Step 1: Stay up all night planning your garden

OK, I’ll admit I have a tendency to dive into things with a bit too much enthusiasm, but even I was tired at 2 a.m. when I finally pushed the order button on my main seed order.
Each year, I vastly underestimate how long it will take to plan out and order seeds for my gardens, which currently consist of a 2,100-square-foot high tunnel, and about the same size outdoor garden. This year, I’m planning to add two or three hoop houses to that, because — wait for it — I ran out of room last year.
In my defense, when all of a sudden you can grow things like corn, you do, and then you realize that growing corn takes up an amazing amount of ground. But really, it was the squash and pumpkins that were the real space stealers. And the tomatoes, oh my. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now, we are dealing with seeds. Just seeds. Of course to order seeds, you pretty much have to figure out everything else, no matter what size garden you have, as I groggily remembered, again, in the wee hours.
Ordering your seeds always sounds like a wonderful way to pass an evening when it’s cold and dark and the pictures from last year’s garden look like a mirage. And it can be, if you plan a little better than I did.
Why now?
First of all, why are you ordering your seeds months and months before you actually could plant anything? Well, because it’s actually closer to planting time than you think, especially if you want to grow the ever-illusive tomatoes and other crops that need some lead time. You can wait a little longer with the cherry tomatoes, but the large tomatoes need a lot of time to grow and ripen in our climate, even in the nicest greenhouse or indoor windowsill. If you are planting out in a tunnel, where the soil temperatures are cooler, you had better plant starts early inside.
Last year, I planted my starts in mid-February. This year, I’m going to plant a couple weeks earlier. By the time I was comfortable putting them in the high tunnel, it was the third week in May, and a couple of them were two feet high and flowering. I had read that transplanting a plant that big was far from ideal, that their growth would be stunted, etc. I sure didn’t notice that. The right soil additives and those plants took right off. But you have to be prepared to have a lot of leafy roommates for the next three months or so at least.
Seedy Saturday Seed Swap
Another great reason to start planning now is a seed event coming up this weekend in Homer. Sustainable Homer, which organizes all sorts of wonderful garden-related events throughout the year, has paired up with Foundroot Seeds, a seed startup currently based in Palmer intent on fostering a community of sustainably-minded gardeners and homesteaders who want more control over their food security.
The event is going to be an open-house atmosphere to allow lots of information (and seed) sharing. Foundroot Seeds will have some seeds for sale, and will talk about how to collect your own seeds, as well as other topics.
“We only sell open-pollinated seeds, most of which are heirlooms,” said Foundroot Seeds’ Leah Wagner in an email. “Open-pollinated seeds use old-fashioned breeding methods so even a modest home gardener can collect seeds from the varieties that we sell. Over time the seeds will become adapted to our climate and we will have a much broader range of vegetables that we can grow a lot easier than what’s currently available. This puts the power back into the community, away from large corporate seed sellers, and allows gardeners to get straight to the root of food security issues (hence the name, Foundroot).”
Garden planning tools
So it’s time to plan and order, and luckily, there are a ton of resources at your fingertips to make that easier than ever. I’m a big fan of the online vegetable garden planners. I used
Dripworks’ planner last year (it’s free for a trial period) and after I finished drawing in pretty rows of carrots and beans, it calculated for me exactly how many plants I was dealing with based on predetermined plant spacing, when I needed to plant them based on my frost zone, and a bunch of other awesome information that helped me a lot in my first year dealing with this size of garden. There are several other online garden planners. I’m trying Mother Earth News this time. It also has a free trial, and is pretty easy to use.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a pencil and paper. My parents, who grew almost all our food, would create elaborate and beautiful plans on graph paper around this time each year, building off last year’s successes and failures.
Crop rotation
Before you start sketching or clicking, however, there are a few things you should know. It’s helpful for your soil’s longevity to know a thing or two about crop rotation and it’s helpful to understand which plants enjoy each others company and which don’t, also known as companion planting. If all that sounds too technical, think for a moment how frustrating it is to do all the work of gardening and wind up with minimal food on your table. Now are you with me? OK, here we go.
Crop rotation takes into consideration what nutrients different plants need. Potatoes, for example, like acidic soil with lots of poop. If you dumped a lot of lime down on a piece of land last year, your potatoes are going to hate that soil and get scabby. Just about everything else, however, will love it. Potatoes love manure, though, while some other plants take a lot of manure in the soil as permission to grow a whole lot of leafy greenness, and not a lot of fruit or root. Eyes crossed yet?
Here’s a simple four-step plan for crop rotation. Divide your garden up into four sections, more or less. In the first, plant potatoes. The next year, put lime on that plot, then plant nitrogen-fixing legumes (peas and beans). On year three, lime again, and plant brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and Brussel sprouts). On year four, plant onions and roots. Then you rotate back to potatoes after an application of manure. Follow the same pattern for the other four sections of the garden, so your crops are dancing around your garden in an orderly fashion, and you will avoid depleting your soil.
Of course there are a lot of other things you like to plant, and it’s generally a good idea to move everything around each year, but if you follow those basics, you won’t have scabby potatoes.
Companion planting
Some plants like each other. Others don’t. If you plant a cabbage near a strawberry, apparently, all sorts of trouble starts. So here’s a list of do’s and don’ts for your consideration. I look at companion planting sort of like designing your wedding dinner seating chart. You try your best not to sit your conservative uncle next to your Greenpeaceflag-flying father-in-law, but occasionally, everyone just has to deal.
Tomatoes like carrots, parsley and onions. They dislike cauliflower, cabbage, corn, dill, kohlrabi and potatoes. Beans like carrots, cucumber and eggplant (and I always plant them next to peas since that helps my crop rotation.) Beans are poorly paired with cabbage, onions and garlic and beets are not friendly to pole beans. Carrots enjoy the company of tomatoes, onions, lettuce, peas and radishes. Dill stunts their growth. Cabbage are really loners but can be paired with celery, beets, onions, dill and nasturtium. They don’t pair well with strawberries, tomatoes or pole beans. Cucumbers are poor bedfellows with sage, basil, fennel and potatoes, but OK with peas and beans. Lastly, peas work well with carrots, beans, corn and turnips, but dislike garlic and onions. It’s a dance and not everyone is going to be perfectly happy, but we try our best.
The joys of seed catalogs
So now you are ready to order, right? Yep, after you take everything else into consideration, like light, moisture and temperature variations in your gardens and greenhouses. Like I said, I was up pretty late trying to work it all out.
Luckily, most major seed providers offer you an amazing amount of helpful information in their seed catalogs. Johnny’s, for example, is a virtual encyclopedia of preferred growing conditions of every plant imaginable. A lot of people are fans of Territorial Seeds. Seed Savers Exchange is a well-known company offering both common and unusual heirlooms. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has a loyal following. Burpee Seeds and Plants, Seeds of Change, the Ferry-Morse Seed Company, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, High Mowing Organic Seeds and Fedco Seeds all earned slots in the Mother Earth News’ top 10 seed companies list.
Some fun ones to look at if you have time are Wild Garden Seeds, based in Oregon, which saves heirloom vegetable varieties, Kitazawa Seed Company in California, which specializes in Asian vegetable varieties, and Seeds from Italy, which offers things you wouldn’t typically find, like 31 different kinds of chicory and radicchio.
The list is endless. I personally don’t think you can ever have too many seed catalogs. You leaf through them (pun intended) and get inspiration from each one. So now you have plenty of information to keep you up with your list and eraser well past midnight. Don’t forget to pull out your seeds from last year, if you have a box. I was amazed at how much I had left over, which of course gave me more money to spend on new things, like mustard greens, Oriental eggplant and Thai chilies inspired from my winter getaway. Personally, I can’t wait to get started.

Carey Restino is a life-long gardener and writer who is regularly humbled and inspired by greenery she tries to wrangle from seed to table and the never-ending learning curve of growth. She would love feedback and ideas for future column topics and can be reached at carisima@alaska.net .

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Posted by on Jan 9th, 2013 and filed under Growing Good. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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