6 Things to do in Winter to Prepare for the Spring Garden

Those of us who love to work in the dirt can get a bit depressed and stir crazy in the dead of winter.  When I look out at the brown fields, or at the horses rolling around in the mud pasture, it’s hard for me to remember the abundance (and heat, sweat, and weeds) that make up the bulk of the summer at Three Leaf Farm.  But as January hits, and the seed catalogs start arriving, I start to get that little bit of excitement to start the whole process again.  I spend hours pouring over the seed catalogs, making lists, cross checking them, studying seeding dates, and mapping the fields.   The time I spend preparing gives me an opportunity to learn more, become inspired, and organize my farm for the upcoming season. So what can be done in January and February?

 1. Study and Learn – If you’re an experienced gardener, you may already have a good idea about what grows well here in our climate, as well as what you’ve had success with in the past.  You’ve probably experienced your own share of failures as well.  But if you’re new to gardening, don’t worry, someone else has ALWAYS ALREADY tried, and probably failed, with just about every aspect of cultivation.  That’s the good news!  The bad news is that it takes a bit of work studying and reading to learn what is a sure bet for your region, and how to best plant, transplant, cultivate and harvest what you choose.

Reputable seed companies usually have careful instructions on how to grow different seeds.  Take the time to read how to do it right and you’ll have a much higher rate of success. There are countless articles and blogs (like this one) on the internet now to help you in your quest for knowledge.  Always keep in mind the region about which the author is writing, however, as climates can differ greatly.  I write for the foothills of Colorado, which is unique in its hot summers, cold winter, low water, and dry climate. It’s very different in South Carolina!

2. Map your Garden – This doesn’t have to be a huge project.  You don’t need to create professional level blueprints here, but you do need to have a general idea about the space where you are planning to plant.  There are four primary necessities for any successful garden: Light, Water, Soil, and Space.  You need to determine the range of all of these so you can choose plants that are best suited for that area.

Measure and draw your garden as close to scale as you can.  Draw in any large fixtures, such as the garage, a large tree, a big rock, or anything else that could potentially cause shade during the day.  Determine which way is East so you can mark the map and so you’ll have a general understanding of the way the sun will move through the day.  Determine your water source, and mark that on the map as well. Consider your soil, and what you will do to keep it healthy and productive.  (A huge topic, best left for another article).

3. Make your Seed Graph –  This is probably one of the most useful tools that I use each year, even though it does take me a bit of time to create it.  Keeping my seed catalog in front of me, I create a spreadsheet that has the following columns:

Type/ Varietal/ Source/ Stock #/ Quantity/When to Plant/ When to Harvest/ Notes

Type: like Peas, Herbs, or Tomato.
Varietal: like Sugar Snap, Tarragon, or Beefsteak.

Source: I try to buy organic seeds when I can, so sometimes I have to use different sources.  I like to keep track of the stock number too so I can easily remember next year what I bought.  When to plant:  I indicate whether the seeds should be planted inside, to be later transplanted, or direct sown outside later in the season.   Example: Out – Late April, In – Mid March. You can naturally be as detailed here as you like. 
One year I put exact days in this column, trying to be even more organized, but unfortunately since I can’t control the weather, or when my child gets sick and stays home from school, or any other thing that might throw a cog in my wheel (like laziness!), I make the schedule a little more flexible now!
When to harvest: Most catalogs will give you the days to maturity.  For me, though, I do the math now so I can schedule accordingly at harvest time.  If I plant June 1, and it has 85 days to maturity, I’m looking at around harvesting around August 15.

Notes: This can be anything I want to remind myself of for next year. Perhaps the plants grew slowly in the greenhouse and I should have started them earlier.  Perhaps the tomatoes were so abundant that I don’t need so many of them next year (this year I went crazy with an heirloom varietal of tomato called “Indigo Rose”.  It turned out I needed maybe 3 plants of it when I had about 50 in the fields.  I also didn’t love the tomato, so – guess what I wrote in the note section?)

Other columns that I’ve used in the past are things like:
Light: do they need sun, part sun, or shade, and Spacing: how far apart to plant the seeds or transplants. Since I’ve done this for many years now, a lot of that is information that I no longer need to be reminded of, but you can add any column you think will give you information that will help you.

4. Order Your Seeds – Now that you’ve figured out what you want and where to get it, you get to order your seeds! I always order as early as possible to insure that what I want is not sold out or back-ordered.  Potatoes are always notorious for this, so order early. 

5. Organize your Seeds – when the boxes of seeds arrive, I like to organize them.  I will carefully check to make sure that my orders are complete and that I got everything I wanted.  Then, I separate the seeds by what I need to start in the greenhouse to be later transplanted, and what can be direct sown in the fields.  Next, I organize the seeds by planting date. 

6. Inventory your Supplies – Take the time in the dead of winter to inventory all your gardening supplies so that you’ll have what you need in the spring.  For me, there’s nothing worse than being ready to get my hands dirty only to learn that I can’t find something I need and having to run to Home Depot and battle the spring crowds.  

Pull out your tools and give them a good wash if you didn’t do so in the fall.   Check to make sure you have seed starting soil, seed trays, pots, or anything else you will need if you plan to start seeds indoors.

If you use large power equipment, like a tractor, tiller, mower, weed eater, etc, this is the time to have it serviced if it needs it. 

And then, the fun part, order what you need for the next season!