While the frigid cold of winter may have you dreaming of tropical locations, sandy beaches and fruity drinks with little umbrellas, one way to warm up is to brew yourself a nice cup of tea, coffee or hot cocoa and sit down with a few good garden catalogs.
What good it can do your mood to dream of a beautiful garden or bountiful vegetable harvest while snowflakes drift past your windowpanes and the gloom of winter darkens your day.
There’s a hand-drawn cartoon I’ve seen making the rounds on Facebook by my friend Joseph Tychonievich, author of a great book called “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener: How to Create Unique Vegetables and Flowers,” that just about sums it up for me.
In the cartoon, a stick-figure person with a huge smile is surrounded by seed catalogs with the words “The short, dark winter days cause me to suffer from S.A.D.: Seed Acquisition Disorder.” Truer words have never been spoken, for a garden catalog is a surefire portal away from winter gloom and into the promise of spring and summer.
Of course, while one can dream of boxes and boxes of seeds and plants arriving at your door, it helps to have a plan for your garden in the coming year rather than ordering seeds willy-nilly (though, I admit, it can be fun).
This year, our WVU Extension garden calendar theme is “Planning for Abundance.” I can’t stress enough how much more successful your garden will be if you come up with at least a basic plan in advance. (Download your own calendar)
Coming up with a plan
Whenever you are planning your annual vegetable garden, or planning on adding any ornamentals to your gardens or landscape, you should ask yourself a few simple questions:
1. What are my goals for the garden?
2. What resources am I willing to invest in the plants I’m ordering (money, time, water, space)?
3. What are the things I most want to grow?
4. What has worked (and what hasn’t) in your garden in the past?
While it may sound funny to say that you are going to set goals for your garden, it really isn’t all that far-fetched.
If you are planning to add ornamental plants to your landscape, you should think about what you want from those plants — are you looking for color or for structure? how about perennials vs. annuals (or biennials)?
When you are planning a vegetable garden, you should ask yourself not only what you want to grow, but how much. Are you just planting for fresh-from-the-garden eating, or do you want to preserve some through canning, freezing or drying? Are you growing just enough potatoes to eat for a month or two after the garden season, or do you need to select a variety that keeps well so you can store it?
I once had a guy who was planning to plant 12 zucchini plants for his own use in the garden. He was quite taken aback by my display of shock and horror. If he did indeed plant 12 zucchini plants, I bet he never, ever wants to see another one again.
When it comes to growing enough produce to store for the winter, I think there is a whole opportunity that home gardeners are missing.
Potatoes and sweet potatoes can store for months in a cool location. You can grow your own dried beans to have for soups through the winter.
Butternut and other winter squashes can store for many, many months, as well — I had one sit happily on my kitchen counter for a whole year. No kidding!
When you are considering plants, it is also important to know what you are willing to invest in those plants. For example, I have limited space in my vegetable garden, so I do not plant zucchini or bush-type squash or cucumbers that take up too much room.
I will plant vining varieties of the same plants, since I can grow them up a trellis and save space. Space is also limited in my landscape, so I decided early on that I would concentrate on planting (attractive) edible plants to get the most bang for my buck.
When figuring out what to order or buy, you should also really think about what you most want to grow, as in what flowers do you really like, or what vegetable or fruit do you really want to eat. If you really like Brandywine tomatoes, be sure to order some.
But, as Mr. Tychonievich pointed out in a recent blog interview (read it here), you may want to shop around. Many of those heirloom varieties that have been around for a while have been saved by numerous different seed companies over the years. One catalog or grower may have a type vastly different from one you get from another source. Get a few and compare to find your favorite source.
You should also keep in mind your past successes and failures in the garden. If a certain plant grows really well for you, be sure to keep that on the order list (and maybe even try different varieties).
If something definitely hasn’t worked for you in the past, then maybe you should steer clear after a few attempts. The best way to remember all of this info is to keep a garden journal.
While I know that taking the time to keep all of your gardening data written down isn’t the most exciting proposition (and I don’t do it as well as I should, either), it really can go a long way to increasing your success in the garden.
And don’t just stick with those tried and true things in the garden. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Experiment a little. Garden boldly.