Starting Your Garden
In our climate, a vegetable garden can get going as early as February, and the dark, wet days of January are a perfect time for dreaming up your next year’s garden. Here’s what to do:
DEVELOP A PLAN
GET SMART— Making a plan for your garden before it gets going allows you to get the most out of it. For guidance, I recommend strongly that you get the following two publications: Martime Northwest Garden Guide (produced by Seattle Tilth and available for sale at both Co-ops) and Home Vegetable Growing in Washington (produced by Washington State University). I also encourage you to register for the Co-op’s Garden Center’s Garden Planning Workshop on February 3, 2018.
DRAW A MAP— You can get your plan going by drawing a map of your site. Make sure to include the size of your plots, their orientation, what was last planted in them and anything near them that may impact the light and heat they get like trees or concrete. You should also make a list of what you want to plant. Save yourself money and hardship by choosing plants that you actually want to eat, that your garden has adequate light, heat, and irrigation to support, and that you have the time and skills to successfully care for.
WHERE TO PLANT— Once you’ve got your map and your list, you can decide when and where to plant things. Use a planting guide from one of the resources I mentioned above for planning timing. In deciding where to plant things, take into account the space a plant will take up and how much heat and light it needs. Also, think about trying to rotate crops- especially if you grow heavy feeders like tomatoes or have soil diseases present on your site.
PREPARE YOUR SITE
BE PATIENT—Trying to work soil while it is still very wet can seriously damage soil. Lots of people have a hard time waiting until their soils are properly dry (which can be as late as May some years), but it really isn’t worth it. I tilled in early March once and the soil turned into impenetrable clods of clay. You can make the waiting easier on yourself by using plastic or glass propped up over your garden beds (air circulation is important!) to keep the rain off your garden beds.
I’ve made absurdly simple set ups involving sawed-in-half hula hoops with old shower curtains zip-tied over the tops of them, but you can also order hoop houses if you’re feeling fancy.
WEEDING— Get a head start on weeds! In wet times it’s also important not to step too much in your garden, so traipsing up and down it with a hoe may be unwise, but if you have raised beds setting down some boards to stand on around the edges of your beds will allow you to do a good hand-weeding. My preference, though, is to lay down cardboard over my empty beds- blocking the weeds while still allowing the soil to breathe. Others use mulch for this purpose, but I like cardboard better. If it hasn’t dissolved by the time you need the bed, you can just pick it up and put it in the compost; it is much easier than moving mulch, and while mulch is a beautiful thing, it can be better to leave it out in the early months of spring so that the soil has a chance to soak up any rays of sun it can get.
SELECTING SEEDS— Start seeds! The Garden Center will be opening up in February and we will have our usual wide variety of organic seeds and super cool seed-starting supplies. It may be wise to come in with your list of plants so you don’t totally cave to impulse buying. Making a few impulse purchases, however, when something jumps out at you that you never considered before (like loofa or sweet violets) is sometimes half the fun. Just make sure you have the right growing conditions, time, and skill needed for whatever you choose. If you think you only want 2 or 3 of a plant, I recommend getting a couple of folks to split a seed packet with, or foregoing seeds and waiting until we have transplants available.
WHEN TO DIRECT SOW— There are a few things you can start planting directly in the ground in February if your soil is dry enough. Peas and fava beans can go directly in the ground without cover as soon as the soil can be worked. If you have a cloche or a cold frame you can begin sowing some cool season vegetables under it like spinach, cilantro, arugula, bok choy, radishes and lettuce.
TRANSPLANTS— Many of the most exciting vegetables need a longer growing season than our climate can offer, these include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, celery, and onions. Northwest gardeners almost always sow these seeds indoors now to transplant once the weather is warm enough for them to survive and the soil can be worked. In other cases, there are crops like broccoli and cabbage (and kale and collards if you aren’t using a cloche) that can be started indoors now, too, to give them a head start and possibly allow you to do multiple planting throughout the year. If you are new to indoor seed starting, keep your eyes peeled for a seed starting workshop the Garden Center will be hosting the first weekend in March, and/or get yourself a copy of Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades (indispensible and available at both Co-ops) or get this other great, free publication from Washington State University called Propogating Plants from Seed.
Sylvan Rook, Garden Co-Manager