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?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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?

2016 Gardens in Review, Part 2

When I was thinking about the past garden year, I was mainly thinking about my vegetable garden. Who knew that I would have so much to say about perennials? But I did have a lot to say, enough to make have an entire post on my perennial gardens. Now, I’ll focus on my vegetable garden.

This year I took the the Master Gardener class and went to a season extension workshop at the North Farm, both of which really motivated me to spend more time gardening this year. It also motivated me to spend more time planning, which I didn’t anticipate but I do appreciate because it allowed me to use my garden space much better than I ever have before. I’ve always been one to push the boundaries of our short growing season by planting lettuce as soon as the snow melts, but I now have a better foundation for understanding how to really get more out of my garden.

My new view on gardening is this: there is not a single garden season. Rather, being a gardener is perhaps like being a professional athlete. Really!—hear me out on this. There is not a single garden season that lasts from May to September, with the rest of the year being dormant for both garden and gardener. Nope, the gardener’s season is like that of the professional athlete. There is a pre-season intended for getting ready; it involves new gear, sore muscles, and even a few pre-season games in the form of early-season greens. The regular season is what always comes to mind: the weekly routine of planting, weeding, and watering where the big stars like tomatoes and peppers get all the press. During the post-season, you reap what you sowed earlier the year; if you didn’t perform well in the earlier seasons, its too late now. And while people don’t talk about the off-season, it’s a critical time for taking some time to relax and recover while also building the foundation for the next year. Continue reading “2016 Gardens in Review, Part 2”

2016 Gardens in Review, Part 1

Last week I was feeling pretty unmotivated in the evenings and watched a lot more TV than normal. The weather was generally okay, in that cool, damp, mid-fall kind of way. Part of me wanted to go outside, but a bigger part of me was lazy and couldn’t think of anything to do outside, so I stayed in.

Upon reflection, I realized what the problem was: the gardening season is practically over. I didn’t know what to do with myself since cool weather, short nights, and dying plants were making it difficult to garden in the evenings. And that was bumming me out.

The garden season isn’t quite over yet. Amazingly enough, we still haven’t had our real first frost—last year it came late around October 18 and this year it will be even later. Plus, there are still a handful of chores that I can focus on before the snow flies: weeding grasses, fixing the garden door, amending soils, and maybe experimenting with planting seeds in winter. I still have a friend’s tiller that I borrowed earlier this year (in April!) and haven’t returned, so there’s also the opportunity to create more garden spaces too.

A bee enjoying comfrey.
A bee enjoying comfrey.

Perennial Fruits

One of my garden goals for 2016 was to establish more perennial fruits—raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries—and so I spent a lot of time working on this early in the season. Continue reading “2016 Gardens in Review, Part 1”

Accessible Raised Garden Beds

A few years ago, I enlisted some friends to design and build two raised garden beds* for a local nursing home. The goal was to design a raised bed that would be easily accessible for elderly people who were working while standing or seated. I haven’t given this a lot of thought since then, but wanted to revisit it now that I’m in the Master Gardener class.

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Continue reading “Accessible Raised Garden Beds”

Gardening 101: Everything You Need to Know to Actually See Your Garden Grow

These days, more and more people are discovering the joys of playing in the dirt—though grown-ups might prefer the term “gardening.” Food gardening is especially hot, with nearly 20 percent more households hopping on the food-growing train during the past five years. Renewed interest in gardening may be due in part to the local food movement. Locavores are interested in having greater access to healthy, high-quality food, knowing where their food comes from, and supporting the environment and the local economy. Gardening (especially organic gardening) certainly fits the bill! Read entire article at Greatist.com > >

Reflections on Gardening

It’s fall and the gardening season will be ending shortly. I’ve managed to elude a killing frost so far this year, so I still have tomatoes on the vine. At the same time, its rainy and windy and the leaves are beginning to fall from the trees– I only have so much time left.

It was a short summer. This is the consensus of everyone I’ve talked with, and also seems to be backed up by the data. In April, when the snow was on the ground, I received a package of sweet potato slips, ordered in January when I was optimistic about this gardening season and then forgotten until they arrived.

Just to back up a little bit, I have three gardens: a vegetable garden, a perennial flower bed that wraps around the house, and a garden of prairie plants native to the part of central Wisconsin where I grew up. The prairie garden is about 4 years old now; the others were started 6 years ago when we moved into this house and have been expanded periodically over time. These aren’t wonderful, amazing gardens, but they work. I like them, and we get vegetables, bees, and butterflies in the summer.

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I’m beginning to realize that gardens have their own progression, or succession, over time. In the perennial beds, this happens over several years, while it only takes 3-4 months in the vegetable garden:

  • Planting: This is at the very beginning, when everything is planned and laid out deliberately. Vegetables are in rows, perennials arranged by anticipated height, color, and foliage. The plants take up little space, relative to the amount of available growing space. Effort exerted and optimism for future success are both high.
  • Establishment: It takes the plants a while to get adjusted, build their root systems, and grow. It feels like forever, although it’s really only June for a vegetable garden, and the first 1-2 years of a perennial garden. As a gardener, you wait and wait for the plants to grow and do something— anything! (can I at least get some lettuce?!?!). Meanwhile, weeding becomes critical, and effort remains high. Optimism also remains high that it will all work out, except for the occasional, fleeting thought that it won’t.
Establishment of Prairie Garden, 2011.
After Establishment of Prairie Garden, 2011.
  • Production: Finally, things are shaping up. There are vegetables, There are flowers. There are more bees that slugs. The plants are big enough to compete against the weeds, so weeding is less important and the young, hardy plants are resistant to pests and diseases. Effort is low and spirits are high. Woohoo!  Of course, this stage lasts no more than 2 weeks in the vegetable garden and 2 months in the perennial garden and coincides with summer vacations and other time spent away from the gardens.
  • Divergence: After the excitement of the production stage, reality sets in. Success is differential across the garden: yes, some plants are doing wonderfully and being heroically productive, but others aren’t doing so well. They aren’t growing, or they are being ransacked by pests. Some areas look amazing, like a Better Homes and Gardens centerfold, but others have… issues. Plants are crammed too closely together or are too far apart (or both) , the tall stuff is in front of the short stuff, and the ugly stuff is taking over everywhere. Optimism plummets, and everything needs work.
  • Maintenance: Reality sets in, and now it’s about making the best of what is there, with a reasonable amount of effort and scaled-back expectations. This is mid-August in a vegetable garden, and a few years into a perennial garden. The Better Homes and Gardens centerfold isn’t really happening this year, but maybe it’s possible that this year can be as good as, or slightly better, than last year. Continuous improvement becomes the goal instead of perfection for this growing season. Of course, there’s always next year to get it just right..,

Perhaps this sounds more dour than I mean it to, as I sit here and type in gloomy fall weather. I don’t mean to say that the effort isn’t worth it, that gardening is some hamster wheel of never-ending disappointment. Rather, it’s really amazing to think about the boundless optimism of growing new things every year. I am so convinced that my gardens will be amazing next year. They will be really, really awesome.

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