...but Spring is coming. Really it is.
Planning Your Perfect Vegetable Garden
Complaining about the weather is winter sport for Northeasterners, but our long, cold winters are really a mixed blessing. Although they keep us indoors, they provide plenty of time to plan our gardens. So much time that it's easy to get carried away. If you are planning your first vegetable garden, you can be realistic or be overwhelmed. Even old hands at vegetable gardening need to be reined in. Think back to the cabbage your kids grew weary of after three steady weeks of cole slaw. Do you want a repeat of that? Instead of fantasizing, grab a cup of tea and a seat by the window and ask yourself; How much time do I have to work in the garden? How much space can I spare? What vegetables do I really like to eat?
Making choices about what to grow is probably the most important of your garden planning tasks, because those choices will dictate how much time and space is required. Every gardener tries to plant more than their space can hold. That's a gardening given, and it really doesn't get any better with experience. However, you can make your decisions a little easier by considering these 3 things:
1. Plant what you like to eat. This should be common sense, but seed catalogs are seductive. Consider how you eat already, not an idealized version of what the back-to-the-earth gardener eats. If your kids adore carrots, not chard, use your space to re-seed carrots every couple of weeks. If all you are really interested in is fresh salads, start with tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and radishes. You can always add more.
2. Plant what you cannot get fresh locally. Sweet corn is grown up and down the East Coast and the start of sweet corn season is a regionally celebrated event. Farmers' markets and stands will be overflowing with it. On the other hand, matchstick-thin green beans are rarely grown commercially and taste their snappy best when eaten fresh from the garden. Home gardeners can grow thousands of vegetables that will never be found in the produce aisle. Planting something new and different every year is a great way to expand your culinary horizon as well as your gardening chops.
3. Plant things that grow well in your area. Some crops, like sweet potatoes and melons need a longer, warmer growing season than many of us can provide. You might want to leave them for the pros to grow. Plant for the season we have, starting with cool weather greens, then clearing space for the heat lovers we can please, like tomatoes and zucchini, and cap the season off with vegetables -- like kale -- that sweeten with frost.
Be wary of vegetables that come with a guarantee of problems. Multiple leaf-spotting disease spores lie dormant in the soil, waiting for the perfect conditions to infect your tomatoes. Foil them by choosing varieties that are resistant to reoccurring problems in your area, like 'Celebrity' or 'Roma'. It's not a guarantee, but it does give you an edge, and there are plenty of choices. Choosing vegetables and varieties suited to your climate will pay off with less effort on your part and a better harvest.
Navigating the eccentricities of gardening in the Northeast is not easy. Plants are not "plug and play". They don't thrive if you ignore them and they require a lot of follow-up, which is why some people love gardening and others avoid it. For those who love it, our lingering, hazy summers and cool, crisp falls provide a growing season capable of yielding an every-changing menu of seasonal food. You wouldn't eat it all at once and you shouldn't try to plant it all at once.
Marie Iannotti is a gardener who writes, photographs and speaks irreverently about gardening. She is the author of The Beginners Guide to Heirloom Vegetables (Kindle, Paper) and The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Northeast (Paper). You can find her at PracticallyGardening.com and About.com Gardening.