It might seem hard to imagine when you’re in the thick of winter weather, but now is the perfect time to start prepping your summer garden. Even if your garden beds are covered with a thick layer of snow, there’s plenty you can do now to ensure a lush, productive vegetable garden when the weather warms up.
1. Plan Your Garden
The first step to prep for the growing season is to have a plan. Whether this is your first garden or already established beds, you’ll still need to consider how much space you have to plant, the condition of the soil, the amount of sunlight throughout the day, and what crops to grow.
Measure your garden space. Even though they all start out tiny, some seedlings can become giant plants. If you have limited space, you certainly don’t want to fill it with sprawling pumpkins, so measure your garden before planting. A good rule is to spread your fingers as far apart as you can, using the distance between your pinkie finger and your thumb as a planting measure between seedlings. Once you have a general idea of how many plants you can fit into your garden space, you can start planning what to grow. Don’t fret if you’re working with limited space. Some upward growing plants, like cucumbers, beans, peas, and tomatoes don’t mind slightly more crowded gardens.
Decide what you’ll plant. Take into consideration the foods you like to eat and the plants that grow well in your area, as well as the amount of sun they will get in that location. You can check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to determine which plants thrive where you live.
Map out your garden. You can draw your garden on graph paper and plot out each plant’s position. Having a map of your garden will also help you remember what is growing where, when plants are small and harder to identify.
Know your plants. Some plants require full sun, while others need a bit of shade during the day. Some vegetables grow well side-by-side, and some don’t. It’s important to know which is which when mapping your garden. Companion planting is the technique of arranging plants in the garden so that they mutually benefit each other as they grow. For instance, the Three Sisters: squash, beans and corn, is a popular companion plant combo. The corn stalks provide a sturdy support for the beans to climb, beans supply the soil with nitrogen, and fortify the corn stalks from wind, and the broad, prickly leaves of the squash plant deter predators, while providing cool shade and moisture to the soil. Companion planting is an important way to deter pests and improve the production, flavor and nutrition of your harvest.
2. Stock Up on Supplies
Even if you can’t get outside to work in the dirt quite yet, you can stock up on the tools you’ll need now.
Start purchasing the seeds to start indoors. If possible, choose organic seeds from reputable sources.
Don’t forget containers for your seedlings, like clay pots, peat pots — which can be planted to break down into the soil, recycle last year’s plastic cell packs, or make your own degradable seedling containers out of newspaper or empty toilet paper rolls.
You’ll also need a seed starter, which is gentler and more nutritious than dirt or compost for growing delicate seedlings.
Several basic tools are very handy for working in your garden too, such as a trowel, rake, shovel, pruners, and depending on your watering situation, a watering can. And don’t forget those gardening gloves – by the end of the summer, your hands will thank you!
3. Prepare to Garden
You won’t be able to plant in your garden until after the last frost, but there is a lot you can do before then:
Start your seedlings indoors. Follow the directions on the seed packets to determine the best time to start each plant variety for your zone. Mix your seed starter with water until just moist, not wet, and then fill your containers up to a half-inch from the top. Poke a shallow hole with your finger into each pot, add seeds and cover lightly with dirt. Make sure to label your pots, cover with a clear plastic to create a greenhouse effect, and put in a warm location with sunlight, unless otherwise specified on the seed packet directions.
Healthy soil is key to a successful garden. Once soil is workable, test it with a Soil Test Kit from a garden store, or your local County Extension Office. Most veggies require a PH level of 6 to 6.8. If your soil is not optimal, follow the test kit instructions or contact the County Extension Office to find out how to amend it.
Clean up your garden beds. Clear out weeds, grass, debris and old plants from last season. Dig the soil a foot deep, add compost and any soil amendments dictated by your soil test, and combine well. Rake level, keeping soil mixture loose and well oxygenated for future plants.
Don’t be depressed by the cold temps and snow on the ground. Make yourself a cup of something warm and start planning that garden. You’ll be tending those crops in no time!
Image source: Doug Miller/Flickr