Gardening 101 · Winter Prep

What should I plant in my garden?

Moving along with my series on “things to do during the winter months before we can actually get in the garden,” everyone’s favorite part of garden prep:

PLANT SELECTION!

We’re talking plant selection today! Get out your seed catalogues, my friends. Or, if you currently have none, what are you waiting for?

Or you can just order seeds online. While it’s certainly more environmentally friendly, I can’t help myself with the rustic FedCo catalogues!

While it’s always tempting to just browse through the catalogs or websites and order a packet of whatever’s brightest- or most delicious-looking, your wallet will thank you if you think a little farther in advance. Here’s what you should consider before clicking ‘checkout.’

What do you have time to grow?

Every plant has its own internal calendar and is fully mature at different times. To find out if you have enough time to grow the plant in question, find out how many days it takes to mature. Then, check out when your zone’s first and last frost dates are, and when the seed needs to be in the ground by. This is important because frost can damage plants and fruit/vegetables. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has an excellent web tool for finding your town’s frost dates. You can also check out the official USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map as a reference.

Confused? Here’s an example:

Say you want to plant bush-style green beans. You know your area’s last spring frost date is May 11th and the first fall frost date is October 1st, giving you a 142 day growing season. The packet of bean seeds you got said they need to be planted “after all danger of frost has past,” so that means May 11th (or a little later, if you’re watching the weather that week. Frost dates are an average after all, and have some possibility of slight error!) The packet also says they’ll take 60 days til full maturity. This is perfect! You can start planting after the frost date, and have delicious beans a little after the 4th of July.

Another fine alternative to shopping the catalogues or online seed warehouse is going to your local, old-timey hardware and scooping a few ounces of bean seeds from a giant whiskey barrel. I always leave feeling like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Some plants require more time than your area can give, however. For example, living in Maine like I do means I can’t just plant tropical plant seeds in the ground after the frost date and expect to get any kind of quality harvest. They need too much warm weather time to germinate, mature, and produce fruit. If I REALLY wanted to, however, I might be able to plant them indoors under grow lights and transplant the little seedlings, or plant them in a greenhouse and let them grow happily in there year round.

What do you have time to care for?

Some plants are just attention hogs. This might be because they’re prone to labor-intensive pest control, they don’t compete well with weeds and need you to fight all their battles for them, or they might need constant watering adjustments. If you aren’t ready to treat your growing shoots like newborn babies, you can either plant them anyways and just settle for a mediocre harvest (or none at all) OR you can stick to easy plants.

In my experience, the plants that will grow right along without caring two whits what you do are:

  • Oregano (honestly, this one grows so well for me I’ve decided to never plant it outside of a container again. It just spreads so much!)
  • Carrots
  • Snow peas
  • Pole beans
  • Kale
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Potatoes
  • Cherry tomatoes
Such good growers.

What will you actually eat?

There’s no point in buying the gorgeous striped-zucchini variety if you can’t stand eating zucchini (ESPECIALLY zucchini, because one plant will give you approximately one billion pounds of the vegetable). I make sure whatever I’m putting in the ground will also go over well on the dinner table. The only exception to this rule is if it’s something everyone else seems to like plenty, like tomatoes, which the local food pantry will be happy to take. (Come back next week when I talk more about Plant a row for the hungry/Harvest for Hungry gardens.)

2016, year of “HOLY CRAP WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH ALL THESE PEPPERS AND TOMATOES.” (Answer: make a lot of sauce.)

This extends to types of plants, as well. With tomatoes, for example, neither my husband nor I really like to eat raw tomatoes, but we use pizza and pasta sauce fairly often. For that reason, I tend to grow paste-variety tomatoes instead of the big, chunky beefsteak ones you find showcased in the grocery store, because I’ll turn paste tomatoes into sauce and can it for later. Consider all the possible uses you’ll have for the plant when selecting your seeds!

What is your planting site suited for?

I already covered this one pretty thoroughly here, but do make sure your potential plot has all the light, water, and soil specifications you need!

Is this plant going to benefit your local ecosystem?

Finally, I added this one at the end to remind us all that whatever we plant in our backyards and gardens isn’t just there for us. It’s for the friends we feed around our table, the neighbors who get to see a little splash of beauty as they walk or drive by our garden, and it can also be for the birds and bees who live in the spaces around us.

The most obvious way to protect your local ecosystem is to not plant anything that would poison any friendly bugs, animals, or human friends who happen to wander through. (Ask me about that one time I had to call poison control because I planted something poisonous in my garden because it was from Harry Potter and my arm went numb. Fun day.)

Aside from that, think about growing plants that are historically from your area. These “native” plants will typically have better-than-average ability to repel common local pests, withstand local temperature ranges, and typical water availability. This all means less work for you! Not only that, but native plants will provide a food source and habitat for native animals (especially if we’re talking larger plants like trees and bushes) and also for smaller creatures, like pollinators. Let’s keep those busy bees, butterflies, and other beneficial creepy-crawlies happy!

The gigantic silver maple in my backyard, home to birds, bugs, and several families of squirrels (including the one my brother-in-law aptly named Mr. Fatty).

So there we have it! What plants are you dying to try this year? Let me know in comments!

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Biggest Gardening Fails

You know the old saying, “you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs?”

I’d like to make a motion to change this to “you can’t be a gardener without accidentally killing everything you touch once or twice.”

Because c’mon. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. Let’s just get it out in the open, have a brief moment of silence for every plant we’ve mutilated, and move on together.

So today, I’ve gone through all my old garden notes from the past five seasons to find the biggest mistakes I’ve made in the dirt.  Everyone needs a good dose of humility every now and then, right? So let’s see what kind of scarecrows I’ve got in my closet…

Summer of 2014- Ignoring pests

2014 was the first year I really held the reins of my little community garden plot. I had complete control of what, when, and where in my plots I planted for the first time, and I got a little drunk off that power in the beginning. I felt large and totally in charge.

Then came the hornworms.

♪I CAME IN LIKE A WREEEEECKING BALLLLLLL…♪

They showed up, as hornworms usually do, in the middle of the summer, just when my tomato plants were starting to form tiny green tomatoes. But they GROSSED ME OUT. I couldn’t bring myself to do more than try and flick them off with a three foot stick. I think I kept hoping these magic, beneficial wasps I’d read about would swoop in and come to my rescue if I just waited long enough.*

As a result, I lost everything to those chubby green buggers.

Solution- Woman or man up and squish those guys. This past summer, remembering my former shame, I got my gardening gloves on and plucked these guys off by hand. I didn’t even have to spend much time doing it. Once or twice a week for ten minutes was enough to hand-manage these slow moving pests and actually have a tomato harvest through the summer. (Pesticides, even safe ones like Neem oil, should be second or third on your list of pest management techniques, as they can kill the beneficial bugs you want to keep along with the garden-destroying kind.) All it took was patience and familiarity with my plants, because hornworms are excellent at camouflage.

As an added idea, this would be an excellent task to get little kids helping with in your garden! They’re right at eye level with the green beasts and I know tons of kids love all things that wriggle and can be placed in a bucket.

Spring of 2016- Gardening too early
In 2016, I was in the middle of completing my Master Gardener certification, and I was so excited! I was soaking up everything I could learn about soil, botany, pests, organic practices, and so much more.


However, in my enthusiasm, I overlooked one crucial lesson. On many packages of seeds, it notes that planting should occur “as soon as the soil can be worked.” In my naivete, I assumed that meant “as soon as the ground is no longer frozen solid.”

Can anyone guess what kinds of seeds came in this package?


That would be a mistake. If soil is too wet in the spring (as it often is, with all the rain, melting snow, and still-chilly temperatures), moving the soil around too much will cause the soil structure to be DESTROYED. Instead of a nice, crumblike structure come May or June, the soil will have dried out into giant clods that turn to dust if you break them up. And nothing grows well in soil like that.

Solution: Be patient. Test the soil when you’d like to work it by grabbing a small handful and squeezing it into a ball. Upon releasing your fist, if the ball stays firm like play dough or doesn’t break apart nicely with a little pressure from your thumb, you’ll just have to find other projects to keep you entertained, because it is not planting time yet.

Alternatively, if you’ve already made the same mistake I have, the problem can take years to fix, depending on how vigorously you dug up your too-wet soil. Adding some more compost (in various stages of decomposition) and/or working in some manure to the top of your damaged soil, then seeding with some kind of “green manure” like clover or winter rye on top might help it heal faster. In the meantime, find a new patch to plant your veggies in, build raised beds on top of the damaged soil, or think about container gardening for the season if your plot options are limited.

Every year- Not thinning seedlings

I should know better. Intellectually, I know that if plants have optimal spacing, they’ll produce bigger, better, and maybe even faster. And yet some part of me always feels so guilty pulling out those little, tender carrot tops or radish sprouts.

“How can you kill us when we’re so small and cute?” they seem to cry out to me as I pluck and discard them. “What did we ever do to youuuu?”

And so I leave all four hundred carrots in the tiny patch I sowed them in, and thoroughly regret my soft heart about a month later when my carrots look more like wimpy shoelaces than, well, carrots.

Solution: It’s the same advice I give to my high school students looking to write a better short story- kill your darlings. It’s much better to have properly spaced plants produce big, beautiful fruits and veggies for you than to keep a bunch of measly looking ones. Trust me.

Students at Farm Camp doing exactly what I should always do- THINNING CARROTS.

Fall of 2017- Not harvesting completely

Sometimes, I get so excited about finally pulling all the potatoes or carrots out of the ground, I rush. I go as fast as I can so I can run home and make soup immediately with all my delicious, fresh veggies. (Which, of course, you should never do with potatoes. Let them cure for like two weeks in a cool, dark place before cooking with them.) In my haste in 2017, I missed a few and got a big surprise the following spring when something that was DEFINITELY not a bean plant popped up in my bean patch.

Potatoes are proof that there is a God.

Solution: Go slow, use a hoe. (If in doubt, eh, it’ll sprout.) (Pull it then, that’ll be the end.)

(Okay, I’m done now.)

What about all of you? What do you consider your biggest gardening fails? (It’s okay, this is a safe, judgement-free garden. 😉 )

*Yes, this is actually a viable solution if it happens to present itself. The parasitic Braconidae wasp lays its eggs on the backs of hornworms, and if you wait long enough, the baby wasps will hatch, feed on the host hornworm, mature, and then fly off to destroy hornworms all over the neighborhood. So if you ever see a hornworm with what looks like dozens of bright white eggs on its back, LEAVE IT!