Gardening connects us with nature through creativity, knowledge and physical activity. Growing food at home can bring us together or allow us much needed time alone. In a world with many threats to our environment and food system, a home garden offers a hands-on way for us to be part of a solution.
Plus, it's super fun!
By 'home garden' I mean anything from a large backyard vegetable plot to a windowsill of kitchen herbs. Regardless of the scale, bringing a new garden project to life doesn't have to be intimidating. Compared with many other DIY projects, gardening's ratio of input to output is quite favorable for those of us leading busy lives and working with tight budgets.
Kick off an amazing garden season with these four tips for winter planning:
1. Get Inspired
All over the world, there is a vibrant community of home gardeners excited about sharing their project successes with others. I'm consistently surprised by the new ideas I come across online. Even if you already have an idea for an at-home project, take a moment to peruse the multitude of DIY garden projects that other home gardeners have shared on the web. At the very least, witnessing the level of creativity and ingenuity of others will bolster your own ambitions.
A big challenge for many new gardeners is staying the course for delayed rewards. In my experience, the best way to stay committed to a fledgling project is to focus on the future. Research new recipes that incorporate the plants you want to have in your garden. Learn about the many ways in which you can preserve the food you grow. Canning, fermentation and drying are all great options to make your harvest last, as well as fun projects in themselves. There's nothing like enjoying something from your own garden in the dead of winter.
"Anyone who thinks gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year; for gardening begins in January with the dream."- Josephine Nuese
2. Understand Your Space
Taking a step back to observe the attributes of a potential garden site is key to developing successful plans.
Analyze Your Landscape
Winter is the perfect time to examine your landscape in its most fundamental state. Do you see areas with steep slopes or tree roots? Those won't make the best planting sites. Are there existing plants that just haven't been doing it for you? Many homes come with ornamental plants that have occupied the same space for years. Don't be afraid to swap out an established shrub for more edible garden space. While an outdoor area can seem fixed, nothing's set in stone.
Test Your Soil
Plants are sensitive creatures. No matter how much effort you put in, the only thing you'll reap is disappointment if your garden is lacking in essential soil nutrients. Conduct a soil test as soon as possible so that you have time to resolve any issues with natural soil amendments long before your plants go in the ground. Testing is especially important for soil in urban areas, where you should consider the possibility of contamination with heavy metals such as lead. Many types of soil test kits are available for purchase online. Extension services at agricultural colleges can also be an excellent resource for soil testing.
Most vegetables and herbs need about six to eight hours of sunlight to thrive. While winter days are darker, you can still get an idea of what areas get the most light. If you think your garden site might be on the shadier side, I recommend starting out with plant varieties that do well in shade.
Measure it Out
Record the exact dimensions you have to work with. When making garden plans, it's important to remember how much space a full grown plant will need, and how much space you'll need to tend to it. That said, the amount of space you ultimately end up allotting to each plant will depend on your gardening technique. Seed packets tend to identify spacing in terms of traditional, farm-based row cropping, while intensive gardening strategies offer some leeway for those working with less space.
Know Your Climate
Information on growing food often refers back to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map, which helps growers determine what plants will thrive in their area. Understanding the limitations and possibilities within your zone will make it easier to choose the right plant varieties.
3. Set Realistic Goals
As you start developing garden plans, make sure to check in with yourself about what it will take to bring your vision to life. Here are some questions to ask yourself now and revisit while working on any garden project:
- How much time/money/energy will it take to get this started?
- How often will I need to tend to this project?
- What will regular maintenance involve?
- What might get in the way of me accomplishing this?
Listen to your gut here. While getting inspired is the first step to creating something wonderful, getting too wrapped up in the idea of a 'perfect' project can also get in your way. Think big, but don't be afraid to start small.
4. Write it Down
Mind-maps were the bane of my existence as a middle school essay writer, but they have been a true salvation when it comes to keeping me honest in garden planning. When I first started out as a gardener, I would constantly find myself in a rush to complete certain tasks or acquire various materials. It might seem pretty basic, but writing down everything that you will need for your gardening endeavors really helps to solidify plans and avoid surprises.
Ready to go the extra mile? Add your plans and deadlines to your calendar. Having dates set for buying materials, starting seeds and even maintenance tasks like weeding and watering will give you helpful reminders to stay on track.
This post was originally published in January 2016.