What To Plant: Plan Your Early Spring Garden
December Means Time to Plan
With all of the chaos and celebration that surrounds Christmas, with snow on the ground and a cold wind whistling around the eaves, with stews and soups simmering in crockpots it might be hard to imagine that now is the time to begin choosing your seeds and planning for your early winter garden.
Even though it is still a couple of weeks until the seed catalogs begin to arrive int he mail you can still look through selections and begin your planning by checking out the online versions of the catalogs. An afternoon with the computer, a cup of herbal tea, and a notebook should be just right for a head-start on your garden.
Cold Hardy Vegetables
The first vegetables of the season that you plant will need to be cold hardy and able to withstand both frost and the later than normal ice storm. If you use the square foot garden method it will be easy to protect the plants in the event of a cold snap. If not you need to plan ahead for how you will protect your plants. Remember to look for heirloom seeds as well as seeds that will grow into plants that are open pollinated so that you can save your seeds for next year.
Kale is an excellent vegetable in the winter garden. It grows fairly easily and is not affected by frost. Try White Russian Kale or Winter Red Kale. Kale can be used in soups and casseroles. It is a member of the cabbage family, and has a bit of a bite when overly mature. Pick it when the leaves are small and tender.
Beets are also good to sow as soon as the soil can be worked. If you have a hot bed, or a cold frame, they can be planted now. Try Chiogga or Bull's Blood varieties.
Broccoli can be started by about the middle of January and transplanted into the prepared bed in March. Try varieties like De Cicco and Purple Sprouting
Brussels Sprouts can be handled the same as broccoli. Long Island Improved is a good heirloom variety.
Cabbage can also be started early in pots and then transplanted in March. Brunswick, or Red Acre are hardy heirlooms to try.
Carrots can (and should) be direct sown as soon as the garden can be worked. You can make successive plantings until late summer. Gold King does well in heavy soils or try Thumbelina in a container garden.
Garlic can be sown in the early garden as well.
Lettuce can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked. Black Seeded Simpson and Winter Density are suitable for winter gardens.
Onion seeds can be planted in flats now and transplanted into the garden in March. Look for a short day variety for the best results.
Parsnips sweeten during frost. Hollow Crown or Harris Early are good choices.
Peas thrive at 50-60 degrees. Plan accordingly and get the seeds in the ground as soon possible. Alaska or Green Arrow are trustworthy heirloom types.
Rhubarb should be planted indoors 6-8 weeks prior to last frost and transplanted out to a prepared bed. Rhubarb needs cold temperatures (below 40) to break dormancy. Victoria is the standard crop.
Established rhubarb can actually be forced by placing a pot over the plant to keep it in total darkness. Place mulch over the plants.
Turnips and Rutabagas can handle almost anything! Purple Top or White Globe are good varieties to use.
How To Start Seeds Indoors
Hopefully you prepared the beds well in the fall, tilling in manure and compost and covering the garden to over winter. If so then you have very little to do to prepare the beds now for planting, just till up the soil to loosen it for planting.
If you don't have a prepared bed then consider making frames of about 4 feet by 4 feet. Fill these frames with good soil from your nursery and plant in that. The benefit is that you can more easily fix a plastic "greenhouse" over the squares if really bad weather comes in by using chicken wire as a tunnel and covering it with plastic. For taller plants you can make cloches by cutting the bottoms out of gallon clear milk cartons and placing them over the plant.
Be prepared to use lots of mulch to protect your plants from frost, sleet and snow. With a little extra attention you can have fresh, organic vegetables all year.
How To Make A Hotbed
A hot bed is a helpful type of garden bed to have. It was extremely popular in times past when there were no grow lights or heat lamps. It is basically made from two layers of materials. The first, the heat layer, is the heat source for the bed. In a wooden frame (4x4) lay down a thick layer of straw, manure, and new compost packing it down as you place it in. Next, the second layer is created with soil mixed with well broken down compost. It is put on top of the manure in a six inch layer. As the bottom layer of manure and compost breaks down it creates heat which keeps the soil around the plants in the hotbed warm. Later in the season, when the manure is broken down and not giving off heat you have an excellent area for planting melons and other plants that need lots of fertilizer.
Long Growing Seasons
By starting early you can lengthen your garden's productive life. Here in Texas we get, easily, three growing seasons a year, and by doing some of the things above, could have a full four seasons. In other areas of the country things will be different but organization and planning ahead will allow you to make the most of whatever growing conditions you may have,
Growing vegetables allows you to provide fresh, wholesome, organic food for your family. With careful planning you can provide them year 'round.
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