Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gardening in January

To plant a seed is to believe in the future

In our part of the Northern Hemisphere, January is a time for garden planning. The soil is hard and snow-covered, the compost pile frozen, the soil amendments stored away for the winter. There's not much visibly happening outside.

Inside, near our warm wood-burning stove, we study seed catalogs, read and re-read garden advice books, and look through the newest garden calendar from the West Virginia University Extension Service.

We gauge the square footage in our garden, keeping vertical space in mind, as many plants such as tomatoes, beans and cucumbers grow well on trellising. We make a list of what we want to grow, based not only on what we like to eat, but also on what is easily grown and preserved and has the most nutritional value. We consider what can be grown in pots on window ledges and on the porch.

We draw a diagram of the garden, thinking of what to put where. The hard-neck garlic is already in, planted in October to be harvested in July. There are still potatoes in the ground; with heavy (~6 inches) mulching, we have found this is an easy way to store them over the winter. We have three patches of Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes. The roots of these self-propagating perennials can be an important emergency food source.

We decide what else to plant. Here is a list of 11 superfoods from a New YorkTimes Blog, Tara Parker-Pope on Health. We cannot grow all these foods here, but we can grow beets, cabbage, chard, blueberries and pumpkins. We also like tomatoes, beans, butternut squash, kale, spinach, brussel sprouts, and potatoes (Kennebec's are the local choice for our surprisingly short growing season here in the mountains). Our final selections will come from the above named foods.

We order most of our seeds from two catalogs: Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com) and Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org). These catalogs offer certified organic and heirloom seeds, and provide detailed descriptions of the varieties listed. These organizations obtain their seeds from independent growers and plant collectors dedicated to preserving heirloom plants. We have also purchased from Turtle Tree Seeds (www.turtletreeseeds.com), which offers bio-dynamically produced seeds from the Camphill communities (www.camphill.org) .

Over time, we hope to propagate as many of our own seeds as possible. Not only does this save ordering and buying each year, but over time the lines of plants we cultivate will adapt to the specific conditions of our site.

Gardening books we have found helpful include: “How to Grow More Vegetables (than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine)” by John Jeavons; “Four Season Harvest” by Eliot Coleman; “Gardening When It Counts (Growing Food in Hard Times)” by Steve Solomon; and “Seed to Seed,” a book about seed saving, by Suzanne Ashworth.

Winter is also a good time to clean and sharpen garden tools. If replacements are needed, they can be found in an unhurried way versus a rush when they are needed, and are frequently less expensive in the off season.

So even though activity in the garden in January appears to be at a standstill, for the successful gardener, it is a month of planning and cultivating a vision of future success as the Earth advances along its orbital path around the Sun.

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