to return.

If you’re up in Iowa in April or May, stop by for their annual spring plant sale. They host their annual conference and cookout in July, a tomato tasting and salsa contest on Labor Day weekend, a harvest festival in October, and horse-drawn sleigh rides in Winter.

Deciding What to Plant

You’ve already read up on your climate, soil, and moisture levels, right? (Right?)

Then you’re ready to go. Unless you have a lot of space, you’ll probably want to avoid corn and most pumpkins, which are both awesome and beautiful but suck up space like a black hole. Also, if you do grow corn (I keep looking wistfully at my garden each year and trying to decide what I can sacrifice for corn), be mindful of how the shadow of it is going to fall – you’ll want it on the north side of your space.

Onion, beets, peas, and zucchini are generally easy to grow, and can be planted early. Tomatoes and peppers can be ordered as transplants (Seed Savers Exchange will do this for you, as will some nurseries), or grown from seed indoors for the first 8 weeks. Generally, you can check the instructions on your seed packet for planting times and spacings.

Frost: Killer of All That You Love

So here’s the thing – my first year I had a garden, the weather turned nice in late February. Brilliant blue, warm sunny days without a cloud in the sky. I planted. Two weeks later, in early March, a bitter cold snap brought not only frost, but about a foot of snow and ice. And low, there was much death in the land.

Now I’m smarter, and you can be too: plant by the projected last frost date, not the weather. This is especially true for “tender” vegetables (anything squishy inside) like tomatoes, squash, and beans.

Animals: Thieves in the Night

Our yard backs up to a river, and bunnies, raccoons, and deer are a constant. This is why the former dog pen works so well – a six foot high fence with a gate encloses it. But you probably don’t have a six-foot-high fence surrounding your garden. If deer are a real problem, you’re going to need a tall fence either around your garden or around your entire yard to keep them out. Smaller critters can be held at bay with a two-foot high fence made of chicken-wire (or more eye-appealing material), as long as it can be buried underground about a foot to keep out the diggers.

You can also use repellent plans as a natural alternative to deter mammals and insects – Wikipedia has a decent list.

Insects, however, are usually a whole other ballgame – if you have insect problems, act quickly. Consult the expert at the local nursery. HowStuffWorks also has a nice guide to insects and disease. But if you have pets, as we do, be sure to read up carefully about the product first, and if it could be potentially harmful to your fuzzy loved ones.


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