On Planning Your Garden (in January)

My husband and I will be embarking on our fifth organic garden journey this spring, and this year, we’re planning ahead. Every year, we learn a little more about growing our own food, and while my husband specializes in the soil preparation in early spring, I specialize in dreaming about what we will plant and finding organic seeds from cool places.

Before it was even Christmas, my husband and I were talking about what new things we were going to try in the garden this year, how he was going to expand our garden area again, and how many rows of our tried and true favorites we would be planting.

And the truth is, while it seems early to be planning our garden for the summer while our driveway here in Maine is a giant sheet of ice, now really is the time to make your plans and order your seeds.

As you’re making your plans this month and dreaming of fresh strawberries and ripe tomatoes, here are a few things to keep in mind based on lessons our family has learned from our own organic gardening adventures.

harvest

I took this picture during one of our first fall harvests. I had never had a garden and tasted food fresh from the earth before. I was hooked!

Grow Foods You and Your Family Eat

There’s nothing worse than working for months, cooking something up, and having your kids say “I don’t like that.” That has never happened too much for our family, but it is an issue I’ve heard others talk about. Thankfully, our boys seem to be big fans of the garden harvest, but I have made a few mistakes in terms of the kinds of foods I actually know how to cook.

After a few years of trial and error, we realized that our family really eats things like onions, green beans, dried beans, carrots, and potatoes, so these foods get more space in the garden. If we try something new, we usually limit it to a half row to give it a trial run before we take away precious space from one of our staples.

Remember Some Fruits and Vegetables Need Two Years to Harvest

There are some foods that are going to require some delayed gratification, and this is never easy for me. I’ve been wanting to plant asparagus for years, but I can’t seem to get excited about it because, if you want it to last for years, you have to leave it alone the first year. I’m determined to show some discipline this year and plant that asparagus, but you should be aware that there are some things you have to wait until the following year to harvest if you want them to do well.

Strawberries and blueberries should be left alone the first year as well. And, of course, fruit trees will take some time, depending upon the kind of tree you buy.

Consider Harvest Timing

The seeds you buy will come with instructions for harvest timing or you can research the days to harvest online. You should also keep in mind when the food will become ripe and ready to harvest. Is that during your family vacation or when you have to work extra hours at work? The first few years we grew our garden, we had to work so many hours during the fall harvest that some of our harvest spoiled, and our hearts broke.

Make Your Plan

Once you have considered what your family wants and needs and can handle, you should make your plan. And, since you need a good plan before you buy your seeds, it’s good to sit down and make a plan for exactly what you will plant, how many rows you will plant, and when those seeds need to be in the ground or started inside.

You should also think about if you want to start with seeds or purchase starter plants from a local nursery in spring or summer. We’ve found that things like green beans, carrots, and dried beans grow easily from seeds. But we’ve frequently purchased starter plants for things like tomatoes and broccoli. This year, I’m determined to do some starters inside for those foods, but we’ll see how it goes. I tried last year and still ended up buying starter plants. Our cat kept eating my starters!

Purchase Your Seeds

Once you have your plan, gets your seeds early. You wouldn’t think so, but if you wait until too late, it can be difficult to find some seeds that are really popular. This happened to us last year with our favorite dried beans, so we saved some seeds for this year. But, if you’re just getting started, this can be an issue. I recommend checking with local nurseries and coops to make sure you are getting access to foods that grow well in your area.

This year, I’m planning to write a series of posts about the steps our family is taking to plan, plant, grow, and harvest our garden. I hope you’ll follow me on our journey and share your stories as well.

On Seed Saving

seeds

If you remember way back to the beginning of the summer, I was doing some major planting in our garden. Because my husband was building a giant fence for our chicky girls, a lot of the planting fell to me and my teenage son, who is not nearly so outdoorsy as the rest of the family. And, after reflecting on my abilities as a gardener, I was pretty worried about this year’s crop. Mainly, my husband had been responsible for all of our vegetable garden successes.

It was up to me, and I was worried. I promised a report later in the summer, and somehow, it’s nearly fall before I am writing about our garden again. I feel like things have mostly been a success, but there were trials—and, boy, were they some trials.

Carrots are very, very, very difficult to plant. The seeds are tiny, tedious nightmares. Add that to the tiny, tedious nightmares biting you to death (black flies) while you plant in May in Maine, and I feel like planting carrots is almost maddening, like a test of wills.

Me versus nature.

This year, I didn’t let nature defeat me. I planted that darn garden despite the black-fly torture, and I think I was most proud when the carrot seeds were in the ground.

No, I was most proud when the carrot seeds sprouted. Every single seed seemed to have come up, and I was excited.

All was well. Or so it seemed.

Two days later, I went back out to the garden to check the progress of the carrots, and they were gone. Every single one of them. I was in shock. I stared at the ground for the longest time, not sure what to think, wondering if I was losing my mind. It was a tough day.

Our neighbor, who is a master gardener, didn’t know for sure what happened. She hypothesized and my research revealed that it could have been a rabbit, but it also could have been cut worms. All I know is that it was definitely a tragedy and a blow to my gardening ego.

But I would not be defeated, so I replanted. I suffered those tiny seeds and those tiny black flies one more time–and then just hoped and prayed.

Thankfully, the second round took, at least mostly, though we still had some seeds not come up. But we had enough, and, thankfully, we now have carrots to eat this fall.

carrot
This may look like an ugly carrot to some, but it is so beautiful to me. I only pulled one for a picture and a snack. We try to leave ours in the ground until after the first frost. It makes the carrots sweeter!

Overall, the garden has been a success—mainly thanks to my husband again. I may have planted and pulled some weeds, but that man is like my gardening hero with the watering, the hoeing, and the bug picking. Thanks to his work, we now have a garden ready to harvest, and I have begun a seed-saving routine that I hope will help us in years to come.

Each spring, we spend quite a bit of money buying seeds, and my newly-found frugality (as well as my inner doomsday prepper) has brought me fully into the seed-saving business this year.

If you’re interested in saving seeds, I think the key is to first focus on seeds that are easy to save and grow. For us, that means starting with the beans, tomatoes, and, yes–carrots.

Here are some helpful tips on seed saving on a few of the basics I think most people will find in their gardens (just be sure to start with non-hybrid seeds):

1. Green beans. In order to save green bean seeds for next year, just leave several bushes of beans to grow big at the end of the season. When the beans are big and lumpy and start to yellow, they are easiest to save. Just shell them and put them in a cool dry place to dry. I have saved green bean seeds for two years, and they work well.

green bean
If you let your green beans get old and yellow on the bush, you are set for seed saving. Here, you can see the pod is yellow, and the bean seed is ready!

2. Dry beans. Dry beans are the easiest because you are going to get them into shape for saving and storing anyway. We raise French horticulture beans, which are wonderful, and we tried pinto beans this year as well. The beans will get big and fat, and the pods will turn yellow and red. The key is that they need a chance to dry out. We have found that if we have a wet September, it will ruin the beans and cause them to mold. It’s best to pull the beans, bushes and all, and leave them in a place to dry. Just make sure you give them enough space. Mold is always the enemy here. Once the pods start to feel a little bit dry, you can shell the beans and then just spread them out to continue drying. Don’t put them away until the beans are completely dried. Then, in the winter, just make sure you save out enough for growing next spring. We have seed saved our French horticulture beans for three years, and they always come right up. Dried beans are the easiest, I think.

 
3. Carrots. Carrots are trickier. You can’t get seeds from your carrots the first year. You have to wait until the second year for them to go to seed. Leave a few carrots in the ground this year and then wait. You will want to cover the plants you keep with mulch to keep them warm enough. Next year, when the plants start to seed, let the seeds start to get brown and dry. It kind of looks like a little nest. Then, take the seeds and place them in a brown paper bag to continue to dry. Be careful with containers that trap moisture. Again, mold is the enemy. Once your seeds are totally dry, shake them in a bag to release the seed from the plant. Save them in cool dry place.

 
4. Tomatoes. We have been seed saving tomatoes before we even tried to. One year, I noticed that places where tomatoes had fallen to the ground and been left all year were growing tomato plants. It’s kind of amazing. But, of course, to do a better job and have great consistency, all you have to do is choose some tomatoes that are big and strong and squish them up. Add water and the squished tomatoes to a glass jar. The water helps the seeds separate. Then, place the jar in a warm spot for a few days. You should see a layer of moldy stuff start to form on the top of the mixture. Once you see the mold at the top and seeds at the bottom, you can remove the icky mold and run your mixture through a strainer to keep your seeds. Be sure to clean your seeds well and let them dry on a paper plate or something the seeds won’t stick to. You don’t want to use paper towels or paper, as the seeds may stick. Then, just store your seeds in a cool dry place like other seeds.

These are just a few of the basics I know, but it feels like a good place to start. As I learn more about seed saving, I’ll definitely share and let you know how it goes. And, if you know how to save some seeds, please share your tips here. It would be great to get a conversation going!

seeds
My little boy loves to play in the seeds. Here, he’s holding two variety of green bean seeds. I kind of like to play in the seeds, too.

It may seem like a pain to save seeds, but it feels really good to me. I like that self-sufficient feeling, and it really does save money in the spring. Plus, if there’s a zombie apocalypse, all you have to do is figure out how to keep the zombies from crashing your garden, and you’re all set!