This month has been one to remember. On second thought, it's been one I'd rather forget; prolonged, often stinging cold, nighttime temperatures unceasingly near or below zero, sometimes in double digits below zero, and a seemingly relentless north wind that makes it feel even colder.
What better way to take your mind off winter than to start thinking about vegetable gardening? February may be the cold, cruel heart of winter, but it's also the time to dream, to plan your summer vegetable garden, to order your vegetable seed catalogs, if you haven't already done so, and make lists and order your garden seeds, if you have.
No doubt about it, increasing food costs are taking a bigger and bigger bite out of family budgets. Growing your own food, or at least some of it, is a great way to save money. In fact, a few plants, some canning equipment and/or a bit of freezer space can save you a lot of money. And growing your own vegetables is a great way to eat healthier. Homegrown vegetables are so much fresher and taste so much better than industrially-grown, supermarket-purchased produce.
In spring and summer of 2008, I spoke with several first-time vegetable gardeners; more in fact, than in any previous year at the Extension. And, although their reasons for getting into gardening were many - fun, family activity, outdoor recreation, exercise, worries about food safety - the leading reason was the ever-increasing cost of food.
Whether you are a green thumb or a greenhorn, now is the time to start planning your vegetable garden. It's never too early to think about where and what you are going to grow. Is yours going to be a large garden in the country, a small garden along the fence or in the dooryard of your home, a raised bed? Or maybe you're considering a number of decorative containers outside of your apartment. Be creative. It's amazing what can come of some imagination and a little effort.
If you have a lot of time to devote to gardening, great! If not, keep it simple. Gardening is much more than just digging up a piece of ground and planting. Yes, the garden should provide, but more than that, gardening can and should be an enjoyable experience, a labor of love. Working in your garden should provide a time to think, or maybe to not think about anything except the miracle of something as simple as a seed.
I cannot overemphasize the value of selecting and purchasing quality seeds from a dependable seed company and/or buying starter plants from a reputable dealer. You run the risk of losing your entire garden by planting inferior seed or by setting bad or diseased plants. Starter plants should be healthy, fresh and stocky with deep green color. Never buy plants that appear yellow or wilted.
While you're waiting for your seed catalogs to arrive, take the time to draw a garden plan. This will help you to get an idea of just how big an area you will need to accommodate everything that you are planning to grow (and just how realistic or unrealistic your gardening plans actually are). Be sure that you allow an adequate area for fully grown plants. Spacing requirements can often be found on seed packages. Don't forget to figure in enough room between rows for access and always plan to place the tallest plants (corn, sunflowers) at the north side of the garden. You can calculate the square footage required by multiplying the total length by the total width. The garden can be any shape that you choose.
If this is your first time out, start small. You can always expand later or next year. You might even want to consider a gardening method commonly referred to as square-foot gardening, which is planting your garden crops in 1-square-foot-by-1-square-foot plots, rather than in rows.
For larger plants (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower), you will want to allow one square foot per plant. That one square foot, however, should be enough room for four medium-sized plants (most lettuce, bush beans, spinach, Swiss chard), nine small plants (beets, onions), or 16 very small plants (carrots, smaller onions). Radishes can be planted 32 per square foot.
In fact, carrots and radishes can be grown together. And by using trellises, you can even grow cukes, squash and melons in a very limited space. Select different crops for each square foot and rotate them as they mature and are harvested. Choose easily grown crops that will allow you to produce more food in less space and keep in mind that succession planting can allow you to produce multiple crops, one early, one later, within the confines of a small garden space.
First time gardeners often plant more than they can easily maintain, and because of this, they fail. Weeds and pests need to be controlled and the time and commitment that this requires, especially in a large garden, cannot be overstated. All gardeners experience problems. A lot of knowledge is not required. Understanding a few basics is.
A garden requires water, especially when starting seeds or transplanting crops. If it is at all possible, have an adequate supply of water at or near your garden site.
Sunlight is another essential. If you want to produce healthy plants, you should select a site that receives at least eight hours of full sun, has good air circulation and receives adequate rainfall. Avoid areas where trees or shrubs will shade out your plants and compete for food and soil moisture. If this is not possible, plan to use varieties that are shade tolerant and hardy. Select only plants that will thrive where you plant them.
Good soil, too, is essential. Loose, fertile, well-drained sandy loam or silt loam soil is best. Sand is ok, but you will need to improve very sandy soil by adding adequate quantities of organic matter. Areas of clay or waterlogged areas should be avoided altogether.
A relatively level garden site is preferred. Make sure that there are no dangerous obstacles at the site, such as pipes or buried cables, before you dig.
You can't garden without at least some basic hand tools (and a good pair of work gloves). Select a trowel that feels comfortable to you.
A good trowel can be used to plant, dig, weed, cultivate, edge, divide plants, even remove rocks. For larger area gardens, you will want a spade shovel, garden rake, garden fork or cultivator and a weeding claw or weeding hoe, as well. Some sort of cutting tool, such as pruning shears, will prove handy for trimming, deadheading and harvesting your vegetables and flowers. A wheelbarrow or garden cart, although not essential, will make easy work out of what otherwise might be tedious or backbreaking. (In a pinch, a child's wagon may be used, instead.)
Choose vegetable varieties that are recommended for this area. Cornell Cooperative Extension can provide you with a "Selected List of Vegetable Varieties for Home Garden Use in New York State," as well as planting charts for vegetables and information about plant food elements.
Consider making your garden a family effort or planning a separate children's garden. Children are often fascinated with seed germination and the transplanting of plants. More often than not, they thoroughly enjoy and take great pride in growing their favorite vegetables. And they love to share what they've grown with others.
Last, but not least, plan to keep a journal. Notes about the germination of the seeds and vigor of the plants that you choose could prove invaluable. Note any disease or insect problems, should they arise, and keep a record of the time that you spend working in the garden and the results of your efforts.
Local county Cornell Cooperative Extension offices are a source of information for vegetable gardening success. Or you can access the wealth of Cornell University gardening resources online at www.gardening.cornell.edu.