Friday, January 29, 2010

The best part of winter

As a west coast transplant to the east coast I've had many things to adjust to. First and foremost in my mind is the chill of winter. Moving from a place that is more or less 64 degrees F year round (and a Mediterranean climate!) to the extremes of NYC has been quite the learning experience. You mean I can't just plant what I want any time of the year? I have to "harden off" my seedlings before sticking them in the garden? The ground is FROZEN? How is that even possible??

Being the eternal optimist, I always look for the silver lining in every cloud that comes my way. Living in Santa Barbara my garden took on a very eclectic look. I would go to the nursery, find something that I liked, and just smush it in with all of my other garden delights. This haphazard approach, while easy, left much to be desired in the way of aesthetics. This brings me to the point of this diatribe - winter affords us seasonal people the luxury of advanced planning.
When the temperature outside is so cold that the ground is frozen, I certainly don't want to go outside, but I still want to play with my garden. The answer is easy, I prepare for spring. All of this downtime allows me to maximize every square inch of my plot so that during the limited growing season I can have an output that I never thought possible, even in warmer conditions.

The method is simple: start with the frost date and work backwards. In NYC this date is April 18th. That means from November (The first average frost of the year) until April I can plan what I will be doing in the summer. Assuming I want my plants to be as large as possible (or as large as my space will allow) come planting time, I want to count backwards about 8 weeks. That means I should plant my seeds around Valentine's day, giving them 6 weeks to grow and then 2 weeks to harden them off before they end up in their permanent homes in April. Now this isn't a hard and fast rule, but it is a decent guideline that can be adjusted depending on the plants you will be growing.

Prior to sowing my seeds I need to decide what to plant. I do this in a very simple way. First determine how much space you have. Then decide what you want to plant. Then I use a simple diagram to maximize my crop. I personally am very limited in space, so I know that I can't grow things like corn that require a large amount of space. I also have an affinity for hot peppers, so I'm going to lean heavily in that direction this year. We will use my tiny community garden plot as our example.

My plot gets ample light all day and is a simple shape. I know that I want to grow high light plants (like peppers!), and that I have approximately 12 sq ft (3ft x 4ft). I want to have 4 types of peppers. I'm going to simply lay out my plants like cookies on a baking sheet. Tallest towards the back (south) so that the others get plenty of sun. I've used various shades of green to illustrate the various peppers.

In addition to this I want some flowers and cute things that will spill over the edges of my raised bed. I'm going to choose some herbs, like oregano, and flowers like cascading petunias. I've used red to indicate where I will be sticking these.

Combining all of this information I now know that I will need to plant at least 3 of each pepper plus more to adjust for loss and so I can pick the healthiest of the bunch to plant. I will also need around 10 or so of my cascading plants to get good coverage around the whole bed. In total I need to prep around 20 seeds, plus extras for wiggle room. Great! My garden is going to maximize the display and my pepper output!

This simple method can be used at any time to plan your garden or even simple containers. Just make a little diagram and start figuring out what you want to put in them. If planning out a whole yard seems like a daunting task, break it down into small sections. Start with the veggies, then the flower beds, then the deck. Or break it up into sections, the far north corner, the far south corner, etc. Just make sure you start soon so you can get the most out of your garden in 2010!

If all of this seems like too much work for you, but you still want a great garden, don't be shy about contacting your local garden center. Any of us at Dig would be happy to help you out in your plans. Heck, we can even do all the planting and maintenance if you want! The important thing to keep in mind is: use the winter to your advantage to maximize your summer!