Happy New Year and welcome to real winter! At this time of year, there seems to be nothing you can really do in your kitchen garden. Snow dusts the ground; your raised beds are iced over and ice fishermen go with their skates towards their favorite lakes. This happens to be one of my favorite times for gardening of the year, planning. Grabs a sheet of graph paper and draws my space and dreams of spring. Pouring over catalogs, both by hand and online, and designing what comes next.
This fall, I set up my raised beds and added some winter-killing oats and radishes to grow in the late fall and then die back in those cold days to prepare my plant area. Many people prepare their raised beds and certainly their gardens in the spring, turning soil, adding compost or wormhole and soil. But in the relative silence of the deep winter, it’s a good time to plan what’s going on in these raised beds or gardens.
One method that works for many is to divide your area, in raised beds or directly to the ground, into 12-inch by 12-inch squares. Square Foot Gardening has many online sites that help you know how many of each plant can grow in a square foot. It makes planning easier and more controllable.
One thing to keep in mind is that if you are new to kitchen gardening, it is best to start small and then expand slowly over several years. The amount of watering, care, weed control can be overwhelming if you are planning a large area your first year. This point is repeated in this Purdue.edu link. https://www.purdue.edu/hla/sites/yardandgarden/advice-for-first-time-gardeners-start-small/.
In Square Foot Gardening, there are charts to help you plan. A cauliflower or tomato, for example, can grow in a square foot, but 16 carrots can grow in the same place. This method is quite fine for weed control and organization, which works well for smaller gardeners or beginners who want guidance.
In raised beds, you want to avoid bigger things like corn or butternut squash. This gardening method works best for smaller vegetables and herbs.
With larger and scattered vegetables, row planting in larger areas will work better for your larger plants. A good resource for planning how many plants can go into a square foot is at this link: https://squarefootgardening.org/2019/03/planting-chart-cheat-sheets/
Another thing to consider when planning is the direction of the sun and how many hours of sun you will receive in your garden. South facing is generally optimal and in open areas that are not blocked by trees or other obstacles. Also think about the height of the plants you put in your bed. On the north side of my south-facing raised beds, then at the back, I put the tallest of the plants, tomatoes, beans, eggplant, so that their trellis does not shade the plants in front.
Other plants, such as broccoli, can be grown in front of lettuce, and this will extend the growing season for lettuce and shade it when the temperature rises in early summer. Here is one of many links for accompanying planting. https://gilmour.com/companion-planting-chart-guide.
One thing that brings me joy in February is buying a few seeds to start under a growing light or near a sunny south-facing window. Now my plate with seed-start is extremely mixed. I know I often do better at buying a 3-inch tall tomato plant than I do at growing my own, but there is nothing like watching small seedlings sprout – even though I know there is at least one larger chance than even that the seedling will never make it. I am too impatient and often plant too early. Around here, the last frost is first considered to be after Mother’s day, and even then we have been known to have a cold snap. (last year I think!)
But having said that, it’s a wonder to know that the tomato you ate in August is the seed you planted in February. So hope springs forever and I always sew seeds in seed pots around February 15th. I usually use the little peat hockey puck you can buy in most garden areas. Once the peat is soaked with water, it expands and a seed is placed in the center.
This year I will try to use cardboard / paper egg cartons with a little very light soil. Small soils are mostly not soils, but a growth medium of about 1/3 soil, 1/3 sand, perlite or vermiculite and 1/3 peat moss. Another soil suggestion is to use ½ soil and ½ coffee grounds, which sounds like it would work and would help add nitrogen and phosphorus.
The egg cartons are cut into individual sections before planting to make it easier to plant in your garden when the time comes. The ‘cups’ of the egg carton can be placed in a low pot or plate where you can water from scratch. Always keep around a 1 / 8th inch of water in the plate. The egg carton cups are completely biodegradable and are planted directly in the ground when your plants go outside.
The roots of the vegetables will often grow right through the egg carton if your plant starts pushing roots out before it is time to plant. It can be temporarily transplanted into a larger pot for a while until it is time to put them outside.
Finally, what should I plant?
The most important thing is to plant vegetables that you enjoy that you would use. Two or three tomatoes will be ample for two people. For abundance, of course, you can share, but you will need to start preserving or even making a vegetable stand if you are planting six tomatoes. Two cucumber plants per person will be plentiful, and if you want to grow more, you can always make pickles.
Another idea is to find out if any of your neighboring gardeners are planning an abundance of certain vegetables and coordinate space for who grows which vegetable.
Then take that graph paper, pull up your favorite chair and start dreaming!
Cecilie Keenan is a Purdue Master Gardener in Noble County and the author of The Noble Gardener. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for information on gardening.