Growth in gardening: Garden Dreaming in January

Seed catalogs offer a slew of hybrid and cultivars for all climates and vegetable varieties. PHOTOS COURTESY OF JOE URBACH

Anyone who thinks that gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is really missing the best part of the whole year; for gardening begins in January with the dream!

As far as I am concerned, January was made for garden planning. The weather outside may be frightful, but gardening begins in January with a dream. I heard someone say that once, I don’t remember who or where, but they sure were right.

Do you want beautiful flowers in spring? A Fresh salad in summer? Juicy fruit in fall? Bringing your dream to life starts with little bit of January garden planning.

I have mentioned before that I am fortunate in that I get to travel around talking to people about gardening – one of my favorite topics! Just this past week I found myself stuck in the snowedin airport and struck up a conversation with a fellow stranded traveler. Before long I learned that he too was a gardener and it wasn’t too long before he asked a question that I frequently hear around this time of year.

“I’m getting tons of seed catalogs in the mail,” he said, “I just wish someone could tell the best way to go about planning a vegetable garden for the summer?”

Dreaming over a slew of seed catalogs is the way many of us winter-frustrated gardeners, make it through the cold months. The great thing about mail-ordering seeds is that by the time you get them, you’ve usually forgotten what you’ve asked for – it’s like Christmas all over again! On the downside, however, it’s all too easy to overreach and order absolutely everything that catches your fancy.

Starting from seeds is the most economical option, however, starting from seed requires an investment of time and supplies.

Some people get carried away by the photographs, but I’m a sucker for the cultivar names. Take the flat-podded beans sold by Johnny’s Selected Seeds called ‘Dragon’s Tongue’. That name alone is hard to resist, but what about Northeaster or Marvel of Venice? Having a garden plan at the ready keeps ambition (over-ambition?) in check and financial damage to a minimum. Full disclosure: I’m going with Northeaster, which promises to be early maturing and “extra vigorous in the seedling stage with strong vine growth.” Oh, OK, and Dragon’s Tongue too – “tender and sweet and good in salads or cooked.”

Whether you have a dedicated kitchen garden, a raised bed or two, or a deck or patio you can fill with containers, you can grow a range of vegetables and other edibles for the table. Most so called fruiting vegetables, such as tomatoes, chile peppers, melons and squash – need about eight hours of direct sun a day for best results. Leafy greens and root crops can flourish with a little less. If you’re sizing up potential growing spots this winter, keep in mind that trees that are deciduous

(i.e., leafless now and easy to see right through) will cast shadows as the growing season lengthens. Maximize garden space by sowing seeds in succession. Some in week one than some later on. This way you spread your harvest and the enjoyment that comes from it.

The kale I planted very late last summer is a bit worse for wear this week, after all, we had that snow and some below-freezing temps here in the San Marcos area lately. But still, it is really doing great! Not only is it persevering, but it’s sweeter and more delicious than ever. Thanks for the freeze Mother Nature!

Planning a garden isn’t difficult, all you need are a piece of graph paper – each square of the grid representing one square foot – and a pencil, but there are also numerous helpful – and fun – computer planners that allow you to experiment with garden bed designs and plant placement. Among them are the Maine-based Kitchen Gardeners International Garden Planner, the Vegetable Garden Planner from Mother Earth News – which also has smartphone and tablet apps for garden planning, when to plant what, and how to choose which of its 333 tomato varieties are right for you– and Garden Plan Pro, from Growing Interactive. They all include a variety of other features, such as finding the average first and last frost dates for your area which is a key consideration for every gardener. Each of these sources is very easy to find with a simple Google search.

No matter what form your garden plan takes, do as the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Gardening Guide recommends and “add notes as your garden progresses. A full and accurate garden record is as essential a tool as a spade or trowel.” Take the time to research the vegetables you’re interested in and you and/or your family enjoys eating, and think about how you’d like to use your crops. Is your aim to simply enjoy fresh tomatoes on the table during the summer, for instance, or do you also want enough bounty to can or make into a winter’s worth of pasta sauce?

You also might want to think about shoehorning a few flowers into corners here and there. Nasturtiums, for example, are beautiful and edible in salads, and many old-fashioned ornamental varieties attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to the garden. I simply cannot stress the importance of this.

“But should I start from seeds or go out and buy seedlings?” you may ask. My first answer is Yes. Either is fine, I am just thrilled that you are planning a garden! If we could get more people growing their own fruits and vegetables we could improve our nation’s overall health rate immeasurably.

But back to the subject of seeds or seedlings (aka transplants). In Central Texas, gardening is unlike gardening in most other parts of the country. We have mild spring and fall conditions – compared to most – we get a nearly yearlong growing season, but we have long summer stretches of hot, dry weather. Seeds or transplants, either way we need to give them some heat relief in the summer!

So here is what I think…

First off, the most economical option is starting from seed. Seed catalogs offer a dizzying array of options. However, starting from seed requires an investment of time and supplies, and you’ll need to get started soon. I’d like to add to this that you also need a dedicated space indoors, one with plenty of sun or a fluorescent light fixture. Or better yet – a greenhouse!

So, purchasing seedlings from a nursery is an easier option. You’ll be able to pick and choose healthy plants and then put them in the ground soon after. But buying plants is more expensive, and you’ll have fewer options than if you started your own seeds. Also, you can procrastinate longer before deciding on what to grow.

Friend, winter can be a frustrating time for gardeners. Thinking about that warm soil in your hands and the fresh smell of organic materials can really make you yearn for planting season. Instead of wishing and hoping the snow (can you believe we actually had snow) and cold away, why not start planning next spring’s garden right now? Start now from seeds, or wait until spring has fully sprung and purchase transplants from a local nursery. Either option is awesome. Just plant a garden and watch yourself grow!

-- Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

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