Ever dream about those warm days of late August, picking fresh cherry tomatoes off the vine… meanwhile you are currently looking out the window wearing a large sweater watching a snowstorm?
That was me today, looking out the window and watching the blowing snow. I do love winter though, and I am always in awe at Mother Nature’s changing seasons. From several feet of snow, minus 30 temperatures, and rosy cheeks – to the hot, humid days of midsummer. I am reminded of her beauty and change, which are also the same qualities I like to observe in my own garden.
In thinking of these warm days ahead, I wanted to share how I prepare for the growing season in my own backyard. This preparation begins right now during late winter and into early spring.
I’ve been using a Garden Planner for a few years now, I’ve luckily been keeping track of what I enjoy growing and what grows well for me in my garden. If you are new to gardening or haven’t kept a journal or planner over the years, this year is a great time to start!
I often begin by writing down some of the things we like to eat in our favourite recipes (like herbs and vegetables), and some things we grow just for fun (like giant pumpkins).
Consider the Plants
After I make a list of all the things I would like to grow, I enjoy spending time with seed websites and catalogues. This helps me to take a look at what’s out there right now for different varieties of the things I like to grow.
For example, last year, we had SO much fun growing pumpkins (they are my favourite thing to grow), I decided I wanted to try some different varieties this year like larger white pumpkins, pumpkins that have these funky greenish bumps, multicoloured pumpkins, striped pumpkins, and mini pumpkins. Since we, as a family, get a lot of enjoyment out of watching these grow into the many shapes and sizes they become, we like to dedicate a large part of our garden to these plants. We actually grow them vertically on our fence to save space!
After perusing possible seed sources, I then make a final list of what I would like to grow this year. Usually this includes many things I grew last year, with a couple new things just for a fun challenge (like quinoa, stevia, birdhouse gourds, cantaloupe, and cayenne peppers). I really enjoy experimentation and am happy dedicating some garden space to try new things. My garden is not very big but I’ve built many raised beds around our small yard, with some along our fence for that vertical growing space.
When thinking about seed purchases, I do take a good look at my garden layout and square footage to think about what I could reasonably grow in this space. I also consider some of the “bonus” growing spaces I have such as 10-20 gallon size grow bags (10 gallon for things like herbs, tomatoes, and strawberries, and 20 gallon for things like pumpkins, squash, and watermelon).
I think about the layout of my raised beds too. I have one on the deck, a few along the fence, and one behind the garage with two metal cattle panels bent into an arch-shape for climbing vines. I know that I can trail out my larger plants, like the pumpkins, under and behind the fence. I also plant things a little closer together than the seed packages suggest as I generally have good luck with that.
When I have an idea of what and where I will plant, I then proceed to take inventory of my seed packages. I keep a seed organizer like the one pictured below, which is actually a photo storage box from Michael’s. I’ve labelled all of the cartridges inside the box for different types of seeds. Any seeds from my list that I don’t currently have, I will purchase. I like to buy seeds between January and March because everything seems to be in stock and available at that time. My favourite sources to purchase seeds from are McKenzie Seeds, OSC Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and Northern Wildflowers.
Make a Sketch
Once I’ve made my decisions on what to grow and have purchased my seeds, my next step is to think about the actual locations of plants. I generally know that cool-season plants like shade and warm-season plants like sun so I consider the amount of sunlight I get across my backyard.
Knowing the different areas of my yard, I can sketch out a rough plan for where I would like to plant everything. I start all my warm season crops indoors under grow lights, but most cool season crops can be planted right in the ground as soon as the soil thaws in the spring. Making a sketch like this doesn’t need to be perfect in any way – gardening is not about perfection. It’s really just looking at your space, taking a guess at what you think would fit where, and trying it! If it works, great – try it again next year. If it doesn’t work, you can always change the plan.
Next, I think about what supplies I will need for the upcoming growing season. I know I will need gardening gloves, a working garden hose and spray nozzle, a good quality shovel, and fertilizer such as cattle or sheep manure. I also think about other items that I will need specific to how I’m growing – like tomato cages, twine, pots and potting soil for seed starting, and a large watering can, for example. I go through my garage and storage areas to seek out the items I have, check if they are in working order, and then make a list of anything I might need to replace or borrow, if its something I don’t use often.
Plan Your Dates
Lastly, as part of my late winter prepping for the garden, I begin thinking about planting dates. Here’s another link to that Garden Planner spreadsheet. Feel free to download or copy it for your own use!
Luckily, the seed packages all come with instructions on when to sow seeds indoors or outdoors. I always follow these instructions, often giving myself a week or two extra just in case of plant casualties. If a package says start seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before planting, I typically will start them at 8 weeks. I have grow lights on racks so I have some extra space to do this, but if you usually use a small table for seed starting or a windowsill, then planting a little later than the seed package suggests is totally ok.
On that note, I highly recommend having some kind of artificial light for seed starting – these tiny plants need a LOT of light all day long. I usually have my lights on 12-14 hours per day on an automatic timer for seedlings.
As I typically start seeds indoors a bit earlier in case some of them don’t make it, I have a bit of buffer time to start over again if needed. Working backwards from the last expected frost date (I go by the full moon in June), I then sit down and plot my seed planting dates in my Garden Planner spreadsheet. This gives me a nice guide to follow and I don’t really have to think about it after I plan it all out.
So there you have it! These are all of the things that I do in late winter to prepare for the growing season ahead. I hope this may also be helpful to you, the beginning or seasoned fellow gardener, as you dream of those warm summer days ahead.
Happy garden planning!