Q: I’d like to spend some of my winter down-time working in the garden, but don’t know what I can do at this time of year. Any advice? – Terry from Slate Hill
A: The free time I have during the holiday season is some of my favorite gardening time. But not to work “in” my garden, but rather to work “on” my garden. Sitting in my comfy chair in front of a roaring fireplace, I do the most important gardening work of the year. Because this is the time of year when I plan for the coming vegetable growing season, and planning at this time of year has proven to bring me the best results.
Now, I’ve not always been such a good planner. In fact, all my gardens during my 20s and 30s were artful creations built in bursts of creative energy when beautiful spring weather drew me outside for the day. Waking to bird-song blowing through my window on a cool May breeze, I’d be dressed and out back with a coffee in one hand and a shovel in the other, as the rising sun glimmered off the morning dew. I’d decide right then that the lawn before me would become a new garden that day. No plan for what I was about to do other than the image in my head of the “Eden” that would be. And the plants that would fill this new space would be whatever luscious green potted plants caught my eye at the farmers market on Sunday, or the local nursery, or the supermarket, or my parents’ yard, or …
But my visions never came to be, as my spontaneous purchases often did not meet a well-prepared garden bed, or withered in the heat because I hadn’t planned a proper watering regimen or yet learned the value of compost and mulch. Some never even left the 4-inch plastic pot they came in and died on my patio because my impulse buy was done during a week that I had no time to plant my new addition. Such a waste.
I’m a wiser gardener now that I spend more time on the planning and less on the execution. So, now when I have some time off from work, like the last few days of December, I still wake with the sun, filled with the same excitement as if it were a cool spring morning and I were 20 years younger. But now I have a coffee in one hand and my seed catalogs in the other. Seed catalogs are a great resource for garden planning. Whether on-line catalogs or ones that come in the mail, they all provide useful information on plant varieties to grow, number of days to maturity that you should expect from the plant, spacing considerations, as well as if the variety is best started from seed inside and transplanted to the garden as a seedling or directly sown into the garden.
My maturing as a gardener has evolved from growing the most unusual collection of plants I could find to one devoted to producing food for my family for the most days of the year. My wife and I love to cook and there is nothing more satisfying to me than walking out into the backyard to pick most of the ingredients for our dinner.
That begins with graph paper and a scale drawing of our veggie garden and a plan for what I’ll grow, from earliest spring peas, kale, spinach and lettuces in late March when the ground thaws and snow clears, to late-autumn parsnips that get sweeter after the frost has returned. And, of course, everything in between, like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, summer squash, winter squash, potatoes, beans, beets, etc. The list of varieties seems endless, and without my plan for what I’ll grow and when to start the seeds, I’ll never be able to achieve my ideal garden.
So now is the time of year when I can be creative with my garden. I can easily make changes now with my pencil eraser if I decide I’d like to try growing cardoons this year instead of cauliflower, or fava beans to sauté with my home-grown garlic. At this time of year, I can imagine the most irresistible menagerie of delicious ingredients from around the world, right outside my kitchen door. Recreating the simple, delectable dishes we experienced on our visit to Tuscany or developing new tastes in anticipation of a future trip to Asia with yard-long beans, Thai basil and chilies, or the Middle East with chickpeas, parsley and mint.
Open any good seed catalog and the choices can be overwhelming. But what better time to plan your gardening adventures for next season. You’ll have your list of seeds to order and have them delivered in time to start indoor seedlings in March and direct sowing cold-hardy varieties shortly after. When you think about it this way, the next gardening season has already begun!
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