Desperate Gardening (in the Snow)

I haven’t made as much progress toward my fall gardening goals as I had hoped to (more on that in an upcoming post…), with the weather being a major contributor. October felt rough, and it wasn’t just me—by some objective measures, our October was the gloomiest on record. Who knew that was a thing?

Just another gloomy fall day at the lake.

November hasn’t been any easier, with substantial snow and cold coming in during the first week of the month and sticking around.

All this gloom and grey meant that I didn’t plant garlic like I’d hoped to. In mid-October, I managed to plant an area about 3″ by 24″ one evening when the weather cooperated (i.e., it was sprinkling but not actually raining). But that was it… until this past weekend.

In a fit of desperation, I managed to plant three of my raised garden beds, effectively doubling the area that I had planted in garlic. This was a huge relief because I won’t have much time to tend this particular garden next year (teaser: I’m starting a brand-new, bigger veggie garden in the spring!) and so I want to plant the area to as many low-maintenance plants as possible. Come next summer, this veggie garden will be almost exclusively planted with garlic and green beans.

This is what planting garlic in November looked like:

A rainy day meant that much of the snow had already melted.
So I only had to rake an inch or two of snow to expose the soil.

It wasn’t nearly as cold and miserable outside as I thought it would be. And the soil was actually in good condition—moist but not too wet to work in. These beds had been planted with green beans this past summer, and I left them to die back in place. By the time I returned in November, the plants had completely died back and I was able to plant directly into the ground without any site prep.

Perhaps I’ll call this method snow-till! (Instead of no-till… get it?!?! 🙂 )

I still need to mulch these beds soon, but I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll be able to get a reasonable amount of garlic next year. Certainly more than if I hadn’t done this second round of planting.


My Gardening Goals for 2018: Fall Edition

It’s fall, and it’s really starting to feel like it. The first signal was when the days became noticeably shorter. Now, temperatures are dropping, and leaves are changing color. Geese are flying high in long Vs, heading south.

After a hectic and scattered summer that kept me away from gardening more than I wanted or expected, I have a lot to do yet this year. Before the snow flies. In two or three months.

Here’s my current list of fall garden projects, which is certainly incomplete:

Task Timing Priority
Removal of invasive barberry using herbicide (need to research too) Oct. Opportunistic
Site visits of a few friend’s gardens (consultations) Sept. Medium
Plant garlic Mid-Sept. Highest
Learn to chainsaw/Help take down trees anytime Opportunistic
Innoculate mushroom logs Sept. Medium
Plan and plant cottage foundation area Sept.-Oct. Medium
Transplant silver maple seedlings to woods Late Sept. Highest
Protect seedlings from deer browse (need to research too) by Nov. High
Soil test in new garden area by Nov. Medium
Get a plastic barrel for winter compost by Dec. High

What’s on your list for this fall?

6 Steps to Growing Amazing Garlic

I like the annual cycle of gardening with a big rush of activity in the spring followed by steady work until, hopefully, a big veggie harvest in the fall (and hopefully not too long of a winter). It provides nice routine and rhythm to each year. But it also means that spring can feel overwhelming.

I’ve been trying to avoid the spring overwhelm by moving as many activities to the fall season as I can. I try to clean my beds up reasonably well in the fall so that they take less work in the spring. I turn my old compost in the fall, and start a new pile each winter. When I need to test my soils, I ideally do that in the fall too.

I even tried planting potatoes in the fall last year! My thinking was: When I accidentally leave potatoes in the ground over winter, it leads to great volunteer plants the next year. So why can’t I just plant potatoes in the fall? The results this year were mixed, and It’s probably worth trying it again this fall.

This brings me to garlic. Or rather, GARLIC! I think that garlic might be my favorite vegetable to grow because:

  1. Garlic is easy to plant and grow.
  2. The garlic that I grow has cloves that are bigger and easier to peel than store-bought garlic.
  3. Garlic is planted in the fall and dug up at the end of the next summer, so it avoids the spring overwhelm.

Garlic means that by October, I can feel good that next year’s garden is already started.

The Basics of Growing Garlic

1. Selecting Good Seed

When it comes to growing garlic—and all plants, really—the source of the seed makes a huge difference. In the case of garlic, the “seeds” aren’t really seeds at all. They are garlic cloves, but ones selected specifically to grow lush, new plants. It’s important to get high-quality seed from a trusted source, which could be a seed company or a local garlic grower. Garlic seed can be pricey up front, but the investment is worth it—after your first year of growing garlic, you’ll be able to save your best garlic bulbs for the following year’s crop.

Be sure to consider your local climate when selecting your garden seed, as there are two types of garlic. Hardneck varieties are named such because they have a very stiff stem. These varieties tend to be better-suited to cold climates and produce scapes, which can be eaten. Softneck varieties don’t have a stiff stem, and so these are the types that you may see sold braided at farmers’ markets. These varieties do better in milder climates and tend to have smaller cloves. Grocery stores sell softneck garlic varieties (but don’t use garlic from the grocery store for your seed, as it won’t grow well).

If you purchase your garlic from a non-local source, the seed company will be able to provide details about individual varieties. Two companies that I’ve purchased garlic seed from in the past are Great Northern Garlic and Seed Savers Exchange, although there are many great independent growers to choose from.

2. Preparing Your Soil

Garlic grows best in a sunny site with moist, well-drained soil. Rotate your garden crops and avoid planting garlic in any area that grew garlic, onions, or leeks in the previous year.

Garlic has a relatively small rooting zone and will benefit from having soils have have been prepared to give the bulbs room to grow. Be sure to weed the garden area well. Use a tiller or digging fork to loosen the top 6-8 inches of soil, and add compost if it is available.

3. Planting

Garlic is planted in the fall because the bulbs (especially hardneck varieties) require a cold period for bulb formation. The ideal timing for planting is about 6-8 weeks before the ground freezes. (You can look up your last frost date here if you are in the US.) The garlic planting season starts around mid-September and runs through about mid-December in the the Northern Hemisphere. Here in Upper Michigan, I’ll be planting garlic before the end of September. In the Southern Hemisphere, planting occurs between mid-March and mid-June. In short, planting in colder climates should start around the fall equinox, and planting should occur by the winter solstice in warmer climates.

Individual garlic cloves (i.e., the seeds) are planted to become garlic bulbs. Cloves should be spaced 6-8 inches apart from each other and at a depth about 3 times deeper than the height of the clove (about 2-3 inches deep). You can use a stick to poke holes into the ground at the appropriate depth and spacing, and then place cloves in the holes, pointy end up. Tamp down the soil to cover the seeds, and water the soil if needed.

Finally, mulch the bed with 3-6 inches of weed-free hay or straw. The mulch helps retain moisture in the soil and minimizes competition from weeds.

Garlic in early spring.

4. Tending

Garlic is pretty low-maintenance during the growing season. The mulch should reduce the need to weed, but be sure to remove competing plants when they turn up. Feel free to apply an organic fertilizer (such as fish emulsion or fertilizer tea) once a month. The mulch will help retain soil moisture, but ensure that the soil is moist and water as needed. Begin to reduce watering in mid-July (or mid-January) as the plants start to wane because drier conditions in the late-season will help the garlic keep for longer.

Hardneck varieties of garlic produce scapes: these are twirly flowering shoots that emerge from the top of the plant in summer. Be sure to remove these by the time that they make 1-2 curls, as this will help the plants focus their energy on producing a nice, large bulb. Garlic scapes have a nice garlicky taste and can be used to make many recipes; pick them early so that they don’t get too tough.

5. Harvesting

Garlic plants will die back as the summer progresses, and plants are ready to be picked when most of the lower leaves have browned. Use a digging fork to gently life bulbs from dry soil. Be sure to set aside a few bulbs to eat now—it’s important to enjoy your harvest!

My 2018 garlic harvest.

6. Storing Garlic

After harvesting, the garlic bulbs will need to dry (or “cure”) for longer-term storage. Lay entire plants on a flat surface in a dry place that is away from sunlight. Leave the plants dirty and unwashed at this stage, because the main purpose is to allow the remaining nutrients in the green parts of the stem to be translocated to the bulb. Ensure plants are spread out and have good air flow to prevent mold. This can mean laying plants out in trays, on shelves, or tying (or braiding softneck varieties) small bunches together and hanging them from the rafters of a well-ventilated shed.

After a few weeks, the bulbs should feel dry, At this point, you can snip off the leaves (leaving a few inches of stem) and roots. You can also gently brush off any dirt, but be careful not to damage the inner layers of the bulb because this will reduce its shelf life. Place the bulbs back on trays or place into mesh bags and allow them to cure for another month.

As you go through your garlic, be sure to set aside your biggest and best bulbs to use for your next year’s garden. Storing your seed garlic at a temperature between 50-65ºF (10-18ºC) is ideal, particularly if you live in a milder climate with a longer time between harvest and planting.

Store the rest of your garlic in a cool, dark, and dry place to keep it flavorful as long as possible.

Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

The Million Pollinator Garden Challenge is a nationwide effort to encouraging people to  preserve and create gardens and landscapes that benefit pollinators like bees, butterflies, birds, and bats. Run by the National Pollinator Garden Network, the challenge encourages gardeners to “bee counted” and maps pollinator gardens across America.

screenshot of a map that shows the locations of many gardens, centered on the United States
Pollinator garden locations for the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.

According to the website, pollinator gardens should:

  • use plants that provide nectar and pollen sources
  • provide a water source
  • be situated in sunny areas with wind breaks
  • create large “pollinator targets” of native or non-invasive plants
  • establish continuous bloom throughout the growing season
  • eliminate or minimize the impact of pesticides

What does it take to join?

Pollinator gardens are registered through the Pollinator Partnership website.  It takes just a few minutes to enter an email address, garden name and description, and location.

There are other pollinator programs that can be used to certify your garden habitat, such as those for the MonarchWatch’s Certified Monarch Waystations and the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program.

I registered by prairie garden. I also plan to look into each of these programs in the future, so stay tuned for future posts!

My Gardening Goals for 2018: End of Summer Update

Way back in March, I wrote up my gardening goals for 2018. Now it’s six months later, and I’m long overdue for an update on how the season has shaped up.

1. Grow More of Our Own Food

Even though I put the most time and effort into my vegetable garden compared to my other gardens, there are a lot of years where I feel like I’m not necessarily getting a lot out of it. I weed and weed, and yet I don’t always get a good harvest. This year I decided to double-down and grow more food.

I certainly grew more food this year than ever before. I got off to a good start last fall with a large planting of garlic. My attempts to plant lettuce in February were successful too, and it was awesome to have fresh greens in May. I changed my planting approach this year and used the square foot gardening method where seeds are planted on a grid rather than in rows. This worked out great, and I grew (and froze) a ton of green beans this year. Overall, I upped my game and grew more of these plants this year: garlic, green beans, peas, and kale. I also grew a good amount of onions, potatoes, tomatoes (which actually ripened in August with our warm weather this year!), and parsley.

Garden panorama, August 2018.

I had hoped to do more succession planting of plants like lettuce, spinach, carrots, and beets, but the spring got away on me and I never got my second or third plantings in; next year, I should plant 3-4 times as many carrots and beets all at once, and lettuce whenever I can. My peppers never amounted to anything, and I have no idea why. I ran out of room to grow squash and melons. I did a little bit of mushroom inoculation with some friends, but still have an entire bag of spawn in my fridge.

Early lettuce in May.

2. Improve My Garden Soils

I finally gathered up soil samples for my garden and sent them into a lab. The test results were helpful, but I’ll admit that I haven’t done a lot to work on my soils. I added a bit of wood ash and compost to me vegetable garden while planting, but not a lot more. I would love to have more compost, but I never seem to make as much as I need.

Soil samples!

One thing that is kind of funny is that the reason that my gardening efforts didn’t go as smoothly this year as I would have liked is because I ended up spending the summer at our cottage. My primary vegetable garden was 15 minutes away; this distance meant that I couldn’t weed for 20 minutes in the evening, and the weeds were absolutely out of control this year. The silver lining? When I finally did get around to weeding that overgrown mess, it resulted in a lot of green material. I’m hoping I”ll have a lot more compost next year, thanks to all those weeds!

3. Expand My Perennial Gardens

My prairie garden in situated in front of our septic mound, forming a nice border that helps keep the ugly mound out of view (or at least less obvious). For a bunch of years, I’ve been trying to smother out the grass on a portion of the septic mound figuring that I would eventually convert the grass to… something prairie-like. I thought I was going to have to grow a special mix of plants selected for use on top of septics. But then I was able to ask Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery my question at a gardening event this spring, and he said that any herbaceous plants are fine—it’s the trees and woody plants that can damage a septic.

The straw-covered area was prepped for expanding my prairie garden.

With that knowledge, I took the seeds that I collected from my prairie garden last fall and spread them over one-third of the septic mound that was bare soil and prepared. I had to weed it twice this summer, but it was relatively easy since the weeds were much taller than the seedlings I was trying to tend. I just had to pull out the tall stuff, and let everything underneath continue to grow. On the other side of the prairie bed, I used cardboard and mulch to smother out a strip of grass. That area is now ready to transplant into.

The prairie garden in summer. Hopefully next year the area on top of the mound will be flowering too.

4. Tend Trees and Shrubs at the Cottage Property

This is a major work in progress. One big item is that we submitted the management plan for our property and it’s now in the American Tree Farm System. I had planned to do more work this year to remove invasive plants, but realized that our barberry problem is much bigger than I thought; rather than hand-pull, I need to research herbicide options.

I gathered up silver maple seedlings this spring and attempted to plant some. That was slightly successful, but I had even better success when a June storm led to a few days of flooding in my onion patch, and a bunch of silver maple germinated as weeds. I’ve allowed some of those seedlings to grow over the summer and will try to transplant them this fall. I took some cuttings of other plants, but did not get the plants to root before they gathered mold (who knew that was possible?). I fenced our five apple trees to prevent further deer damage. I transplanted three grape plants from my vegetable garden to the property, but the deer found them before I could get some fencing up. I also tucked some free conifer seedlings into a few places, but need to protect them from deer before winter.

As I said 6 months ago, there’s a ton to do and I’m just figuring out where to start.

These tires were the start of my mini-tree nursery. I’m hoping that they’ll work like big, temporary pots.

5. Create Demonstration Gardens for My Master Gardener Project

Last year I worked with a few friends to start rehabilitating some neglected garden beds at the Marsin Nature Retreat as part of our work for the Extension Master Gardener volunteer program. This spring, I worked with a new staff member at the Keweenaw Land Trust, and we got the garden planted. Another big garden project for me was helping to organize a Native Plants Symposium that was held in mid-March. It was a huge success, with nearly 70 people in attendance and a bunch of great speakers. I had a lot of fun and hope we do it again next year.

6. Teach Others How to Garden

It took me a long time (really much longer than it should have) to realize that I love to talk to other people about gardening. In particular, I love getting other people excited about gardening, and I decided that I wanted to spend more time helping others to garden. I created an online course, A Beginner’s Guide to Gardening in Cold Climates, to cover some basic material. And I launched a six-week garden challenge in the spring.

Setting up a new flower bed at the cottage.

Unfortunately, a lot of my efforts in this arena stalled for the summer. Right in the midst of the online challenge, my computer died (making key files inaccessible for over month) and we relocated to our cottage, which did not have internet access at the time. As you can imagine, the abrupt loss of computer and internet access really stymied any work I was doing related to online courses, challenges, and blogging—and partially explains my lack of posting for much of the summer.

But, as I get resettled into a new routine (and get to know my new computer), I am getting excited to get back into writing and teaching about gardening. I already have a few posts up my sleeve, so be sure to check back in to hear about my gardening goals for this fall.

How was your garden this summer? I’d love to hear about it!

Join the Ultimate Veggie Gardener Challenge!

The weather has finally warmed up and we’ve catapulted from blustery cold and a blizzard a to warm (almost hot!)and sunny during the past week. The snow is melting quickly, and it will only be a few more days before my garden will be visible for the first time in months.

I’m excited for gardening, especially since I set so many gardening-related goals that I want to make progress on. I’ve been having fun encouraging others to garden through the online course and in other ways, and I want to keep that going. So I’m setting up an online challenge to help people (like you, dear reader!) get started on their veggie gardens this spring.

About the Ultimate Gardening Challenge

So what is this thing? This challenge will help you through the steps of setting up and planting your vegetable garden. It consists of two parts:

  • Weekly emails coaching you though the basics of site assessment, garden planning, planting, soil improvement, and more.
  • Access to a Facebook group to ask questions and share your successes with others in the challenge.

Sign up now! The challenge starts on April 30 and runs through June 10. You’ll receive an email every week describing that week’s theme and activities for starting your garden off right.

Who should take the challenge?

The challenge is open to designed to get new gardeners started on their way to vegetable success. It’s designed with beginning gardeners in mind, although more experienced gardeners are welcome to participate. The challenge program is designed for those living in relatively cold climates where experienced gardeners tend to plant tomatoes at the end of May or early June (see blue areas on the map).

Map of Average Last Spring Freeze Dates (via NOAA)

It’s Easy

All you need is an interest in gardening and access to a bit of soil and a trowel. Some additional tools will be handy, but you do not need any special equipment, gardening experience, or a large garden to be join the challenge. Container, patio, and small gardens are also welcome!

Okay, yeah, so this feels kinda like a big commercial, but I hope you’ll consider signing up—it’s free and will be a whole lot of fun. 🙂

My Gardening Goals for 2018

There may be 2 feet of snow on the ground, but the 2018 gardening season is here! I finally ordered my seeds this week and I also planted my raised bed hoop house with greens and am hoping for an early harvest of greens like I was able to get last year. This is an exciting time of year, and I have so many ideas in mind for this coming gardening season. Writing down my major goals for this year will help me stay focused!

1. Grow More of Our Own Food

I didn’t do my annual garden review last year, but 2017 turned out to be a good garden year even though the entire summer was extremely cool and wet. One major breakthrough was that I started a second garden (approximately 20×30 feet) at our cottage; I grew potatoes and squash in this new space, which freed up my fenced-in vegetable garden for the plants that need more tending or regular picking—the lettuce, green beans, tomatoes, and everything else.

My new, second garden at the cottage. This one is for veggies that don’t need much tending.

This year, I want to grow a lot more of our own food. I don’t typically put a lot of food up in the summer or fall, but I feel like my gardening and eating habits are becoming more aligned (i.e., I’m finally eating my vegetables!!) that it’s seems realistic that I will be able to grow more of what we will actually eat.

Specific things I need to do:

  • Increase the amount of garlic (I planted a ridiculous amount last fall), onions, and potatoes that I plant, as well as try planting some leeks and squash. These will all go in the cottage garden (which will probably need to be expanded) where they won’t need a lot of tending.
  • Focus the primary home garden space on the things that we eat most and on some things that can be frozen. I anticipate allocating more room to beans, kale, carrots, and beets.
  • Use the square foot gardening method to better allocate space in my garden and to plant seeds more efficiently. Also plan for succession planting.
  • The vegetable garden fence will need some major repairs…
  • Purchase floating row cover fabric and get more hoops for season extension. Also consider whether it would be helpful to build a very small greenhouse.
  • Coordinate with a friend to “borrow” some space in their root cellar.
  • Do the research and then implement a fertilization schedule on the fruit trees and shrubs.
  • Inoculate logs with mushroom spawn so that I can grow my own mushrooms.

2. Improve My Garden Soils

A friend told be recently that her biggest question at a newbie gardener was learning about her garden soils. “All the books say it’s so important,” she said. It’s so true—a garden is only as good as its soil.

More work needed.

And yet, I’ve been the biggest slacker when it comes to improving the soils in my garden. It’s been holding be back for a few years, and I really have a lot of work to start addressing all the issues that I have with my soils: the acidity and lack of organic matter and everything else.

Specific things I need to do:

  • Get a soil test. I even have a soil sample from my vegetable garden in a container in my basement—I just need to mail it in. I need to do a soil test on my cottage garden bed and on the perennial beds too.
  • Start adding amendments early. I’m sure more lime will be needed to raise the pH, and I might need to add nutrients. It would have been good to do this last fall, so I’ll have to add amendments early in the season so that they can start to be worked in before planting.
  • Up my compost game. My non-food compost pile needs to be moved to a better location so that I can be turned more regularly with the tractor. And I need to add a lot more to it too, which might mean growing more of some plants (like comfrey) that produce a lot of material that can be composted.
  • Get a plastic barrel for a compost tumbler. This will be especially handy for collecting compost next winter.
  • Continue to play around with green manures and cover crops, particularly this fall.

3. Expand My Perennial Gardens

This is lower priority that my vegetable gardening, but there are a few places where I would like to expand my perennial beds and strategically kill my lawn in areas that are harder to mow. I am hoping to expand my prairie garden to get rid of  a small strip of grass and to cover the septic mound. I also want to expand the foundation plantings on the east side a bit to make mowing a bit easier, but I’m not willing to devote much time or energy to that.

The compass plants in my garden are going bonkers, and it looks amazing!

Specific things I need to do:

  • Look up which prairie plants that are okay to plant on septic mounds, and then determine which I can get from my own garden (transplants or seeds) and what I might need to buy.
  • Do more research on sheet composting (lasagna gardening), and then use that method to smother grass in the areas where I want to expand my garden. Ideally, I’d do this early in the garden season, so that the areas are ready to plant in late summer or fall when I might have more time.
  • Consider whether I should be growing more herbs in the front garden bed so that they are convenient, and if so, determine which perennials should me moved to the new areas.

4. Tend Trees and Shrubs at the Cottage Property

There’s so much I want to do at the cottage, and I think this year will mostly be determining where to start. We want to remove some existing trees (before emerald ash borer does it for us) and plant a wider variety of tree and shrub species that will diversify the forest and enhance habitat for wildlife.

I want to take cuttings from the viburnum bushes at my house and grow more for the cottage property.

Specific things I need to do:

  • Complete the management plan for our property and get it submitted to the American Tree Farm System.
  • Cut and poison the stumps of the box elder trees that I cut down last winter, and prepare the area for planting the oak trees we have in mind. Then get the trees, plant them, and protect them from hungry deer and beavers.
  • Do research on how to propagate shrubs using rooted cuttings. Gather wood at the right time from shrubs like elderberry, ninebark, and red-osier dogwood and start experimenting. Plant bundles of willow at the Point and protect them (last year the beavers stole the cuttings I planted!).
  • Determine where trees need to be thinned and make lots of firewood.
  • Make a wish list of plants that I want on the property (e.g., elderberry, silver maple, basswood) and go on scouting trips to find places where I can gather seeds or cuttings of those plants. Look for silver maple seedlings along sand bars on the river.
  • Continue work to remove invasive honeysuckle and barberry.
  • Improve fencing in the orchard. This probably involves making a large number of tree cages that can be moved around the property as needed over time.
  • Identify the mystery plant I found last fall!

5. Create Demonstration Gardens for My Master Gardener Project

Last year I worked with a few friends to start rehabilitating some neglected garden beds at the Marsin Nature Retreat as part of our work for the Extension Master Gardener volunteer program. We made good progress, hosting 3 workshops and getting a large garden ready for planting. The work this year will be to plant this garden area and then decide which derelict beds are next.

Before pic: The foundation gardens have been neglected and need a big makeover. We’re halfway there…

Specific things I need to do:

  • Work with my gardening co-conspirators and others to create a wish list of our desired plants for the area. Then host a “plant drive” to get donations for what we want.
  • Plant the area that’s been prepared with the plants that we receive and establish nursery beds to hold extra plants that can be propagated for future use.

6. Teach Others How to Garden

Do you ever have it happen where you don’t realize something about yourself? For years I knew that I liked gardening, and it seemed pretty normal because lots of people I know have gardens and grow a bit of food. It has only been in the past year or two that I realized that I love gardening, and that I spend way more time on it than most people. This became most apparent to me when I realized that I love talking to people about gardening, and that I often find myself answering gardening questions for my friends.

One of my friends bought a house last year and she wants to have her first garden this year—she knows almost nothing about gardening and is truly starting from scratch. And I have a handful other friends who are looking for advice on how to improve their veggies gardens this summer. And, for me, it’s all really exciting.

To start answering all these questions, I made an online course, A Beginner’s Guide to Gardening in Cold Climates, using the awesome online education platform Udemy. The course is designed to help people with no experience (and living in places that have a true winter season) create their first gardens. I posted the course as soon as I had the minimum materials, but there are a lot of improvements that could be made.

I made this online course for beginning gardeners. Check it out and/or tell your newbie gardener friends. 
  • Continue improving the course by adding new material and making the existing lectures better. And publicize it too.
  • Do a few garden visits this year to help my friends get their gardens going. I think I can be especially helpful with soil testing and helping people figure out what soil amendments they need since I did that in the demonstration garden last year and will be doing it in my gardens this fall.
  • Post more information on this website, or on other gardening sites, to address common questions and stumbling blocks.

Wow! That’s a lot of things to do! I’m pretty confident that I’ll be able to do most of it, even though it is a major list. And I’m excited for all of it. Happy gardening!

Where can I buy gardening seeds?

Someone recently asked me where they should go to get garden seeds. Fortunately, there is no shortage of places where you can buy high-quality garden seed—in fact, it is more likely that you will have trouble deciding among the many options that are out there!

If you’re bitten by the gardening bug, you may end up with a mailbox full of beautiful catalogs and have a hard time figuring out which company is the best for you. The good news is that there isn’t a single answer– it’s more important that you pick something that you will plant, so that you can start gardening and learn what works for you.

When it comes to gardening in colder climates, the major factor is to focus on varieties of plants that can successfully grow within the amount of growing season that you have. When you can, look for seed companies that are specific to your region because they will be tuned into the conditions closer to where you live.

When you are comparing different varieties of the same plant, favor species that have a smaller number of days to maturity. Even a difference of 5-10 days can have a tremendous influence on the success of your garden.

Buying Seeds from the Store

For many people, the simplest thing will be to buy seeds from a local store, whether it’s a big box store or a local garden or “feed and seed” store. This is a great option, it and is certainly more convenient that wading through piles of catalogs. Seeds sold at stores are often going to be from larger companies, which means that the selection may not be tailored to a specific climate. If you are purchasing seeds packets from a display at a store:

  • Pay special attention to the number of days to maturity to ensure that the plant variety can be grown in a shorter climate.
  • Look for words in the description that suggest that the seeds are better for cold climates, such as: short-season, early-maturing, or northern gardens.
  • Avoid the cheap seeds. Some stores carry cheap “generic” seeds that are $1 or less per packet. Seeds do not need to cost an arm and a leg, but do avoid any that seem suspiciously cheap because the quality is likely to be poor.
  • Double check that the seeds have been packaged for the current year. This is typically stamped on the back of the package, and ensures that you’re are getting the best quality.

Can I reuse old seed?

Yes. If you have seeds leftover from last year and they were stored in a dry place, you may be able to use them this coming season. Seeds can be stored for years and years if they are kept in the right conditions—generally in a dry and dark location that is kept at a consistent (and preferably cool) temperature. Exposure to moisture, heat, and light cause seeds to germinate prematurely or loose their viability. Personally, I’ve even had reasonable success with vegetable seeds that have been stored in less-than-ideal conditions when I accidentally left them in the damp, unheated garage over winter.

Over time, however, the quality of the seed does degrade, and the germination success (the percentage of seeds that successfully transform themselves into teensy seedlings) does decrease over time. If you aren’t sure about the quality of your seed, it is pretty easy to do a germination test and find out before you plant them.

Where I Buy Seeds for My Gardens

Some people go bananas about seed catalogs, sifting through a dozen or more catalogs to see what’s new and exciting. I am not one of those people. I only have a few seed catalogs that I look at each year, generally focusing on companies from the Midwest. Here are the primary places that I go to for purchasing seeds and plants:

  • Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah, IA): This company specializes in heirloom and heritage seed varieties that were passed on by generations of gardeners and farmers before the industrialization of agriculture reduced the variety of crops that are commonly grown. Vegetables, herbs, and some flowers. Also seed potatoes.
  • Jung Seed (Randolph, WI): This family-owned company is very close to where I grew up and has an immense variety of plants for all types of gardeners. Vegetables and flower seed, seed potatoes and garlic, live plants (flowers, fruits, trees, etc.)
  • Prairie Nursery (Westfield, WI): Another company from near where I grew up, specializing in perennial native plants for the Midwest.
  • Dixondale Farms (Carrizo Springs, TX): A few years ago, I switched from buying seed sets to buying seed starts—baby onions that are ready to plant into the ground in early spring. My onions have never been better, and this company has onions suitable for regions across the entire US.
A few of my favorite catalogs!

Other Companies

As I said earlier, the options for seeds are pretty much endless. I’ve highlighted a few companies here that are recommended by other northern gardeners, but I don’t have personal experience with these companies. Ask gardeners near you or seek out a local gardening group to get suggestions for what works best for where you live.

  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Maine): An employee-owned company recommended by many gardeners I know for vegetables, although I haven’t tried this company yet.
  • Territorial Seed Company (Oregon): A family-owned company with a variety of vegetable seeds and perennial flowers and plants that has also been recommended to me by a few people.
  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Missouri): Notable for rare and heirloom vegetable seeds, and fun pictures in the catalog.
  • Denali Seed (Alaska) : Noted by several bloggers for seeds in Alaska and other cool/cold-climate locations.
  • Prairie Garden Seeds (Saskatchewan): A great variety of vegetables and grains for cold climate regions in Canada and beyond.
  • Garden’s North: Noted by several websites for selling seeds worldwide.

This is only a small amount of what’s available. The Cold Climate Gardening website has a more extensive list of companies providing seeds, plants, and materials for gardening in cold climates.

Don’t Overthink Things

Don’t get bogged down with the many options that are available. Pick one or a few companies (or just go to the store), select a few plants to grow, and start gardening! You’ll do great!

What about you? Where do you get your garden seeds?