Mom always told you to eat your veggies, and she might be proud to see you growing them, too. Whether you’re a seasoned hand or just getting started, here’s a quick guide on how to get a jump-start on the growing season.
When the winter winds are blowing, the idea of puttering around in the garden seems eons away. And yet, these frigid months are the perfect time to get started on the coming year’s harvest. Steps taken now to plant, nurture and prepare those vegetables can have a big payoff throughout the growing season. Here are a few ways to maximize your winter months for a bountiful harvest.
Plan Your Plot
The cold winter has us staring wistfully out the window anyway, so why not take those moments to plot out your garden?
First-time gardeners need to think about where they’re going to dig in. Michael Fedoran is the greenhouse manager at Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery & Garden Center, a mainstay in Crystal Lake for over 60 years. He recommends picking a place where the vegetables will get lots of sun.
“You’re going to want to pick an area that gets at least 6-plus hours of sun,” says Fedoran. “Almost all vegetables will thrive in that kind of location.”
Carol Sevrey is an avid gardener and retired biology teacher who spends her summers working at Whispering Hills Garden & Landscape Center, in Cary. She advises budding gardeners to think about their rows and where they’re going to plant each crop. Some plants co-exist well together, while others don’t.
For example, potatoes and tomatoes are both members of the nightshade family, and they require the same kinds of nutrients. If planted too closely, they will compete with each other.
Sunshine is also an important consideration, because some plants need more heat and sun than others.
“Lettuce, spinach, broccoli and cauliflower are cool-weather crops,” says Sevrey. “I put my cooler crops on the shadier end of the garden.”
If you don’t have a patch of ground that can be dug and tilled, don’t despair. Above-ground beds and planting boxes are a suitable alternative. You can even use containers on your deck, porch or patio.
“You can do almost any type of vegetable in a container,” says Fedoran. “Some of the bigger squashes take up quite a bit of space, but if you have the space, there’s nothing wrong with using pots.”
Early season gardeners can easily stock up on seeds at the local garden center, and Countryside has a wide selection in the late winter. Plus, these cooler months are slower at the nursery, so it’s a good time to solicit advice and insights from the nursery’s staff of professional gardeners and landscape designers.
Compost is Your Friend
Plants need nutrients to thrive, and most of the nutrients they need come from the soil. Late fall and early winter are a perfect time to get your soil nutrient-rich and ready for planting.
“In my yard, I mow over my leaves and put those on top of my garden” says Sevrey. “The more you chop it up, the faster it’s going to decompose and get into your soil.”
If you missed the window where there’s no snow on the ground, don’t fret. Compost can even be added to the layer of snow on top of your garden, and it’ll still seep through during the late winter and early spring thaw.
When making your own compost, the formula to remember is browns (dead leaves or plants), greens (grass clippings or fruit and vegetable scraps) and water. The brown materials give your compost carbon, while the green materials provide nitrogen. The water adds much-needed moisture to help break everything down. Making your own compost is not an exact science, but it is a science, nonetheless.
“You need a place in the sun,” says Sevrey. “Compost needs sun. Layer your brown things and green things, then turn it regularly.”
When it comes to storing and making your compost, pay attention to air flow and moisture, as well. Cut the bottom out of a large plastic bin or barrel for an easy way to get started. Just make sure to drill some holes in the lid as well, so air can get in and move around. You can also store your compost in a pile and fence it in, but make sure you keep it in a dry area. Excess rain or moisture can sour the compost or cause valuable nutrients to wash away.
If making your own compost isn’t your thing, there are plenty of store-bought options that will do the trick.
“We sell mushroom composts, leaf composts, peat moss – any of those organic elements will help with soil texture,” says Fedoran. “You want to get that nice, dark, loamy soil that’s easy for roots to go through.”
Planting your garden doesn’t have to occur in spring, or even begin in the garden. Most vegetables will benefit from a head start, so why not start planting them in the warmth and comfort of your home?
“In February, you could sprinkle lettuce seeds in some sort of tray. It doesn’t even need direct sunlight,” says Sevrey. “You can do that with other cold-weather crops like broccolis and cauliflowers.”
The trays you use don’t have to be sophisticated. Most seedling starter kits come with a plastic tray or lid that can be used for sprouting. Flats from last year’s flowers work, too. Your trays need holes for draining, so make sure you drill some, if there aren’t any.
Fedoran prefers to wait until spring before planting his cold-weather crops, but he recommends getting started on tropical plants like peppers, tomatoes or squashes early. Try not to get too excited, though.
“You really don’t want a huge plant to transplant outside, once we get to warmer weather,” he advises. “The idea is to get a little bit of a head start. If you have a 2-foot or 3-foot plant by the time you put it outside, it’s going to be floppy. You don’t want that. You want a nice, sturdy plant.”
While cold-weather plants don’t require direct sunlight, tropical plants do. Fedoran suggests putting your indoor seedlings in a place that’ll get as much direct sunlight as possible. You can also use a grow light or even a fluorescent tube light to get things going. Stick with a light potting mix or seed-starting mix, so your sprouts can really thrive.
“It gives you a little more satisfaction to be able to say, ‘I grew this myself,’” says Fedoran. “You know they’re organic because you started them.”
Another advantage to starting your seeds early is that you get to sample the goods. Most lettuces and spinaches will regrow their leaves after they’ve been picked. Nothing makes a sandwich tastier than fresh greens you grew on your own.
“You can pick off the larger outside leaves and the inside will keep on growing,” says Sevrey. “Just stick to the outside leaves.”
Watch Your Water
One area where new gardeners tend to falter is watering. It’s tough to know whether you’re under-watering or over-watering your plants. It can be tricky, but Sevrey has a couple of tips to help.
“Plants don’t really like having their feet wet,” she says. “My rule of water is, if the soil is dry, give it a bit of water, but don’t soak it.”
A big reason to avoid over-watering is that it can affect the hardiness of the plant.
“If you let the plants dry out, it encourages the roots to grow down,” says Sevrey. “If you consistently water the plant, the roots grow horizontally, which makes them susceptible if there’s a drought. What I do is soak them, then let them dry out.”
Another tip is to place your thirstier plants, like beans, beets, carrots and cucumbers, in the part of the garden that’s closest to your hose spigot. That way, you don’t have to stretch your hose too far when watering.
Chill Out When the Weather Warms
As the winter winds down and the snow melts away, it may be tempting get a jump on your gardening. Taking advantage of early warm weather may seem like a good idea, but don’t let Mother Nature fool you. Balmier months like March, April and early May might still have a few frosty days up their sleeves, and you don’t want all of that winter work to go to waste.
“May 20 is a good time to start planting,” says Fedoran. “Some people say Mother’s Day, but it’s been snowy and cold for the past couple of Mother’s Days that I’ve worked.”
Sevrey agrees that, for most plants, it’s best to make sure the weather is going to stay warm before putting your plants in the ground.
“Tomatoes, green peppers and squash are more hot-season vegetables,” she says. “I always try to push the boundaries a little bit.”
When it comes to knowing when to plant, one of the best guides is up in the sky.
“A great thing to do is to go by the phases of the moon,” suggests Fedoran. “Usually, the coldest period is around the full moon, so if you go by the full moon in May, the best time to plant would be after that.
Using the moon is also helpful when planting tubers. The idea that you should only plant potatoes after Good Friday may seem like an old wives’ tale, but Fedoran points out that there’s something to it.
“Easter is always first Sunday after the first full moon of the equinox,” he says. “The waxing part of the moon phase is when you plant your root crops.”
Get Things Started
Whether you’re a longtime gardener or just starting to test your green thumb, winter is the perfect time to start planning.
And, if there’s any doubt, there’s plenty of help available at the local plant nursery, where designers and professional gardeners can equip you with the right tools and knowledge to succeed this summer.
“You just have to try stuff,” says Sevrey. “If you try different kinds of seeds and vegetables and it doesn’t work out, you can try again next year with something new.”