Jan 05

Winter is time for planning the coming year’s garden.

Planning for the upcoming gardening season begins in the cold winter months. Seed catalogs arrive in the mail and consideration of how much space is available for planting must be accounted for. A preview of The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a helpful guide for estimating what weather patterns may prevail throughout the coming year. The Farmer’s Almanac is also filled with plenty of other information of celestial significance and homey good advice!

seed packets and Farmer's Almanac

This year, I will dedicate a section of the garden for that delicious perennial, Asparagus. Asparagus can be planted from seed or from crowns (live, 1 year old plants). The crowns will produce a harvest within 2 years, while starting from seeds may take as long as 3 years before a full harvest is available. Asparagus will produce for 15 – 20 years! It is such a delight to eat freshly picked asparagus in the spring. Here are the two varieties I’ve decided on; The Precoce d’ Argentuil is an early producing, European heirloom variety prized for great flavor. I will start these from seed. The other variety, Jersey Knight, is known for disease resistance and high yields. I will start these as crowns. Within two years I will have a steady crop of fresh asparagus every spring. Some further reading about heirloom seeds and why they are so important.

Crops that are standard in my garden most every year are; peas, potatoes, something from the onion family (red or yellow onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, etc.) a variety or two of summer and winter squash, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, beans, basil for pesto and several varieties of lettuce like; Romaine, radicchio, endive. There are two types of endive. Curly endive is what the French call frisee and what many in America call chicory. The other variety is the small compact yellow heads called Belgian endive. The cultivation of Belgian endive requires that the grower cover the plant (usually under a basket) so no sunlight reaches the lettuce. No sunlight = no chlorophyll. No chlorophyll = no green color. This same process is called blanching and is also used to make white asparagus. Both are very popular and considered a delicacy in France, Belgium and Germany.

The enumeration of all these different crops may give the impression that I am preparing to feed a multitude of people. Actually, the trick to harvesting and enjoying several months of fresh produce from the garden plot is to sow successive plantings over several weeks. Here in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Plant Hardiness Zone 5b -6a, gardeners can start crops that tolerate cool weather and cool soil (spuds, onions, some lettuce types, etc.) from the latter part of March thru April. Crops that require warmer soil (beans, tomatoes, peppers, etc.) are planted in May and June. Some crops that are short season and don’t mind the cooler nights of late summer and early autumn (broccoli, lettuce, spinach, etc.) can be planted in July for harvest in September and October.

Two very important aspects of gardening the organic way are crop rotation and the use of green manures/cover crops. Crop rotation requires that the same crop is not grown in the same section of the garden season after season. The reason we do this is to reduce the chance of plant disease and to increase soil fertility. Cover crops prevent soil erosion and add nitrogen (a natural fertilizer) to the soil. When a cover crop is let to grow thick and then tilled into the soil, it adds biomass and plenty of nutrients to the soil. Winter cover crops that perform well for me are winter rye and winter wheat. For summer cover crops I use buckwheat because it attracts butterflies and other beneficial insects. Buckwheat as a cover crop is a wonderful weed suppressor too. However, last year, buckwheat seed nearly tripled in cost and has now become very difficult to find. I may use clover next year if I can not find buckwheat. Diane also planted Russian comfrey last year. She says it is a terrific green manure and mulch. I will be interested to see how it performs.

Here is a link to an outfit that seems poised for prosperity in spite of the impending economic hard times. Resilient Communities posts some terrific info about permaculture, organic gardening and self reliance. They are a great resource for the novice agricultural enthusiasts and the expert alike. I tend to concur with the underlying premise put forth by John Robb at Resilient Communities; We may be able to mitigate the peril of these turbulent times in which we live through preparedness and planning for a more localized and self-sustaining economy. I highly recommend his free website and newsletter.

The best part about the sowing in the early season is the harvesting of fresh vegetables later on! By July, there is not much to do besides picking the bounty of tasty fresh foods. Using mulch helps to cut down on the growth of weeds and reduce water consumption. Compost is made by rotting down the vegetable trimmings, leaves, weeds and other organic matter from the yard. Later, this is added to the soil as a fortifier. In the organic garden there is no need for petrol-chemical fertilizer. Nature provides everything needed to produce a bounty of fresh food. At time of sowing seeds and setting-in transplants an organic fertilizer may be used to boost growth, but nothing else is really needed to grow delicious fresh vegetables in the home garden.



Organic fertilizer is a premium slow release material. There is much less tendency to burn or over fertilize with it. A single fertilization at sowing or transplanting time is usually sufficient. Larger quantities of organic fertilizers are usually needed because of their slow release nature. Considering cost, organic fertilizer costs 3 – 8 times as much as chemicals when purchased all ready compounded, though complete organic fertilizer can be made at home quite inexpensively.

To use a complete organic fertilizer in a cost-effective manner, avoid broadcasting it. Instead, locate the fertilizer where it will do the most good — directly around the plant. When it is wet, organic fertilizer will heat and putrify rapidly unless dispersed in the soil somewhat, so, do not locate in a concentrated manner in one spot. Below transplants, I recommend making a 3.5 inch deep furrow with a hoe, sprinkle complete organic fertilizer in the bottom of the furrow and then cover the fertilizer with soil by pushing back into the furrow the ridge located on one side of it. For seeds, make a furrow and add the fertilizer. Then, cover the soil and plant the seed on top of it and lightly cover with a little more soil. Used in this economical way, fertilizer goes a long way.

Here is a formula for a complete and fairly well balanced organic fertilizer. All quantities are in volume.

4 parts seed meal or fish meal; 1 part agricultural lime or dolomite; 1 part rock phosphate or 1/2 part bonemeal; 1/2 part kelp meal.

Seed meal is any kind of ground-up seed which is usually a byproduct of oil making. Soy and linseed meals are usually available. Fish meal tends to be odorous and it may attract cats** to your garden. All of these meals are high in nitrogen, contain moderate amounts of phosphorous and are weak in potassium. Agricultural lime or more balanced dolomite should be finely ground – 65 to 100 screen- so they act quickly. Do not use quick lime or slaked lime for fertilizing purposes. Bonemeal and rock phosphate are effective phosphate fertilizers. Bonemeal is faster acting, much more costly and tends to become lumpy. Kelp meal adds potassium and all necessary trace elements a plant could use.

**A word about cats in your vegetable garden: Toxoplasmosis is a dangerous parasite especially to pregnant women. Cats are frequently hosts of this parasite and therefore, should never be permitted to defecate in soil used for growing vegetables. Cats may be helpful in keeping away rodents and other small vermin but the benefit of allowing a cat into the garden is far outweighed by the downside of them transmitting disease to humans.

snow covers the garden in the final days of 2012

snow covers the garden in the final days of 2012


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