This is what my counter has looked like for the last few days. A bright ray of hope and light to brighten up the cold, dreary days of February.
Yup, it's that time again folks. Time to oogle over the seed catalogs, circling the promising-looking varieties, hemming and hawing about choices... and being filled with a sense of absolute delight and anticipation.
We do this every year. Every spring, we gardeners are filled with a ridiculous amount of enthusiasm and hope. All our tomatoes died last year from blight? No worries. This is a new year, a new beginning. Droughts last summer? No biggie. We'll be fine this year. We gardeners are a hopelessly optimistic bunch. I suppose we have to be, or we'd have given up long ago!
Last year, my garden was astonishingly successful, producing more than my wildest dreams. By the time fall rolled around, the canning shelves in the basement were groaning under the weight of all the canned goods and we ended up having to buy another chest freezer to hold all the produce. It almost made me feel like I knew what I was doing! Almost...
If there is one thing I have learned about gardening over the years, it is this: Gardening can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. If I want to, I can take soil samples and have then analyzed by Michigan State University (I did), I can test the pH of my soil to determine optimal growing conditions (I did), amend the soil with compost (I did), analyse seed/plant spacing for increased production (I did), graph out garden beds (I did), orchestrate crop rotations so the same plants won't grow in the same beds year after year (I did), and carefully record in detail when, where and how I started each seed in the garden (I did).
Or, I could just walk around the garden and randomly stick seeds in the dirt and see what happens (I did that too).
Gardening doesn't have to be so complicated, friends. When you boil it down, gardening just is sticking a seed in the ground and watching it grow. The beauty and wonder of gardening is based on this simplicity. As it says in my Seeds of Change catalog:
"One of the most satisfying activities in the history of the world is the act of planting a seed in the ground, tending to that seed and eventually harvesting a vegetable that provides sustenance and happiness. Plant a seeds and open wonder."
I am in my early 30's and I still feel a thrill course through my body when I watch a seed sprout. It never gets old. Ever. Watching something grow that you purposefully planted is a powerful moment. My husband laughs as me when I come rushing into the house, breathless with excitement "The peas are sprouting! My babies are coming to life!" And yes, I do consider them all babies. They are living, breathing beings, each one full of endless potential.
Many people ask about my gardening plans, wondering if I plan everything out, make graphs, charts, etc. The answer is yes and no. Over the years, I have realized I have a unique brain (that's a nice way to say weird). Part of me adores organized lists, charts, graphs, plans and notes. I like things to be logical, sequential, orderly. Then the other part of my brain, the artist side, thinks only in flowing lines, colors and shapes. This part of my brain seeks beauty, balance and varieties of textures. I was told these separate and distinct qualities made me a successful art teacher, able to handle both the creative and analytical sides of teaching. And I think they also help me immensely as I plan and plant my garden. In order to garden well, in my opinion, there must be a marriage of these two mindsets. There needs to be form and function - not only should the garden be beautiful, but it should also be productive. Of course, you can garden according to just form or just function, but what fun is that? A garden should be a place of beauty and peace, somewhere you desire to linger...
and just be. It should nourish both your body and your soul.
So each spring, I draw up a graph of the garden and spend hours deciding what to grow in each bed. There are many things to take into consideration, such as:
- What did I grow in that bed last year? I don't want to grow another crop in the same "family" because they may harbor similar pests or diseases.
- Was the crop I grew last year in that bed a heavy feeder of nitrogen (or phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, etc.)? If so, I need to amend that bed or grow a crop that requires less nitrogen, etc.
- What other plants will be growing around this bed? Will they attract pest insects to this crop? Or will they deter pest insects?
I try my best to arrange the garden in a logical way, taking these things into consideration.... but sometimes I have to break the rules. It's ok. And if I decide to change something, no big deal. Everything is written in pencil. It's a flexible plan, a rough draft, if you will.
The next task I have is to figure out the timing of starting seeds. Some plants need to be started from seed indoors and allowed to grow for a few weeks before being planted outside. Other plants can be "direct sowed", which means you simply walk out to the garden and plant the seed. About half of my crops need to be started ahead of time and kept safely indoors until the danger of frost has passed.
I ended up finding a 2013 calendar and using that as my guide. First, I determined the Estimated Date of Last Spring Frost in lower West Michigan, which is April 30 to May 30. I chose May 12 as my date and then counted the weeks backward to determine when I needed to start growing tomatoes, peppers, etc. According to this, the first week of April is when I should start the majority of my warm season plants, as most should be grown for 6 weeks before being transplanted outside. On this same calendar, I also determined when I should direct sow crops and how often. I learned last year that I need to stagger my plantings of some crops so that they don't all mature at the same time and leave me with a fridge full of cucumbers or radishes.
Then, of course, we need to buy seeds. I've been known to drool over seed catalogs. So many colors, so many options, so many wonderful crops to try! I have a hard time narrowing down my choices, but after countless lists with lines scratched out, I finally have my picks. As much as I love ordering seeds, I don't love the cost that goes along with it. Last year I decided I was going to start buying as many Heirloom and open pollinated seeds as possible so that I could gradually start growing and saving my own seeds. Many modern vegetable seeds are hybrids, which means they don't breed true. If you try to save the seeds and plant them, you end up with the genetics of one of the parent plants, not the plant you were trying to reproduce.
I also like to buy certified Organic seeds as much as possible. In general, these plants have been bred to grow and thrive under organic growing conditions, not requiring pesticides to survive.
Here are some seed companies that I like to buy from:
- Seeds of Change - 100% Organic seeds
- High Mowing Seed Company - 100% Organic seeds. My favorite. I feel they have the best prices and selection of Organic seeds.
- Territorial Seed Company - wide selection of conventional and Organic seeds.
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds - not certified organic, but all seeds are heirloom/open pollinated, meaning you can save your own seeds to reuse year after year. Their catalog is stunningly beautiful, like a fashion magazine for vegetables. If you are looking for rare or unusual seeds, look no further! Click on the link and scroll to the bottom and click on "Request Catalog".
I also love to visit garden centers and check out the seed selections there. I'm like a moth to a flame - there is no resisting those colorful displays of lovely seeds. So many possibilities!!! My favorite store in West Michigan for seeds is Fruit Basket Flowerland. They have a great selection of conventional and Organic seeds. They also sell seed potatoes, onion sets and flower bulbs. Be sure to stop by!
Are you busy planning your garden too? What are you going to grow this year? Where do you like to purchase your seeds?