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Cozy up with a seed catalog and set your gardening intentions

December 16, 2020

One of my favorite holiday traditions is to spend an afternoon by the fireplace with seed catalogs. Every year I try to take a few days off over the holidays to spend quietly at home, reflecting on the past year and setting intentions for the coming year. A part of this process is reflecting on last year’s garden and dreaming up ideas for next year.

These are some of the things you might reflect on this year as you look through catalogs and choose seeds for your 2021 garden.

Did you have too much produce? Not enough? 

Wooden box with open sides painted light green. It has “Little Free Seed, Plant, Flower library” painted across the top, and the box has a wooden slanted roof with a piece of siding on top.

Most gardeners have grown too much of something at some point. If you've ever grown cucumbers or zucchini, you’ve likely reached a point in the summer where you have so many you’re not sure what to do with them. If your neighbors and friends are gardeners, they’re in the same boat and have no interest in your extra produce. 

Growing “too much” food is an opportunity to feed your neighbors. Spend some time connecting with local food pantries or churches to see if they are looking for produce donations next year. 

Or consider building a little free library. We built a little free plant library last summer where we put bouquets of flowers and extra produce from our garden. It was a highlight of our summer. Our little library helped us get to know our neighbors and gave me an excuse to make bouquets every morning. Don’t let the ornate little free libraries make you feel like you shouldn’t build one due to a lack of skill, it’s the thought that counts!

  • There’s always something I wish I had more of each year; this year it was broccoli and beans. Make note of anything you were lacking last year, and make some more space for it this year. 
  • If you have more produce than you can eat, preserve, or give away, consider adding some more shelf-stable plants to your garden this year such as dry beans, popcorn, amaranth, or herbs for tea. These crops have become some of my favorites to grow. 
  • Don’t feel like you need to grow everything! There are so many amazing local farmers to support throughout the year. 

How can you prioritize soil health in 2021? 

A hand-drawn garden plan with 9 beds labeled: Perennial herbs on landscape fabric, Amaranth / Sweet corn, Dry beans bush habit, Dry beans trellis, Tomatoes & Peppers, Onions, Beets, & Carrots, Cucumber & Squash, Broccoli & Other Brassicas, Lettuce - Buckwheat cover crop - Lettuce. Cover crops are written on the sides of the beds. The top beds are labeled Fall: oats & peas, the cucumber bed is labeled Phacelia, and the bottom beds are labeled Midseason buckwheat.
2021 garden plan

As you plan your garden for 2021, do you see any windows of time where you can squeeze in a cover crop? Building soil organic matter is an important part of garden resilience; soils with more organic matter do a better job of holding on to nutrients and water. An easy and effective way to build soil organic matter is to include cover crops.

My personal goal for 2021 is to include a cover crop in every bed at some point during 2021. In some beds, this means adding a fall cover crop mix like oats and peas after harvesting in early September. In others where I’ll harvest earlier, like cucumbers, I plan to add phacelia, a beautiful lacy plant with purple flowers that bumble bees love. And in beds where I plan to plant an early spring crop and a fall crop like lettuce or broccoli, I plan to add a summer buckwheat cover crop. 

In the past I’ve used wood chips between beds as a way to keep the garden clean and reduce weed pressure, but this year I’m going to use white clover. Clover adds organic matter to the soil over time, and if left to flower, provides valuable nectar to pollinators. 

Don’t feel like you need to plant a cover crop in every bed. Challenge yourself to start small with one bed, and build up towards more as you get the hang of it. 

Minimize disease pressure in 2021

Did you have any particularly challenging pathogens in your garden in 2020? If so, I hope you took the time to identify them. If you know which diseases you struggled with last year, you can look for resistant varieties to plant in 2021.

Seed catalogs include information about resistance traits, but I tend to start with this resource from Cornell, which provides a long list of varieties from many companies. It’s a great place to start if you’re looking for resistance to a specific pathogen. 

In addition to resistant varieties, remember to rotate your crops. An ideal rotation is 3 to 4 years, so if you planted tomatoes in your garden bed last year, try not to plant anything from the Solanaceous family (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, potatoes) in that spot for the next few years. 

Have fun!

A variety of dry beans in a white bowl.

Gardens are therapeutic. They bring us joy for a wide variety of reasons. Some people find the greatest joy in flavor, others find garden joy in colors and textures. Rainbow carrots may yield a bit less than standard orange carrots, but if it makes you happy to pull purple, yellow, and red carrots from your garden, plant them!

When I started gardening, I had a very utilitarian approach. I felt like I needed to maximize production from my small space. But over the years, I’ve begun to add more flowers and plant fun varieties just for the joy of it.

In particular, I’ve invested more space this year into heirloom dry beans. Not only do I love growing beans, but it brings me joy to see them in my cupboard all winter long.

I’ve found that as a result of adding flowers and fun varieties, I enjoy my garden more, and I see secondary benefits like more beneficial insects as a result of the flowers. 

Author: Natalie Hoidal, Extension educator, local foods and vegetable crops

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