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Tomorrow’s Garden: Today! Part 2

sprouts OK. We are NOT in the kitchen today. This is for those folks who read, way back in October, about starting a garden and perhaps went to their land fill or composting facility and picked up some compost and put out the cardboard and now have …frozen piles of compost out in the yard that has snow all over it. It’s hard to get romantic looking at that stuff – but trust me, in the spring, you will be happy you did the work.

Actually, look at the picture above: I took that yesterday, Christmas Eve day in my garden here in Upstate New York. Those are brussels sprouts, frozen but still cookable and edible. On Dec. 24th!! So, if you get started with more garden stuff this week, you can, even in the coldest places (well, maybe not Alaska…) have something out in your garden that you can harvest a year from now and use to feed your family (ahem..disclaimer: you will have something out in your garden that you can harvest…except if the bunnies and deer get to it. RIP: the kale that was also standing in the snow last week, sniff).

For those who missed, here is a hint – you can still do this because fresh compost does not freeze. As a matter of fact, if you go visit your landfill/composting facility, you may find that the big black mountain standing there is sending off a plume of steam. Composting creates a whole lot of heat. So, if you want to do the deed NOW (and loosen up that waistband from the holiday cookies!!! You will get a two-fer out of it!!), follow the instructions in our last episode. You may have to break through the outer frozen crust to the warm compost underneath – think of it as a giant vat of crème brulee, ok? Tomorrow’s Garden:Today! Part 1

For everyone else, who were good little Munchkins and now can look out, smugly, at the side yard with the mounded rows of compost on top of cardboard, the rest of the lesson is for YOU, mes petites choux (which is French for “little cabbages,” which, by the way, is not a bad thing to grow).

Today’s lesson revolves around the issue of: What should you do now? It’s December. It’s cold. It’s thoroughly uninspiring out there. You’ve never done this before. What can you do now to move the process forward? Well, it means that you need to make some decisions about (cue the scary music) What You Are Going To Grow.

Check list for deciding:

1) What does your family like to eat in terms of veggies?
2) What other veggies are in the same family that they haven’t tried yet but that you’d like to try out.
3) Is this garden strictly for fresh eating or do you want to do some freezing, drying or canning too? Or is it strictly for stocking up?
4) Where do you live?

So, in terms of the check list and using the Chez Siberia family as the example:
1) Broccoli
2) Cabbage, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and kale
3) Both – we blanch and freeze broccoli, leave the brussels sprouts and the kale out in the garden and the kohlrabi keeps in the bin in the fridge.
4) Ah – this is important. Read this if nothing else. The USDA produces a Climate Zone Map which, in a general sort of way, tells you what zone you are in depending on where you live.

USDA Zone Map

It tells you basically how many frost-free growing days you have. If I look at that map, it tells me that I’ve got a couple of weeks in May and all the way into October to grow – wow – that’s 136 days. That’s amazing.

Except…it’s not true. We can have funky weather even into June and we have had killer frosts as early as Sept. 17th. So, I usually knock one zone off it and figure that I’ve got 3 weeks in June for sure, July, August, and through the end of September (and I cross my fingers behind my back and am always prepared with some plastic or The Big Blue Tarp if the weather folks predict frost).

This number of days is a very important tool for you because no matter what you like, there are types of plants and seeds that take so long from planting the seed to producing mature, ripened fruit or tubers under the ground or whatever, that you won’t get anything if you just put out seed and wait. So you need to cheat.

Cheating in the garden means that for certain plants, you jump start them in the garden by either buying plants at your local greenhouse or you get seeds and start them under lights, on a warm window sill or go whole hog and get a warming pad, lights, etc. and produce all your own plants.

Now we need to be honest with ourselves (because at Aunt Toby’s, we are all about the self-reflection and honesty). I can tell you because I’ve been gardening for…well, we won’t go into that, but it’s a whole mess of years, trust me. I can tell you that raising your own plants for the garden is like getting a new puppy in the house – you’ve got to keep track of where they are all the time, clean up after them, train those babies and make sure all their needs are covered. If you do not, they will die, or they will be leggy (which is almost as bad) or some other issue. So, if you want, this first year, just throw in the towel right now and be prepared to go to a greenhouse and get the plants. Find a co-worker or friend who gardens and ask them, “Which is the best local greenhouse for garden veggie plants?” Not the cheapest place. Not the closest place. Not the place that has huge numbers of flats sitting out in the sun on hot asphalt (I’m talking to you guys, Big Box Stores), but the place that plants them at the right time, takes care of them, has knowledgeable people there that you can ask questions of, etc.

When you grow your own, the sky is the limit – you can grow those French tomatoes and Peruvian potatoes and all that. But even with a good local greenhouse, they are going to make some pretty strict decisions about what they are going to carry and sell. They will have a) plants that a lot of people ask for both by type (like tomato) and name (Big Boy, Early Girl, etc.), and b) plants that will have a high level of success in your area. So, starting with those your first year is a great way to start. Do that for 2-3 years and you will get a feel for how things work in your garden and you can start talking to other gardeners in your area as to what THEY grow, what works for them, etc.

On the other hand, if you want to know how to choose seeds, here are a couple of examples of tomatoes to give you an idea of how to make the choice:
Czech Bush……….70 days from transplant
Gold Medal………..90 days from transplant

“From transplant” means that you start the seed, grow it up into a little plant that is about 6” tall, all leafed out and stick it in the ground. 70 or 90 days from that moment is when you can first expect to get ripe tomatoes out of it. And you need the ground to be nice and warm also.

So, that means that if you plant it mid-way through May, the earliest you will be able to get tomatoes to eat is probably going to be the end of July – and that is if everything is perfect – so it will more likely be into August for Czech Bush and into September for Gold Medal. If you live in a place like southern PA, MD, VA etc., Gold Medal would work for you – north of those areas, I’d go with Czech Bush because you want to make sure you actually GET tomatoes.

There are other plants that a) don’t take a long time to go from seed to harvest and b) don’t require really warm soil – lettuces and some things from the cabbage family come to mind. There are others that you will still want to grow from seed because they don’t transplant well, but they still want “warm feet” – things like beans, squash, cucumbers, and corn. So, you can plan to plant your lettuce seeds, esp. if you plan to cover the bed with some sort of row cover or plastic or whatever, weeks before you can put in the beans, etc. and those tomato plants.

And finally, HOW do you find seeds? Well, you can go to your local garden center, but they usually don’t put their fresh (that is, the 2009 season) seed out until it’s close to gardening time for your area. And if you want to try your hand at starting tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, etc., you are going to need those seed long before that, so you need to go to the internet. Search on terms like: garden seeds, vegetable seeds for colder areas, vegetable seeds for contests (that is, if you want to try to grow the biggest pumpkin or whatever). There are regional seed companies all over the US and into Canada and you can find pretty much whatever you want. You can find seed houses that do nothing but tomatoes and peppers; short season seed houses; seed houses that concentrate on French veggies or Italian or Mexican or Asian. You can always search on “xxx seed” where “xxx” is the veggie of your choice. If nothing else, you can sign up to get “the gardener’s wish book” – seed catalogs. There is nothing like sitting there with the wind and the snow howling outside, looking at luscious photographs of vegetables and flowers. Gets millions of people through the winter, those things do.

So, your assignment is:
1) If you have not done the compost and cardboard bit, follow the instructions in the posting I linked to above and go for it.
2) If you are ready to think about seeds, go to the internet, search for some seed houses that will have what you are looking for in terms of veggies and have them send you their catalogs.
3) Go to the link for the Frost-free map and find out how long your growing season is, so that when those catalogs come in, you can start to plan.
4) Rummage around and find a couple of pieces of ¼” grid graph paper so that you’ll be ready for the next assignment, which will be “how to plan out your garden.”

(originally published at Oxdown Gazette)

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