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.

Compass-plant
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?

Garden Experiment 1 Update: Raised Bed Hoop House

We had a big thaw back in February, and I put all my cabin fever energy into build a raised garden bed that was, conveniently, taller than the piles of snow around it.

I planted it, watered it, and rolled the plastic up like a snug burrito. When things warmed up in early April, I opened it up and was excited to see that the seeds had germinated. I watered everything and wrapped it back up.

Spinach seedlings, early April

A few weeks later I opened things up and there were more plants, but they were still tiny. I figured everything was stunted by the alternating temperatures if winter cold and daytime high, made worse by my negligence in watering. I wrapped everything up again, and figured it would be a loss.

Raised bed, largely neglected.

I planted onions a week ago and needed to waster them because it’s been a warm, sunny, dry, wonderful week. After that, I figured I open up the bed and see what had happened. I expected dry soil and stunted plants. But instead it was lovely:

Raised bed, almost 3 months after planting

Things were exactly as I’d originally hoped, and better than I ever would have actually expected for starting a garden in February.

This experiment was a success!

I cut some greens, watered everything, and wrapped that burrito back up again.

Gardening Experiment 1: Raised Bed Gardening (in February!)

Okay, I couldn’t help it. We had a week of unseasonably warm weather in mid-February. The sap started running on February 17th (no tapping yet, though). The snow melted back severely and we didn’t even know if we would be able to snowshoe to the cottage without trudging through 18 inches of “mashed potatoes.”

So what else could I possibly do besides garden?!?!

I’ve been reading a lot of permaculture plans lately, and have been interested in the idea of zones. Basically, you orient your yard/homestead/property into a series of zones based on the intensity of use. Zone 0 is your residence and zone 1 is the area nearest your residence that’s very accessible and perfect for veggie gardens, animal pens, and anything you need to tend to frequently. The zones continue outward until zone 5 which is called “wilderness” where nature can do its thing.

This is such a simple idea that it seems obvious. Of course one should have their gardens right next to the house—it’s so convenient to have veggies out your front door! But my garden is unfortunately in the wrong location; it’s on the other side of the garage in what is probably zone 2, which has the best light but is not the most convenient.

Our 2.75-acre yard, by zones.
Our 2.75-acre yard, by zones.

I decided that I wanted a veggie garden closer to the house—at least for a few things that we eat all of the time. I spent a ton of time working on the gardens around the house last summer, so I’m not willing to tear those up yet. The soils there are pretty crummy, anyway. And most importantly, it’s (despite the sunshine and 50º temps) still February and there’s still all that snow on the ground

The clear solution was to build a raised bed close to the house. I built a raised bed using a pattern that I designed a few years ago. The placement is genius—we put the raised bed inside of an existing (but under-developed) garden right outside our back door. The raised beds hovers over the stupid covers for our septic tank, which was a weird spot in our yard anyway. Very sneaky!

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The mounds of leaves are the covers for our septic tank.

Then, I designed a hoop house to go over the raised bed. It took a few tries to figure out how to do it, but this seems pretty stable.

PVC frame for a hoophouse.
PVC frame for a hoophouse.

I filled it with two big bales of potting mix (all of our soil and compost is buried), which is pretty fancy. I planted cold-hardy greens—lettuce, spinach, mizuna, and arugula— on February 22. Then we put a 4-mil plastic cover over it.

The finished product, before it started snowing again.
The finished product, before it started snowing again.

And now we wait and hope that things grow, despite the snow.

(Want to know what happened? Check it out here!)

Planning Next Year’s Veggie Garden: 5 Questions for You to Consider

It’s never too early to start planning next summer’s garden! Although it will still be several months before the snow melts and ground is ready to plant, I already have a stack of seed catalogs begging for my attention.

I’m working on a talk about vegetable garden planning that I’ll give at the library next week. As part of that, I identified five questions that I hope will help you hone in on what you need to do to have a successful vegetable garden this year.

1. What worked well (or didn’t work at all) last year?

It’s always helpful to start next year’s garden planning by thinking about last year’s garden. It’s usually easy to remember the highlights from last year, and notes recording the seeds sown, crops grown, and other details are usually easy to dig up. (A note about notes: writing things down is tremendously valuable; start doing it now if you don’t already do so!)  I usually think through each of the different plants and think about what worked and what didn’t work so well. For example:

  • Did I grow the right amount of that plant?
  • Do I want to grow the same amount (or more or less) next year?
  • Were the plants productive and healthy?
  • If not, what problems need to be addressed next year?

For example, last summer I grew about 20 tomato plants that I purchased as transplants from two local greenhouses. It was the right amount of plants overall, except that I want more cherry tomato plants because they produce well in our short season. Production was poor last year, especially given the good growing conditions that we had. Both greenhouses had issues with their plants last year (aphids at one place; nutrient deficiencies at another); I’ll still purchase plants from these greenhouses next year but will be more observant. The poor growth also indicated that I need to put more time into improving my soils, which I started last year by planting some cover crops. That’s tomatoes, and I go through the same thinking for every plant in my garden.

Seed catalogs!
Seed catalogs!

2. Is there anything new you want to try this year?

Winter is a great time to get ideas for new things to try out. Many gardeners love the time that they spend flipping through their seed catalogs, particularly on cold and snowy days when the activity provides an opportunity to mentally get away from dreary weather. Consider whether you want to try new varieties for any of the principal crops that you grow (like purple carrots or a faster-growing pea) as well as altogether new plants to try (short-season melons, anyone?). Also consider whether you want to try any new methods for season extension, pest control, or soil improvement. This is the time of year to brainstorm and research.

3. What do you really eat?

Vegetable gardening is about growing food, and this question relates to the one above in asking whether you are growing an amount of vegetables that is in line with your consumption. There may be some things that you plant that you don’t like or can’t keep up with. Zucchini is a classic example, as one or a few zucchini plants will often produce more than a household could ever use. I’ve heard people joke of locking their car doors in summer so that someone won’t be able to send them home with an extra zucchini. When I worked at a farm market in high school, we gave out zucchini brownie recipes to entice people to buy them. (Note: If you’ve ever looking to sell zucchini, that strategy totally works!) So, unless you’re eating zucchini noodles every night in the summer, you can probably get by with just one or two plants.

Too many zucchini! (via Oregon State Dept. of Horticulture)
Too many zucchini! (via Oregon State Dept. of Horticulture)

Instead, plan to plant more of what you really eat. This past year was the first time I planted onions from starter plants. I planted about 100 plants across one and a half beds (an area about 3 feet by 12 feet). They grew well, and I had fresh onions until November or December. Next year I want to grow at least as many—perhaps even more—and want to include some red onions in the mix as well.

4. Are there any issues you need to address before you can plant?

As you are figuring out what plants you want to grow next summer (and ogling those sexy seed catalogs!), you’ll also want to consider what work you may need to do before you can plant. If you haven’t tested your soils recently, it would be wise to do that in early spring well ahead of planting time. Doing so would provide important information for determining whether soils need nutrient or organic matter additions ahead of the growing season. Improvements may be needed to the physical garden structures, such as erecting a fence to keep deer out, building or repairing raised garden beds, or setting up an irrigation system. Any methods that are used to extend the growing season, such as high tunnels or cold frames, may create additional work that needs to happen before you can plant.

5. How much time and effort do you realistically have?

Winter garden planning involves a lot of daydreams and big ideas (which is why it is so fun!), but it can be all too easy to create unrealistic expectations of what you can realistically accomplish. Just as you thought about what worked well (or not) with your plant production last year, consider how well you were you able to find time to tend your garden. Are there times of the year that your garden creates stress because you can’t find time to stay on top of it? And if so, which set of tasks (e.g., planting, weeding, harvesting, or putting food up) is the most overwhelming? Depending on your situation, you may be able to identify a problem that you can fix to make things less chaotic, such as figuring out a better watering system so that you don’t have to spend all your time dragging hoses around. Or, if you find that you’re not able to keep up during many parts of the season, it may be a sign that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and may need to downsize.

Hopefully these questions will get you off to a good start. Happy garden planning!

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”