Gardening for Life: Musings from a winter garden on the potential of a new year
I am sitting out in my little shack — a 14-foot by 18-foot chicken house that I cleaned up and put a wood stove in — peering through the window across the lawn and into my backyard garden. I have about a thousand rocks, fossils, minerals, mammal skulls, hornets nest, etc. on different shelves and hanging down from the ceiling. I call it my nature shack. I guess you could call it a man cave, but it is really more of a nature retreat.
For a retired guy on his own schedule, it is a real blessing to come out in the middle of winter to read or write — surrounded by the artifacts that to give the place its ambiance — while the stove radiates its warmth.
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As I gaze across the lawn at my dormant garden, my mind wanders a few months into the future; here I am on a blustery winter afternoon and I am already dreaming about planting season. I am wondering about how the late winter will play out this year. Will it be an early spring this year? Or maybe late? I guess we will know by March or April.
For some reason, I am someone who likes to get an early start on gardening. Of course, I do start some seeds on my back porch every year, but I am talking “winter is over, the soil is warming” type of planting. Although I have had a few less than optimal experiences in planting as early as possible, I enjoy it and it is something I plan to continue
Potatoes are generally the first vegetable I plant in the spring. I certainly go by the friability or texture of the soil before I plant. It has to be dry and loose. I have had a few years when I could work the ground in March and plant some early potatoes. I suppose the norm would be in early April for most of the cool season plants. Of course, any cool season seeds planted early take quite a bit of time to sprout and grow.
This brings us back to starting some of your own vegetables from seed on your back porch, or maybe a convenient window on the sunny side of your house. The experience of growing seeds into plants lets you start enjoying the sprouting, growing and tending on a limited basis before the more intense work starts in the garden. Generally, I will try to grow most of my tomatoes and peppers from seed. This is always interesting because when you start the seed you are guessing the plants will be mature enough for transplant outside in an approximate time.
Several years ago I got a little carried away and started over one hundred plants in little peat pots on my back porch. By that point I had invested in some growing bulbs to help assist the slowly increasing daylight. I even started zucchini and cucumbers that year.You have to be careful to make sure you identify each plant if you start more than one variety.
I give my tomatoes anywhere from eight to 12 weeks from when I plant the seed until I hope to set them in soil in my garden. It would seem to me that I can never get much size on the green peppers I start inside. I start them with the tomatoes, but maybe I will start them a little earlier this year. My porch is not heated, but with a heat pad and a plastic cover providing a greenhouse effect I should be able to start by mid-February.
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Putting those transplanted tomatoes in the garden is always a risk the way I do it. Generally, I will wait until a week or two before the average final frost date and then check the extended weather forecast. If above freezing temperatures are predicted for overnight lows, I may just transplant those tender pepper and tomato plants even before the last average date for frost. There has been a time or two when I had to cover up plants at night to protect them from frost, but very seldom.
Starting a few seeds on your window sill can be a rewarding experience for a gardener. Win, lose or draw, in terms of your success with the plants you still gain a positive experience from your efforts. You might also save a little money and get a head start on your vegetables. So, if you have never tried starting seeds indoors, “grow for it!”