Monday, March 20, 2017

Gardeners' holidays 2017: Garden Planning Day

Well, this is apparently what the first day of spring looks like now:

At least the snow is melting instead of still coming down, but there's still enough out there to make our regular annual celebration of First Sowing a little impractical.

But perhaps it's just as well, since it really wouldn't be practical to start putting seeds in the ground just yet this year anyway. As I mentioned last spring, our garden bed frames have been falling apart for some time now, and we've concluded that this is the year we're going to have to take them apart and replace them completely. (We've decided to go with the pressure-treated wood, and Brian has already acquired the materials—40 2-by-4s and five pounds of stainless-steel screws—with the help of a pickup-driving coworker.) So if we put any seeds into the beds now, we'd just disrupt them when we tore down the frames.

So, instead, our plan is to tear down and replace at least one of the beds next weekend, and then plunk the peas down in the newly assembled bed. And in order to make that happen, I need to get busy and figure out just how we're going to lay out the garden this year, so I'll know which bed we need to replace first.

In order to make that process a little simpler, I've decided to try simplifying my crop-rotation scheme. Garden books always advise you to make sure you don't plant any crop in the same spot where it's been for any of the past three or four years, which is kind of hard to do when you've only got 96 square feet to work with. In a frantic attempt to make it work, I used to juggle all the squares in the beds individually, moving plants not only from bed to bed but also from one end of the bed to another, trying to find new blocks of 9 squares each for the zucchini plants and 4 squares each for the peppers, all while trying to maintain the optimal companion plantings of tomatoes with basil and leeks far away from peas. But in the end, I always ran up against the same old problem: there are only so many squares for our plants, and only so many ways to fill them. No matter what I do, I'm going to end up breaking at least one of the rules.

So this year, I'm taking a more laid-back approach. Rather than trying to place each individual plant in the perfect spot, I'm going to rotate entire beds from year to year. That will ensure that the tomatoes, which are heavy feeders, always go in the spot just vacated by the peas, which add nourishing nitrogen to the soil, and the plants that need to be kept together in one bed (or kept apart in separate ones) always stay that way.

Then, to keep the zucchini and pepper plants from ending up in exactly the same spots as the previous year, I'll flip each individual bed horizontally, moving each plant to the mirror image of the spot it had last year. This will put the pepper plants on a two-year rotation, bouncing from one end of the bed to the other every year, while the two zucchini plants will progress around the eight ends of the four beds on a four-year schedule. It's not perfect, but it's probably the best we can do with this limited space, and it's a lot easier than trying to fit each plant into the perfect square like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

One additional wrinkle is that we have a lot more space in the garden this year than we had last year. We've decided to drop two crops entirely: the Brussels sprouts, which only yielded one very late and rather stunted crop in all the time we've had them, and the eggplants, which never gave us a single fruit bigger than a walnut. Their absence leaves us with ten whole extra squares in our garden, and since we haven't selected any new crops this year, we're not sure what to put in them. The winter lettuce, which seems to have successfully overwintered from last year, can occupy four of them; for the other six, the best plan we have at the moment is to expand our plantings of green beans and basil, which we can always use more of.

I suppose a Gardeners' Holiday devoted to laying out the garden, moving little squares around on a spreadsheet, isn't quite as thrilling as putting actual seeds into the actual ground (even if we'd have to move a layer of snow aside to do it). But for this year, at least, it's a lot more useful. By getting the garden beds mapped out now, we can be prepared to start replacing the frames this weekend, which will help keep our garden growing over (we hope) the next twenty years. So we're sacrificing the short-term satisfaction of planting seeds right now for the long-term gain of growing more and better crops in the long term. Which, if you think about it, is pretty much how gardening is supposed to work.
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