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Bags of dried fruits and a universe of jars of wonderful treats. Winter salad greens and fresh cut herbs could grace your plate. Your onions and potatoes seasoned with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, and more – if you’d only planned (or maybe you did!) Like they say, it was best to have planted a fruit tree 7 years ago. So, let’s get started on garden planning!
Well, what do you want to grow?
Focusing around economics, kitchen recipes, and personal/family/friend preferences will help shape that list. What do you spend most on in your monthly food budget that you could instead begin to grow? Think of the produce items that never look great or are devoid of flavor at the grocery store, especially in the winter. What does your family enjoy eating? That vegetable or fruit your friends really adore when they come over for a shared meal. The ones that the kids get excited about. Or, maybe that they should get excited about. What will make the neighbors squeal with joy when you share your abundant harvests? Hmm… Create a list to grow based on those considerations.
Part of the garden planning process is remembering what worked and what didn’t turn out as well as we hoped. Sometimes we get lucky and even get to figure out why things turned out as they did. When planning, whether you have a small backyard, patio garden, or even a full-on farm, it’s good to take an inventory of what we have and where we want to go. What’s growing well? What’s been struggling all along? “Right plant, right place.” Sometimes the plants we had high hopes for our growing conditions for whatever reason limp along while other times it’s nothing but uncontrollable gangbusters from the start!
Planting varieties proven for your growing area is essential especially if we don’t have a large area to experiment with. It’s good to strike a balance between honing on the tried-and-true, what provably works, but going out and trying that wild-hair experimental idea. Strike a balance, that way you won’t get in trouble with your spouse for being too “out there”. Thankfully, OGW’s got you covered with the right plants no matter where you live!
Creating a map of your site and how everything relates to each other is important for best long term success. Gaia’s Garden by the late Toby Hemenway remains one of the most important works toward understanding the basic workings of an integrated garden design. Worth checking out and digesting its contents.
First off, we’re going to be interacting with the space, right? So, that means thinking about how people including yourself will use that space. How can they move around efficiently. Plan around what tasks currently happen there, what tasks you will want to happen there in the future, and how people need to move around in that space to complete the tasks. Design your garden so that it is both easy and safe to move around that space quickly and with ease but also so that physical movement time is minimizing by grouping tasks around the function they perform. This will look different to each person and that’s perfectly fine.
What are the permanent features of this area? The buildings on the property, the water features like ponds and downspouts, the paths and how they fit into the lay of the land, the trees, shrubs. What about the surrounding neighborhood and greater area. Then think about how the annuals fit into that scheme.
Think of your garden in terms of time. Creating a four-season plan for your garden that includes season highlights, planting schedules (both short-term growing year goals but also long-term), rotations, and processing storage time estimations can really help ensure you make the most of your growing season and also that you have the time to “put away” as much of your produce as possible. We all know the person that grows a ton of tomatoes but never finds the time to can! Maybe this means getting together with your neighbors to help share and preserve the harvest. This is obviously a huge subject, just broad-brushing over some greater concepts that we’ll touch more on later another time.
Part of successful winter gardening is often starting with planning the year before. Many of the garden vegetables we love like Brussels Sprouts (Mar), Garlic (Sep-Nov, or Jan), winter hardy salad greens (July) require planning ahead usually at the height of Spring or Summer. Not a time our intuition screams WINTER! and yet, the seasoned gardener knows how to plan in advance during that time. To the maxim “right plant, right place”, add “right time”. Of course, the entire practice of gardening or farming revolves around starting and finishing tasks with the correct seasonal timing.
You’re in luck because there are many different books, guidelines for your bioregion, and blogs that have been published for pretty much any region of the US or Canada. For us in Cascadia (Vancouver Island to Northern California), Seattle Tilth’s Maritime Northwest Garden Guide Second Edition continues to be a great for not just winter, but throughout the seasons as well. Strangely despite its popularity, it’s been out of print for the last year, but it’s still easy to find and pick up a copy online. Two other excellent books on this general subject continue to be Binda Colebrook’s Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest despite the planting dates being a bit off and a number of the Elliot Coleman books like The Winter Harvest Handbook and Four-Season Harvest. Here is our recommended books to plan your own food forests and gardens – OGW BOOKS
When planning for winter gardening, we need to pay attention to not only how we are going to help our plants cope with the typical lows and winter conditions like snow or ice, but also provide some planning for how to do with the occasional extreme winter weather. Getting to know your areas first and last average frost dates can help with planning ahead. It’s a bit technical, but NOAA publishes this information. Just select your state on the website to get your list.
Speaking of temperatures, remember that soil life is basically dormant below 45 F. Which means if the compost doesn’t have core heat, no composting will happen. It means that the nitrogen fixing soil organisms are dormant and not ready to feed your plants. Which is part of the reason many plants stay dormant during the cold months. Which leads us to chatting a little about soil health.
Once the ground begins to thaw, typically in Feb, it is a great time to get a comprehensive soil test. I personally recommend the company Ag-Source – they are geared towards organics, very competitively priced, have great customer service that make the process simple, give excellent recommended fertilizer recommendations. and have offices throughout the US. Often us in the “ground yer own” crowd are driven by a desire to produce food that is not chemically contaminated and flavor rich. A big part of flavor equation is ensuring that our harvest is not only nutrient rich but nutritionally balanced. This is part of insuring that our homegrown isn’t an empty promise – having been chemically contaminated and/or devoid of nutrition. For more information about soil fertility in layman’s terms, see the book The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon. Biology also plays a role of central importance with which Dr Elaine Ingham has extensively written about. The marriage of these two ideas achieves balance.
On the biology side of things, as you are cleaning up your garden and assessing winter damage, remember to recycle those on site nutrients as well! One of best ways to build soil fertility is by feeding it all sorts of vegetation. It has been said many times that composting is both an art and a science. But, by adding those clippings and woody debris to all those vegetable scraps you’ve been dumping on the pile, this will both help keep the compost pile aerated, heated and active, but will also help balance the carbon to nitrogen ratio in the pile which will make the best compost and in turn the best soil. Sometimes I like to compost in place for some things in layers, but for vegetable scraps I like to make layered piles in new locales over time, slowly enriching more and more space. Bio-intensive Approach to Small-scale Household Food Production shows the mineral makeup of different compostable materials. The rest of the guide is pretty cool, too!
By working on that compost, you’ve probably already checked on your tools a bit. But, take the time to clean, sharpen, repair, and replace those trusted tools that allow us to complete our vital work every day. Fix that wobbly wheelbarrow, repair or replace those leaking hoses and water lines, etc. Also, don’t forget about those motors! Periodically starting and briefly running will prevent later work flow problems in the early Spring or Summer when you need them most! Two-cycle engines like weed wackers and chainsaws don’t like their fuel/oil mixture just sitting in them indefinitely. Refer to your equipment’s owner manual for specific information about how to preform maintenance tasks for them.
Are your vegetable seeds still fresh? Check the dates. Try to keep records of when/where/who they came from. Save and learn the stories. Memorize like the keepsakes they are. Even if its scribbling on an envelope. Periodically check over your winter squash, potatoes, bulbs and tubers to keep your produce and planting stock in good order.
Seeds can be started early for transplant using southern facing windowsills and a chamber to keep humidity high. A great place to start those slowest growing seeds for transplanting months later. You can also test the viability of those heirloom tomato seeds that you got at that seed exchange several years ago. Taking out a few and planting them to see if they germinate in warm indoor conditions, will save later wasted time. A good wealth of information for starting seeds inside can be found at Wintersown. Some great local companies to check out are Adaptive Seeds, Green Journey Seeds, Nichol’s, Peace Seedlings, Siskiyou Seeds, Uprising Organics, Wild Garden Seed and many more. OGW also has a great selection of seeds from these amazing NW growers in online and at OGW’s Garden Center in Portland. Don’t forget your local seed exchanges either!
Maybe you want to build some infrastructure? A bigger dedicated space to growing like a full-on with lights indoors grow space or a heated greenhouse. Perhaps building heated propagation beds in simple hoop house is the way to go? It’s also very easy to build germinate beds in a hoop house using a thick layer of finished compost a top fresh manure or hot compost bed. Also, cloches and cold frames can both help us start plants earlier, protected from winters worst, but also extend the growing season into the Winter. Floating row covers help keep winters worst off already established plants. Decisions, decisions.
If you live in a more maritime climate or a milder area, January and February are excellent times to prune many types of fruit trees. While thinking about pruning, it’s good to also think of pollinators like mason bees. Check out our Mason Bee Guide. Check the bases of your trees for signs of girdling from voles or mice. There are various products you can add to the bark of tree bases to prevent damage. Learn the difference between mosses and lichens. Lichens as they fall to the ground over time actually feed the soil and thus the trees nitrogen while mosses, if not gently rubbed one, can actually cause harm to trees over time. Finally, most bareroot and potted plants can be placed into the landscape if the soil is not frozen.
January is also your first window to start planting those early vegetables like cabbage, onions in trays to transplant, peppers and tomatoes (indoors). While in late January/early February it is a great time to direct sow certain flower seeds like poppies that need to settle in and stratify (receive cold wet conditions) for some time before they will germinate. Some vegetables can also be direct sown like peas and fava beans directly into fresh earth.
While it is perfectly fine to prune many fruit and nut trees as well as small fruits, it is best to wait to do summer pruning on peaches, plums, and cherries due to the potential to cause disease issues in cold wet conditions. Grapes should be pruned and trained late Jan/ early Feb. In fact, I’ve laid my eyes on more than one old farming book relating that the best time to prune is actually in late Spring/early Summer but that they’d always learned to prune in the winter because they didn’t have time to do it when it’d actually have been best. Something to think about.
Winter is a great time to do some pest management. The organics-approved Dormant Oil can be used to stop a wide number of pest organisms that are living dormant on or in the wood like certain aphids, mites, and scales. And, don’t forget to set out those crowns and divisions like asparagus, rhubarb, horseradish, onion sets, potatoes, artichokes, dahlias, lilies, gladiolas, and friends.
March is typically the month where many of our plants are awakening and is a great time to make divisions of many clumping or spreading plants like hostas, mint, strawberries, raspberries, bamboo, iris, daylilies, etc. It is also a great time to prune more winter sensitive plants like blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc.
Speaking of friends. I think of plants as friends, some are old friends, some I’ve just met. During the winter, it’s nice to have some plants that call out their presence during the silence of the winter. Some of my favorite winter interest plants include Garrya x issaquahensis which the males have these long white catkins, Jerusalem Sage (Phlomis russeliana) which has interesting persistent flower heads, and the beautifully vivid yellow flowers of Witch Hazel and ‘Winter Charity ’ Mahonia. Winter flowering fragrant plants like some types of Jasmine, Winter Flowering Honeysuckle, Sarcococca, Daphne, ‘Dawn‘ Winter Flowering Viburnum (Viburnum x bodnantense).
Okay! It is time to reach out beyond your garden! Garden planning is more than just being an indoor study. Get to know your neighbors. Find ways to bridge differences and strengthen ways to collaborate. Go to workshops and outings. Gain inspiration from those neighbors. Get to know your county’s extension agent. Join the local garden clubs and fruit societies, many are actually really lively and fun! If you live near Portland, OR come check out Home Orchard Society events and within Western Oregon, the Agrarian Sharing Network propagation fairs. And.. don’t forget to visit OGW and say hello!
~ Chris Homanics – OGW Community Coordinator.