Friday, December 20, 2013

Gardeners' holidays: The Changing of the Garden

So here it is, the winter solstice—the shortest day, the longest night, and the official close of a gardener's year. This is the day I was planning to put my garden to bed for the winter, pulling out all the plants still standing and covering up all the beds with a nice thick layer of leaf mulch to keep them warm and, with luck, relatively weed-free until spring. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate with my plans. Even though winter has officially only just arrived, we've already had two significant snowfalls in December, so at this point most of the plants left in the garden are hidden under a layer of snow. I was able to find and uproot the larger ones (a couple of pepper plants, the dead and shriveled marigolds, and some massively overgrown arugula), but a few smaller ones remain buried. Some of those, such as the parsley and spinach, may just end up staying there until spring; Brian is curious to see whether these crops can get a head start in spring if we leave their roots in the ground all winter. Others may be pulled out at some point during a thaw. But since we're just about to leave for our Christmas vacation, all that will have to wait until we get back. (Next year, I must remember to keep on top of this and get the garden bedded down right after Thanksgiving.)

This doesn't mean, however, that there is no work to be done. The end of one year, after all, is the beginning of another, so closing up the garden for 2013 just means it's time to start planning for 2014. I've already received my 2014 seed catalogue from Fedco, my favorite seed supplier, a cooperative that specializes in heirloom seeds and varieties suited to Northeastern climes. Although it's no longer a tiny cottage business, the catalogue still has a quirky "alternative" flavor. It's printed in black and white on plain paper, with hand-drawn art instead of glossy photos; in addition to seeds and supplies, it sells "beneficical insects" and books on topics from cover crops to herbal remedies; and its features include fragments of poetry by one of the co-op's founders and political rants about GMO labeling and economic inequality. The real hub and core of it, however, is the seed selections, which are many and diverse and, for the most part, much cheaper than those sold by giants like Park Seed or Burpee.

Unfortunately, not every variety I've bought from Fedco has been a winner. The Winter Density lettuce we bought this year, though productive, was too bitter for my taste; the Ventura celery was extremely pungent, which is useful for a seasoning, but not so desirable in a veggie you want to use to bulk up a dish; and our Czech Black chili peppers and Glacier and Rutgers organic tomatoes, all started as seedlings, never thrived at all. I generally make a point of checking out each new variety before we try it by looking it up on the Vegetable Varieties site at Cornell and consulting the reviews, but even that doesn't guarantee results, as what works in one garden doesn't always work in another. So finding the best varieties for our little plot is largely a matter of trial and error. Fortunately, the more years of gardening experience we have, the more trials and errors we already have under our belts, so we can at least avoid making the same mistake twice.

Of course, picking out seeds for the garden is a serious undertaking, and it can't be rushed. I'm certainly not going to choose all the varieties I want to order for next year's garden in one day. In fact, Brian and I are planning to take the seed catalogue with us on our Christmas trip, so we can peruse it at our leisure and start narrowing down our choices. But I can at least come up with a basic outline of what types of crops to include, based on the analysis I did last month of this year's successes and failures. So here's my preliminary list of seeds I'll definitely need to buy for next year's garden, with the varieties still to be determined:
  • Arugula. The variety we've been growing (Fedco organic) seems to work for us, but we've used up our supply, so it's time to order more.
  • Basil. Ditto.
  • Celery. The Ventura wasn't a success, but it's worth trying again with a different variety.
  • Cucumbers. We've done fairly well with Marketmore in the past, but perhaps we'll mix it up next year and add a second variety for comparison.
  • Green beans. The Jade variety was a total flop this year and hasn't been a brilliant success in past years, so we'll look for another bush variety or perhaps try to spare some of our limited trellis space for a pole variety.
  • Lima beans. No luck with the King of the Garden variety in the past, but we'll take one more crack at it with another type.
  • Marigolds. We enjoyed having flowers along with the veggies in this year's garden, but starting our own from seed will be cheaper than buying plants.
  • Peppers. All the varieties we tried this year (Czech Black, Anaheim, Jimmy Nardello, Chocolate Beauty, Flavorburst, Paladin, and White Hungarian) were more or less flops; some perished as seedlings, while others survived but never yielded much. However, we know we can grow peppers, because we got a bumper crop of jalapenos the first year we planted them, so I guess it's just a matter of finding the right varieties. This will probably take a fair bit of research.
  • Scallions. Variety doesn't seem to matter; as long as we plant them thickly enough, we get loads (which is why we're now all out of seeds and need to order more).
  • New Zealand spinach. We haven't had much luck growing the regular kind of spinach, so perhaps this hardy, iron-rich substitute will work better for us. And if we don't care for it as a vegetable, we can try it as a ground cover in the front or side yard.
  • Tomatoes. We know the Sun Golds will thrive in our garden, but we've got plenty of seeds left for those; the tricky part is going to be finding other varieties that can hold their own on the same trellis.
So it looks like we'll be placing a pretty substantial seed order this year. On top of that, we're hoping to add some new fruit plants to our landscape. Having (we hope) eradicated the grapevine that was running wild each year over our back fence, we're planning to plant some hardy kiwi vines in that spot. We should have enough room for two females and a male. So it looks like it's going to be another busy planting season for us this spring—though we hope not quite as busy as this past spring, when we put in three new trees, five cherry bushes, and a dozen raspberry canes, all in one hectic weekend.

But all that is months in the future. Now, with the harvest all gathered in and the garden beds buried in snow, is the time to rest and plan. The hard work of digging and sowing, watering and weeding, can wait for warmer weather to roll around. For now, both we and the garden can enjoy a long winter's nap, and our spades and trowels can wait patiently on their pegs in the shed until springtime comes around again.

Happy new year, gardeners all!
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