Garden Planning – What to do Before it’s Time to Plant

Garden Planning - What to do Before it's Time to Plant

Garden planning is what gardeners do when it’s still too cold or snowy to actually get out into the garden.

By Wendy Priesnitz

Are you itching to get back out into the garden but it is still too cold, and maybe there is snow on the ground? Well, here are some garden planning activities that will get you and your garden ready for planting time.

Growing useful plants that are suited to your bioregion is an important and enjoyable part of living sustainably. You can expand your knowledge of what works best in your garden through talking with other gardeners at garden clubs or seed saving events, and by reading. But the best teacher is experience…so plan to grow a few new (to you) varieties this year.

Study Your Area

To decide what to plant, study your area’s natural plant species and communities. You might want to plan to collect seeds from your local wild species next fall, which is easy to do without disturbing the wild populations, especially if you remember to spread some of your seeds elsewhere in order to expand their growing areas. Many plants can also be propagated by means of tubers, bulbs, root cuttings, etc. so seed production is not always a requirement for choosing plants that will grow in your area.

However, by saving seeds, you can maintain genetic diversity and select for combinations that are adapted to your local climate, soil conditions and pests.

Learn Plant Talk

To effectively communicate with and learn from other experienced gardeners, you might want to use the long winter days to learn botanical vocabulary and Latin plant names. Most botany texts and plant identification keys contain glossaries defining important botanical words. About 100 different terms are commonly used in plant keys. The use of Latin plant names (binomial nomenclature) is critical to positive plant identification, since most cultivated and many wild plants have several common or regional names. Plus, Latin binomials (especially species names) often give clues to plant characteristics or adaptability. For instance, the Latin name may indicate blooming time (vernalis means spring), size and shape (gracilis means slender and grandi means large), habitats (agrarius means of fields), plant parts, color, and other characteristics.

Decide What to Change

Now is the time to look back and see what to change to improve your garden or to make it easier to maintain. Garden writer Rachel McLeod, who authored Natural Life Magazine’s herb column from the mid-1970s through to the mid-90s, says that groundcovers are the secret of successful low maintenance gardens. “They will prevent weeds, preserve moisture in the soil and once established will remain neat and tidy with the minimum of care.” Many herbs make excellent ground covers and can be used anywhere in the garden. There is a suitable herb for almost any location. For instance, one alternative to grass in a full-sun location is a thyme lawn, which can include a mixture of very low creeping thymes, both white and purple and some slightly taller patches of mother of thyme for contrast.

This sort of “lawn” will bloom from spring through fall but it takes a while to establish. Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) is another good ground cover, which will form a thick, weed resistant glossy carpet in a year in a partly shady, slightly damp situation. If you have a large area to cover, McLeod suggests low growing mints, which make wonderfully scented ground covers.

Start Planting

If you have waited until mid-winter to browse the seed catalogs, you are already a bit behind, especially if you like leeks. Several vegetables should be planted from seed in mid-winter (January in the northern hemisphere, where I garden), with leeks followed by the cole plants and tomatoes in February. Perennials, most of which are slow to germinate, will also benefit by a January start.

Any container will do, as long as it is at least five cm (two inches) deep with adequate drainage holes. Fill it with potting soil and firm it down. Plant seeds about 2-1/2 cm (one inch) apart in all directions, to a depth roughly equaling the thickness of the seeds. Place your containers in good light, turning once a week. To avoid fungal disease, water by placing the containers in a shallow (no more than half the soil level) water bath. If the plants become too big for your starting flat before it is time to set them outside, cut blocks of dirt, each with one plant in the center, so that each can be lifted out with a maximum quantity of soil at its roots. Replant immediately, if possible, in individual pots.

Prepare Your Tools

In a perfect world, your garden planning would have begun last fall! That’s when you would have prepared your garden tools. You would have collected them, cleaned them, and coated their wooden handles with boiled linseed or even vegetable oil. If you didn’t, it’s not too late. You can use the winter months to rejuvenate those shovels, spade, trowels, and hoes that you abused last summer.

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Dirt residue encourages rust, so clean off all the dirt, preferably by using them in a pile of gravel, but otherwise with a wire brush. Using water just invites rust. If your tools are rusty, remove the rust with a wire brush. Then sharpen up their edges with a few strokes of a hand file at about a 35-degree angle. Depending on where you store your tools, you might want to rub a thin coat of mineral or baby oil on the metal parts too. Repair and sand splintered wooden handles before you coat them with oil. If you tend to mislay your tools, consider painting the handles a bright color instead. Don’t forget your pruning clippers and shears; remove the rust and sharpen the blades. Then put them all away somewhere dry, preferably hanging up off the ground to protect them from rust damage, and they’ll be ready to use as soon as the ground thaws.

Seed flats are not exactly tools, but don’t forget to prepare them as part of your garden planning routine. Wash them in hot soapy water, dry well and store in a handy spot. This is a good time to replenish your supply or search out other containers that could be used for planting. Also think about plant labels, and perhaps get younger family members working on them as a mid-winter creative project.

Make a Plan

On some graph paper or in your garden journal, plot out last year’s gardens, as well as where you plan to expand this year. Plan what will go where, based on available sun, the area’s use, etc. And make a list of everything you will need and when. Now sit back with cup of tea and dream. It is said that the best garden
you’ll ever have is next year’s garden, because it exists solely in your mind right now, and therefore has no limits.

Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Natural Life Magazine and the author of 13 books and hundreds of magazine articles. She claims to do more garden planning than actual gardening.

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