I’ve been growing veggies in my urban farm (aka, my patio) for twelve years, but even as an experienced farmer, I still have a tough time getting started in the garden after a long winter. After months of neglect, the garden looks as hopeless as I feel, so taking baby steps makes it more manageable.
My garden has been under 6″ of snow for the past three weeks. I have no idea what’s going on under the row covers… I’m afraid to look.
As the winter wanes and spring feels like it will never arrive, there are a few steps you can take to get a jump on your garden. Here’s what to do for your garden right now, in late winter:
- Identify your space. Most veggies thrive with at least eight hours of direct sunlight, and they need to catch rainfall and drain well. Your garden should be on a flat surface to prevent erosion, and should be protected from wind, yet be open enough to get good airflow. And if you’re in an area with wildlife (who isn’t?), then consider a fence or barrier to keep out hungry critters.
- Choose your produce. What do you love to eat? Pick a couple of your favorites, and start with those – no need to get fancy, just stick with what you love. There’s nothing wrong with planting some tomatoes and a few herbs. I grew only tomatoes for years, and my success with those simple plants encouraged me to branch out and try more and more each season. This past season I grew more than forty varieties of fruit, herbs and veggies, and this spring I’m planning even more. But I couldn’t have gotten to this point if I hadn’t taken a first step with tomatoes.
- Create a garden plan. It’s important to plan ahead so you’ll have enough space. I use Mother Earth’s garden planning tool to map out my beds – it’s easy to use, and helps you figure out how much space you’ll need for each plant. This is particularly useful for urban farmers like us, who need to maximize small spaces. A sample layout using their tool looks like this:
The Mother Earth News garden planning tool helps you map out your space and lets you know how much produce you can reasonably expect to fit.
- Order seeds. It’s surprisingly gratifying to read through the new seed catalogs each spring. I particularly like Southern Exposure Seed Exchange – they’re in central Virginia, so they know what grows well in our region (USDA Zone 7a/7b), and their seeds are organic, which is important if you want to grow an organic garden.
- Prepare your bed(s). When the weather is bearable, begin cleaning out your space. Enlist a helper, put on some good tunes, grab your tools, and take it bit by bit. Clear out rocks, throw away debris, and start turning over the soil (I use a hoe, but a sturdy rake or shovel also get the job done), and add compost (I use Espoma products — they’re organic and high quality). An easy alternative is to use containers – it saves you from having to break through our dense Virginia clay. Or if you’re willing to invest a little time and money, a great alternative is a raised bed.
This preparation is the least gratifying phase of farming, but building a strong foundation is critical for a successful harvest. Like life, the garden is cyclical. And I’m thankful for that.