Every gardener (who is situated outside the tropics) knows that winter brings a frustrating lull in our gardening activities. It feels like withdrawal … the GTs (gardening tremors) or something. We sit by our mailboxes eagerly awaiting those coveted heirloom seed catalogs and then sit by the fire thumbing through them … and staring out the window thinking, “I can’t wait until the weather breaks!” Surely you can relate … you longingly search for ways to further your garden plans in winter. Tell me I am wrong! You just want something to do that contributes to your overall gardening goals in a constructive way. There are plenty of things you can do to ease the pain of missing your garden and further your garden plans in winter and that is what this post is all about.
This post is geared to help the emerging or novice gardener, but there is still some useful information here for the more experienced gardener so come check this out …
No, we can’t change the weather (sorry), but we are here to help. We need to think of winter as a time to get our thoughts together, do our homework, plan the upcoming season with forethought and intent, and get prepared. Let’s use it wisely and to our maximum benefit. In this post, I will give you a list of things that you can do indoors or in short stints outdoors that will give you a leg up on your spring gardening and, at the same time, make you the most competent gardener you can possibly be.
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Research/Reading To Further Your Garden Plans In Winter
I have mentioned this one before and I will mention it again, I am sure. Over and over and over! It is at the top of my list for the most important and useful ways to spend your time during winter. Read gardening books, ebooks, blogs, magazines, e-zines, websites — anything you can get your hands on — that specialize in gardening and are trusted. I cannot stress this enough. In fact, don’t just read … STUDY! Find things that apply to you, take notes, and implement what you learn. If you are not much for studying, then pick up a book on how to study and study that. There is no beat-all-end-all gardening publication (if there were you would not need me) but be cautious and make sure what you are reading applies to your zone and the things you want to grow. While some things should be taken with a grain of salt, there is a lot of good information out there to be had. If money is an issue, start watching for freebie Kindle books. You do not need a Kindle to access them, just download the free Kindle app to your device (whatever that is) and you can read Kindle books without a Kindle. If you don’t know how to find free gardening books, note that many bloggers and Facebook pages publish links to free Kindle books when they come available. See our Awesome Resources pages for reading suggestions. The important take away here is to “Find things that apply to you, take notes, and implement what you learn.”
Another great place to check for gardening information is our Gardening Board on Pinterest. You don’t need a Pinterest account to view it and follow the links. I have personally followed and reviewed each pin on this board and I am confident that the resources shown there are sound and reliable.
Things to Research
Get to Know Your Hardiness Zone
I would love to sit here and give you gardening advice all day every day, but I can talk only about the zone I live in (6a). I have zero experience with any other zone. Sometimes referred to as gardening zones, the world is broken up into bands based on lowest average temperatures. Knowing your zone and its weather patterns is a huge help when it comes to plant selection. You can find your hardiness zone at this link. Then when you go shop for plants appropriate for your zone, you can look at the seed packet, magazine ad, or tag on the seedling for a matching zone. If you are in zone 4, don’t plan to plant things that thrive only in zone 5 and higher.
Understand Your Soil and Make Plans to Amend It If Needed
Go get a soil sample and conduct some tests to find out your soil type and baseline pH level. Just go get a shovelful, put it in a bucket, and bring it inside. Your soil type and its pH level will have an impact on the health of your garden. Perhaps you need to raise your pH level (in which case you could mix in some powdered limestone) or you need to lower it (in which case add in some sulfur). Here is an amazing article about analyzing and amending your soil correctly. It explains about soil types and how much of what to add based on your soil type. And here is another article on testing pH with stuff you have in your kitchen. Personally, I prefer to use a test kit like this one or a garden probe like this one just for sake of accuracy. But, you can conduct these tests in the warmth of your kitchen during during winter, buy what you need to make any fixes, and be ready with your supplies (purchased off season when cheapest) come spring.
Start or Update Your Gardening Journal
Another way to further your garden plans in winter is start or update a gardening journal. If you already have one, good for you! If not, it is time to start one. Your gardening journal does not need to be a daily diary, literary masterpiece, or a ball and chain that dictates your every move in the garden. It can be as simple as a steno tablet on which you record lessons from last year’s garden successes and failures (trust me, it is easy to forget from year to year). You should also record any question you have come up with that you want to make a point to research before the the next growing season (which would be now, in winter!) If you recorded your questions during last year’s growing season, then now is the time to go seek out the answers to those questions. For example, my blueberries didn’t do very good the first year I had them. Through research, I learned that many fruit bushes prefer slightly acidic soil, rather than the more neutral pH of standard garden soil. I also learned that the simplest way to give my blueberries a boost was the addition of some pine needles to their potting mix or even spread on the ground as mulch. Pine needles raise acidity. The next year, they fared much better. It was a question I wrote down in my journal when I first noticed the issue and then, when the snow was flying, I pulled out my journal, recalled the question, and did some research.
I use a three ring binder with notebook paper and separator tabs. I have sections for:
- Questions to Research
- Problem plants and what happened
- Yield Records
- Lessons Learned (next year’s do’s & don’ts)
- Annual Goals for last year & next year
- Garden layout (diagram) and rotation plans
To get your head around what all you should be recording in your garden journal, start by recording your hardiness zone, soil type, and pH (as described above) and any plans you have for amending your soil. Then ask yourself these wonderful thought provoking questions from Little Mountain Haven. At that point, what goes in that journal will just begin to flow for you.
Plan Out Your Garden
Whether you have a patio container garden, a raised bed or two (or 20), a square foot garden or full blown back yard farm … PLAN IT OUT! This is the one of the top ways to further your garden plans in winter. Based on what you have learned and have decided to apply in the upcoming season, draw a map of it. Label it. Be sure to check companion planting guides such as this one to ensure you are putting the right plants next to each other and the wrongs plants far apart. For example, onions play nice with tomatoes and lettuce and not with beans and peas. Peppers do fine near garlic and onions, but don’t put them near broccoli, beans & peas. Also certain herbs repel pests and certain flowers attract pollinators and both are good. Teach yourself about companion planning and be sure to include herbs & flowers in the plan. Decide which plant will go where and put some thought (and research) into it before you finalize your plan. Always assume you will need more space per plant than you think you do. Thinning will be necessity, painful as it is. Research how many of each plant you can put in a given space.
Take Rotation Into Account
You have heard of “crop rotation,” right? Well, just because you have a small garden (rather than hundreds & hundreds of acres of corn, wheat, and soybeans) does not make your garden space any less susceptible to the issues of rotation failure. As a rule of thumb, don’t plant the same plants in the same place year after year because they will ultimately deplete the soil of precious nutrients that are often restored by putting a different plant in that spot. Additionally, if you rotate properly, insect and bacteria that overwinter in the soil will wake up in spring to find their food source has moved away — which, of course, stops the cycle. Here is a great article on rotating your garden veggies. Note that any effort you make to rotate will be an improvement over not rotating at all.
Start a Compost Pile
If you do not already have and use a compost pile, it is time to start one. Your own organic compost is better for your plants than any store bought fertilizer and it is free. You also have assurances that there are no chemicals in your compost. It is truly organic. Winter is a great time to learn about composting and while the decomposition process slows in winter, it still occurs — so there is no reason you can’t start now. Here is great article on winter composting and how to achieve it. If you are brand new to composting, then be sure to read some of the articles on this list too. Also, compost “piles” are not the only way to compost. You can also use a compost tumbler (we have two of them and LOVE them) and/or you can install a worm tower. The trouble with a compost pile is a) you have turn it regularly b) they can attract vermin and c) they can be pretty unsightly. With a tumbler, you have none of those issues. If you opt to install a worm tower, you can get what you need now and get the project ready for spring installation.
Grow a Window Sill Herb Garden
I don’t know about you, but part of my problem during winter is my psychological need for the color green. Everything is so dank and dark and ugly. In fact, the only thing I like about snow is that it covers the otherwise ugly landscape with a lovely blanket of bluish white. It is better than brown and grey. That said, I still need to see some green in my world. Most of my favorite herbs are perennials so once they are established, they come back every spring. Nonetheless, there are some that do well in pots indoors if placed in a sunny window. Rosemary, for example, is a shrub like herb with an amazing scent and while it can survive in the ground outdoors in more southerly zones (7 and up), it prefers a pot indoors in my zone. So I keep my rosemary potted and bring it inside in the fall. Digressing, a small herb garden in your window sill not only provides you will a lovely touch of green but also something fresh to use in your daily cooking. Great herbs for indoor growing include parsley, thyme, basil, sage, rosemary … well, most all herbs will grow in pots just fine. Then in spring, you can move them outdoors.
If you don’t have much window sill space, my post on Expanding A Window Sill might provide you with a solution that you can implement now.
There are things we need in the garden to provide support, keep fruits off the ground, and provide us with practical work space. Here is a list of things that you can build during the winter months in your basement or garage and have ready when it’s time to install them:
- Trellises for cucumbers, climbing beans & peas, squash, etc. You can build the frames, cover with chicken wire or other fencing material, and stash in the shed until spring.
- Raised bed borders for future raised beds — Just cut to size, drill pilot holes, seal with water repellent. Come spring, set them up, screw them together, fill and plant.
- Garden sink — There many ways to approach this, but here is a post on how we built our garden sink.
- Tiered Plant Stand and/or Mini Greenhouse to use in late winter for seed starting outdoors.
- Potting station — A work table designed for mixing custom soils, potting and repotting plants, starting seed cups, etc. Should include a place to store small hand tools (such as a drawer or upper shelf), and buckets underneath for various soil amendments such as bone or blood meal, perlite, and sand. Since it is bound to get dirty, build it from water resistant materials such as pressure treated & sealed wood or plastic. Here is a post on how we built our potting station.
All these make great winter projects which can help you get a leg up on your spring gardening and further your garden plans in winter! Here are a few photos of some of the solutions we have built:
That Ought To Keep You Busy!
In summary, think of winter as a time to get your thoughts together, do your homework, plan the upcoming season with forethought and intent, and get prepared. This break from the garden may actually be the very thing you need to grow into a more competent and successful gardener. It will not happen in one season though. It will take years for you get it down to the science that it is. And this is why winter is an important part of the process. It is the down time we need to contemplate past successes and mistakes and make plans for long-term improvement.
How do you use your time to further your garden plans in winter?