As the cold winds of winter tire and slow, you should start planning your vegetable garden. Planning for an unknown growing season can be a little overwhelming. Do you start your own seeds? What should be in what bed? Do you even like eating that kale you grew? Of course, things such as weather and soil type will be out of your hands. However, by using past seasons as a guide and selecting adapted plants, we can become better gardeners.
Keeping records about how last year went is important, whether you manage a square foot garden or a 900-acre farm. Consider keeping a simple journal, either paper or electronic. Sketch out the garden layout, what plants grew where, how much fertilizer you added, and what insects, weeds, or diseases caused issues. Do not forget to mention any weather events too! Taking photographs can save time on the garden layout section and is better for identifying pests. The biggest challenge with keeping a journal is forgetting about that darn plant variety.
Having the specific variety written down can help you with crop rotation as well as improving production. If a certain tomato had a real bad early blight problem last year, you could rotate into cucumber this year and choose a better, disease resistant tomato a few seasons down the line. One way to avoid forgetting is to keep a big Ziploc bag and toss each empty label or seed packet into it. Mark the bag with the year it was planted, and keep it stashed away. With your new garden journal, hopefully you can get an accurate idea how each variety performed that season.
Starting certain seeds, such as tomatoes and peppers, can be difficult (and sometimes expensive) for beginners. However, it opens the door to a huge amount of varieties. Cornell Extension (www.vegetables.cornell.edu) has a great list of disease resistant plants reported by the major seed catalog companies. If you have questions about what growing lights to use or how long to keep that heating mat hooked up feel free to contact our office, the UMN Extension website (extension.umn.edu), or a Master Gardener.
Lastly, think about what your goals are for this year. Consider starting a “giving garden” to donate food—extremely important now as the COVID epidemic has caused much hardship. If you wish to start a giving garden, consider giving local food pantries a call. Ask about what people need before you rush and plant what you think they want. Zucchinis may fill your wheelbarrow, but sometimes fresh herbs are desired and in short supply. Cilantro and basil are not particularly difficult to grow and can easily fit in many garden plans.
Given the difficulties and challenges of the past year, planning a garden can be oddly therapeutic. It allows you to dream about warm sunny days, buzzing bees, and the sharp “green” smell of tomato seedlings. By being a bit more observant about the past, you can till the odds to a successful garden in the future.