It’s January and at last, the days are getting longer. The seed packets are littering my dining room table and I have that itchy feeling that I should be out in the garden — but the snow is still on the ground. Still, there is plenty of planning needed to prepare for spring.
Even if you have been growing and harvesting all through the winter, there is always the excitement of getting ready for the big push. This is the beginning of the year and in some sense, all gardeners become beginners again. It is a time to refocus onto the fundamentals – the skills and activities that have to be remembered and often relearned each year. This the time to pay attention to the three S’s – seeds, soil and sun
Deciding which seeds to buy and who to buy them from is one of the most exciting activities for the gardener. You can order any number of seed catalogs online. Most companies are reputable and sell seed that will germinate at a rate of 90% or above. Always check the shipping and handling charges — these vary greatly and can add unforeseen cost.
Realize that large corporate seed producers like Monsanto produce the majority of standard varieties. If you wish to avoid them, look for smaller companies that sell organic or unusual seeds. Also, try to buy seeds that have been grown in a similar latitude or environment to yours. I buy from Northern growers, as these are more likely to produce plants that suit my altitude.
Gardeners make two opposite mistakes: rushing to buy too many different types of seed or getting overwhelmed by choice and leaving it too late. The temptation is then to head to the local store and grab an early boy tomato and some bedding plants. Seed buying should be a balanced mix of rational decision (I know that one grows reliably in my garden) and pure excited impulse (I just love the name of that one, let’s see if it grows).
I use the 60-40 rule: 60% of my seeds are for varieties that I grow each year; the other 40% are for fun and experimentation. Keep a note of what you like and the list of ‘must buy’ swells a little each year as the experimental seeds pass muster. Assume that at least half of the new varieties will be duds, so be prepared for disappointment.
Seeds are magic but don’t get fooled by their size. From that tiny dried out grain springs a big leafy individual who needs space. Remember the size of the full-grown plant and how much room you have available before adding more seeds to your purchase. Seeds are so cheap and carry so much hope, I always buy too many.
Seed germination can be tricky for the beginner. I still look to my gardening books to remind me which seeds like to start indoors and which ones require direct planting. A quick consultation of the “Expert Books” by Dr. D. G. Hessayon is all it takes. The information is on one page in easy to read format. He has a great quote for seed sowing: “Not too early, not too deeply and not too thickly are the golden rules.”
In mild climates or later in the season, direct seeding works well in most gardens. Use floating row covers to protect the delicate seedlings. If you have a short season or want early crops, you have to germinate in a controlled environment. Indoor hydroponic systems and greenhouses have the advantage of reducing plant loss but you need a little more technical skill and know-how.
For easiest indoor germination use plastic planting trays with individual pots and a transparent cover. These are available at most garden stores. Fill each pot with a dampened soil less planting mix. Because it is sterile, planting mix helps reduce fungal diseases that attack seedlings. Plant seeds thinly and keep warm and damp.
I make my own traditional planting mix of 4 parts peat moss, 2 parts humus or fine compost, and 1 part sand. The main point is to have a medium that holds moisture but is never waterlogged. Seedlings do not need nutrients until they form roots, so you can germinate seeds hydroponically or even in a damp paper towel.
Starting a garden bed
If you need a new bed and did not get round to working the soil in the fall, there are two easy options: the green manure system and the lasagna method. The green manure system requires a minimum amount of digging while the lasagna method is considered no-dig.
Last spring I needed a new flowerbed for all my annuals. As soon as the ground thawed, I turned over the top three inches of virgin gravelly soil and removed the worst perennial weeds. I added a ½ inch dressing of biologically active humus (Humisoil), some alfalfa pellets from the animal feed store and a dose of compost tea. Then I thickly planted barley and clover and watered occasionally. By April, the barley and clover were growing well. I turned over the top three inches of soil again, smothering the green manure, waited a week and started planting. By mid summer the bed was overflowing with flowers.
There are many types of green manures and all of them both break up the soil and add nutrients. A natural rule of thumb for all soils: do not leave them bare – try to keep them clothed. Use plants, green manures, and mulches of all kinds to save the soil from exposure to sun, wind, and drought.
The easiest way to start a new bed quickly is the lasagna method – smothering the weeds and adding a new layer of soil. Mark out the bed, lay down overlapping sheets of cardboard or thick uncolored newspaper, water well, and cover with compost and topsoil. Plant directly into the new soil and keep uniformly damp. The cardboard seems to draw worms and disintegrates over the season, allowing the plant roots to push through.
Understanding your soil is as much an art as a science. Many gardening books suggest expensive soil testing and adding chemicals. My experience is that if you feed the soil, it will soon reach a natural and fertile balance. Healthy soil has five essential elements: minerals, water, air, humus, and microbial life. When these are in the right proportions, you seldom have a problem.
Poor soils are generally deficient in humus and microbes. Humus is a form of carbon created from decomposed organic matter as in compost or manures. It is porous and holds both water and air as well as providing a home for the beneficial soil bacteria and fungi to live on. Adding organic matter in the form or green manures, compost, humus, etc. is essential for building up a good soil structure to house the microbial life. Homegrown compost and compost tea add many billions of productive populations of bacteria and fungi to the soil.
Most people complain about their clay soil, little realizing that this often has plenty of locked up nutrients. Clay needs air, humus, and microbes to unleash its fertility. Sandy soil is more problematic as it is also low in available minerals. Learn to know your soil and think of it as a living medium that needs to be nurtured according to its individual nature.
If you are creating a bed, make it soft and comfortable for those little seeds. I seldom dig more than five inches down unless I need to get out a deep-rooted weed. But I like to break up the top inch of soil into a fine well-draining crumb, filled with organic matter and life. In my sandy soil, I occasionally add humus, alfalfa, rock and sea minerals and organic nutrients such as fish protein, all of which become food for the soil microbes. I avoid using chemical fertilizers, as these kill off the soil life and burn seedlings, as well as producing inferior roots and plants.
Plants need energy in the form of light and heat. In early spring, there is not enough sun energy to unlock the seed and nurture the seedling. Each variety of plant has a slightly different energy requirement: sweet peas like it low while tomatoes like it high. Experienced gardeners learn these requirements and then bend them slightly.
Again, I always consult my gardening books for advice on when to plant. If I am impatient and decide to plant early, I know to use row covers, solar collectors like walls-of-water and extra mulch. The secret is to capture the available solar energy and hold it in the soil.
Those seedlings germinated indoors, are hardened off gradually on my deck, protected from direct sun, and taken in if there is a risk of frost. I always grow more than I need and allow nature to let me know which plants are ‘fittest’: they have to survive my stress tests. I hold back some seedlings by only looking after them casually. These stunted plants cling to life until I find that extra time and space to get them into the ground. Then off they race.
January is the time to dream and plan. In this dark time of the year, the growing season lies dormant, awaiting the right combination of seeds, soil and sun. With a little vision and forethought, we know this year the garden will be better than ever.
Dr. D. G. Hessayon: The Vegetable and Herb Expert. The Tree and Shrub Expert. The Flower Expert, etc.