It’s no secret that we’re smack dab in the middle of the coldest and least green season of the year: winter.
Winter is not my favorite. I love Christmas, but once we pass that point…well, just take me straight to sunny days, please. I’m not a fan of the cold and I’m certainly not a fan of the ice. The days are short and cold and dreary. Nothing new is growing. It gets muddy or icy and water hoses and troughs freeze . It’s just not a picnic.
If I could stay inside and read and knit all winter, under my totally exorbitant heated blanket, then I would surely be a fan of these winter days. But alas, the outside calls and the livestock need care whether my face freezes off or not. And I’ll admit I’m being a little whiny. We’ve actually had quite a warm late fall and early winter, courtesy of el nino. But we’re going into what is the coldest part of the year for us Tennesseans, which is January and February.
To battle my winter blues, I’ve been garden dreaming…planning…scheming. I’ve decided that this is the year I finally turn my brownish thumb a little greenish. I’m encouraged by the fact that last growing season my bell peppers did better than they’ve ever done, and I was able to provide turnip greens at our extended family Thanksgiving and then actual roast turnips at our extended family Christmas! My goals for this year’s gardens are BIG. If I can grow a turnip I can grow almost anything, right? (Nevermind that turnips are one of the easiest crops to grow…)
Spring is coming, my friends!
Rachel, Rachel, quite contrary, how will your garden grow?
I don’t know about you, but I get a little…distracted…when trying to order seeds. There are just so. many. options. Who has the better price? Which variety do I want? What will grow well in my zone?
Sometimes I end up buying too many of one thing, or things I don’t need because of an “oooh, shiny” moment, or forgetting things I did need because of the distraction! To help curtail the bunny trails, I buckled down this year and really thought through my purchases. I came out on the other side saving time, money, and a little bit of sanity. Here’s what I did:
Garden Planning + Seed Buying the Sane Way
Make a list and check it twice. The very first thing I did was to sit down and make a list of all the plants I wanted to grow. I organized them into categories, such as “root vegetables,” “beans,” and “greens.” I even noted which plants I wanted to have multiple varieties of, such as lettuce: I’ll be growing a leaf lettuce as well as a head lettuce this year. Having this list really helped prevent impulse buys. I didn’t buy it if it wasn’t on the list, for the most part. I did throw in a couple of things which I had forgotten, but I also reined myself in from things I didn’t really need.
Plan to grow only things you know you will eat. This one is hard for me because I love variety and I love to try new things. But of course what usually ends up happening when I get the bright idea to grow some foreign plant is that we grow it…and no one eats it. Take eggplant for example. They’re such a pretty vegetable, so I chose to grow some one year. Turns out no one likes eggplant. Even fried. And if you can’t fry it and it be good, well, it’s just not good.
I think there’s totally room for trying new things in the garden, and I do have some new things planned for mine this year. BUT. Perhaps it’s best to stay mainly within the realm of the known. Try a new variety of an old favorite instead of something you’ve never tried at all before. Or if you do choose to try something brand new, pick the smallest seed quantity you can or wait and buy a plant or two at a nursery in the spring.
Draw a garden layout. I think this is one of the most fun parts, second only to actually picking out seed. (I recently did a YouTube video showing my tentative garden layout and plant list.) Doing this is helpful not only for keeping records for rotating crops, but also for getting a mental picture of where all these plants are going to go and what you actually have space for. This doesn’t have to be a concrete design, but knowing where the plants will go really helps with visualizing the space and planning accordingly.
Inventory your existing seeds. Take stock of what seeds you already have on hand, be they leftovers from last year or things you’ve picked up here and there for this year when something caught your eye. As I prepared to purchase this year’s seeds, I first went through my bag of seeds. I had many packets from last year that had either not been emptied or even not opened at all! I trust last year’s seeds fairly well, and I expect them to germinate well. They have been stored in our home in a dark area, and not exposed to huge temperature extremes, excessive moisture, or sunlight. I will use my existing seeds first before buying more of the same.
If you have seeds from more than a year or so ago — or seeds that are questionable for any reason — you can also run a seed test to check their ability to germinate. It’s a very simple process to check the viability and it will save a lot of wasted effort in the case of potentially barren seeds.
Choose sources and compare prices. There are a lot — and I do mean a lot — of different seed sources out there, and many of them are excellent. (Isn’t it incredible what a rich resource for seeds we have at our fingertips?) This is great! Until you suddenly have 100 browser tabs open and you can’t remember which website you wanted spinach from and which one had the better corn. So, here’s an idea to make things a little more simple: Choose two or three sources to buy from and ONLY two or three.
Yes, you could spend hours scouring the internet for the best deals, but let’s be real here. Is saving a few dollars worth the time and effort of going through more than a couple of companies’ seed catalogs? No! Instead choose your top three favorite sources and go down your list. Absolutely DO compare prices! Check out how many seeds you get for the cost not just between companies but between varieties as well. Also don’t forget to check out the sale items if the company has them.
This year I purchased the bulk of my seeds from Seed Savers Exchange and Johnny’s Selected Seeds, whereas I got my cowpeas from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. You can view a sneak peek of their catalogs on this YouTube video HERE. (I’m not sponsored by or affiliated with them by the way, although I certainly wouldn’t turn down an offer. Hah!)
Stick to just a few varieties. Another tough job is not buying every. single. variety. of beautiful heirloom beans, corn, tomatoes, melons, or what have you. There is just not enough garden space, time, or money to try every cultivar every season. This year I chose to limit myself to only two standard tomato varieties, while in the past I would choose several and not have space to try them all. It just doesn’t make sense to try to do it all just because they’re pretty. So instead I have chosen two tried and true, beloved tomato choices to grow: Brandywine and Amish Paste. Both of these appear on the Slow Food Ark of Taste and these will be more than sufficient for my garden. Similarly, I stuck with only a few bean and pea varieties as well: Cherokee Trail of Tears black bean (love these beauties), lima bean, a pinto variety called the Hidatsa, black eyed peas, pink eye purple hull peas (a personal favorite), green beans, and crowder peas.
Save seed. Saving seed is new on my agenda this year. I believe learning to save our own seed is important for a few reasons: 1) It helps maintain crop biodiversity when seeds of many different strains are in the hands of many different gardeners. If we rely on companies to save seed each year and sell it to us, what happens if their seed crops fail due to poor weather (or disease, or what have you)? We may lose the crop all together! Diversifying is the best way to ensure we don’t lose these precious heirloom varieties and still have seed to grow year after year. 2) Speaking in terms of sustainability, it’s not really sustainable to buy seed every year when we could save it for ourselves instead. I think it’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to produce all of our own seeds, but it is certainly the most sustainable practice to save as much of our own seed as possible, and 3) It’s the frugal choice as well. If we buy heirloom and save seed, we won’t have to pay for as many seeds for next year’s garden. That way one growing season produces not only a food harvest, but the next season’s harvest as well. (I am not against hybrid by any means, but keep in mind that seed cannot be saved from hybrid crops.)
2016 shall be the year of the garden for me.
After all, (wo)man can’t live on eggs, milk, and meat alone. (Well, you probably could for a while at least. Raw milk alone is a complete food, with a balance of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. But I digress.) It’s time to get some more veggie and fruit goodness up in this homestead.