I know, I know. I just want to hibernate by the fire, too, but these tasks are absolutely essential. Yes, you can just “wing it” by just grabbing whatever baby plants are available at your local nursery this spring and plop them in the ground randomly, however…
Times have changed:
- More people are gardening now than ever, which is great, but that means that things get picked over FAST. If you don’t have a plan in place, you may end up with an empty garden.
- With the unstable food supply, you are probably thinking about food preservation. Food preservation requires careful planning in regards to your space and the varieties your are growing.
- We are becoming more health and environmentally-conscious as a society, which means opting out of conventionally grown “food” and investing in high quality, organic produce that is grown locally. Read more about the toxic effects of glyphosate HERE and the appalling fact that food travels an average of 1,500 miles before it reaches our plate.
Are you ready? Let’s do this!
5 Must-Do Winter Tasks for Gardeners
These are the 5 tasks that I complete every single winter, and they haven’t failed me yet! They get easier every year, too. Keep your notes and build on them in the years to come.
#1: Reflect on what you want out of your garden
What are your goals?
This is an important step that will help guide you through the rest of the tasks. You need to develop your vision and goals first, then we execute! Take a few minutes to reflect on this and you might come up with something like the following:
- This will be my first year gardening and I want to keep it simple. I’d be happy with just a few plants that are easy to grow in a small raised bed.
- This will be my first year gardening, however, I have lots of space and I’m ready. Go big, or go home.
- I’ve been gardening a few years now. I’m ready to up my game and strive for food preservation.
- I’ve always wanted to start a side business and growing “X” is what I want to focus on.
- I value community and I would find a lot of fulfillment in starting a community garden in my neighborhood.
Think About EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen”
Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a list of 12 foods that have the highest detectable levels of pesticides and 15 foods with the lowest levels. If you are limited on garden space and/or funds to purchase organic produce, consider focusing on growing the foods on the dirty dozen list!
You can access the full list HERE, but below are my top 5 from that list in terms of what’s easy to grow:
- Kale, collard & mustard greens
- Bell & hot peppers
#2: Draw Up Your Garden Plan
Now that you have an idea of what you want to get out of your garden, you need to make a plan in order to execute it properly.
There are a few things that you need to consider:
- How much space do you have? Grab some graph paper (or print out your own for free) and draw out the perimeter of each of your beds with a permanent marker. I like to use 1 square per square foot for my large beds of tilled earth and 1 square per 6″ for my 8’x8′ raised beds. Scale it to what works best for your garden size!
- Write down a list of everything you want to grow. Then, number them in order of importance to you.
- Fill in your garden plots with your desired vegetable plants with pencil. Start with your favorites and work down from there. That way you are sure to have room for what you really love. If you aren’t sure how much space each type of plant takes, I HIGHLY recommend buying The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible! It’s my absolute favorite and I refer to it all the time. It has great information on plant pairings and general spacing recommendations.
- Reassess your plan. I often make several modifications to my garden plan! Set it down and come back to it a few times to really be sure with what you’ve decided on. You might decide that you’d actually like more “X” and less “Y,” or you might decide to just go for it an add another raised bed so you can grow a few more things!
- If you’d like to see an example, here’s a couple of my 2021 garden plots sketched out 🙂
#3: Buy Your Seeds NOW
I know, I know. I used to always buy my seeds in January or February, too. Times are changing and seed companies are selling out FAST. I ordered my seeds in mid-November this year and some varieties were sold out already! Don’t wait.
Now that you have your goals defined and your garden plan all set up, it’s time to get those seeds!
Wait, can’t I just buy seedlings at my local nursery?
Yes, you can. I still buy a few things at my nursery that I have trouble starting on my own (rosemary, lemongrass & mint), however it’s a complete gamble. The person in front of you might buy the last one. They might look “rough” and be weak from the start. Good luck finding organic! There’s too many variables.
…and then there’s COST. You can get an entire packet of seeds for about the same price as 1 plant from the nursery. If you’re looking to expand your garden, you’ll be able to fill it at a fraction of the cost of using nursery seedlings.
Where should I buy my seeds?
There are so many companies out there, it can be hard to choose!
These are my favorite 3 seed companies that offer organic & heritage varieties:
- https://www.highmowingseeds.com/ (My personal favorite, 95% of what I use in my garden!)
#4: Gather Your Supplies
Now that you have your goals set, your garden plan drawn out and your seeds are on their way, it’s time to gather the rest of your supplies.
If you’re already an established gardener, you may be able to skip this step. The beauty about gardening is that nearly all of your supplies are reusable. It only requires a one time purchase and then you’re set for years to come.
These are the essential items that I recommend:
- Seedling pods – there are many kinds you can use. I prefer THESE plastic ones because I can clean them and reuse from year to year! They also hold moisture well so the seedlings are less likely to dry out. There are compostable ones as well, however, with a short growing season in MN I often repot 1-2 more times before they actually get to the garden so that feature doesn’t benefit me. I like to use THESE when they outgrow the small pods; 4″ seems to be the perfect size! You also don’t need to buy these at all if you’re on a budget. Use old egg cartons, empty yogurt containers, etc.!
- Seed Trays – if you’re starting super small, you can just use dinner plates under the seedling pods to contain the moisture and mess, but chances are, you’ll need something bigger. THESE are what I use and I highly recommend going for the 10 pack. They are versatile (use them for growing fodder, microgreens, storing gardening supplies, etc!) and they eventually do crack as they wear out over the years.
- Grow lights – Unless you live in the far south, you’re going to need grow lights. This is the one place you absolutely don’t want to skimp on. I’ve seen way too many gardeners try to “make do” with tiny lights or a just a window and the seedlings end up wimpy and leggy with a poor harvest in the end. Pay the money up front and you’ll be so happy that you did. It’s a one time investment that will pay off for YEARS. I still have yet to have a light bulb burn out!
- THESE are my absolute favorite; I have two of them and I wish I had more. They are sturdy and have excellent light coverage. They can easily handle 2 entire seed trays, maybe even 4 if you’re good about rotating them!
- This grow light is a great option if you’re on a budget. It’s the same size as the one above, however it’s not quite as adjustable and it’s exceptionally tall (Ryan helped me chop the legs off a little shorter).
- I use this smaller grow light to start my baby seedlings and it does a great job! It covers 1 seed tray and helps the seedlings grow strong until they are ready to move onto the big lights.
- Watering pail – Make sure your watering can has small holes to ensure a gentle stream of water. This is very important when your seedlings are delicate and small. You don’t want to smash them! Some people even use a water mister with their seedlings.
- Seed starting mix – You’ll want to start with a sterilized, soilless seed-starting mix. This is because seedling are very susceptible to soilborne diseases. This is the one that I’ve been using for years! Once the seedlings have grown a few “true leaves,” then it’s time to move them on to a mix of 1 part seed-starting mix, 1 part compost and 1 part garden soil.
- Compost – if you have your own compost bin, then you’re set! If yours freezes solid every winter like mine does, remember to grab a chunk out of it every fall and store it in your garage for use in early spring. If you don’t have your own supply of compost, you can find some at your local nursery. Read more about how to compost here and if you’ve been thinking about getting started THIS is an excellent composting tumbler to use!
- Soil – it’s important to bring a chunk of your own garden soil in every fall for the same reason as the frozen compost! You’ll want to incorporate your own soil into your growing mix so that your seedlings acclimate to the conditions of your soil. If this is your first year gardening and you don’t have any available soil yet, you can pick up a bag or two from your local nursery.
- Fertilizer – you’ll want to start using fertilizer later on once your seedlings are getting large and chewing through available nutrients fast! I prefer THIS fish emulsion (beware – it sure does stink!) because it is well-balanced and fast-acting.
- Mixing bowl/bag – I use a heavy canvas bag with a zipper on top because it’s durable, yet easy to transport around! This could even be a cardboard box in a pinch. You’ll just need some sort of space for mixing soil, compost and seedling mix together (as a 1-1-1- ratio).
- A nice, sunny spot (yes, even if you have grow lights!) – this one is free, of course, but can be hard to come by! Be creative and willing to improvise. Your seedings won’t be there all year; likely only 2 months (depending on what zone you live in). My first few years, I set up camp on the kitchen table and we just chose to eat elsewhere. Was it great? No. Did it work? YES. Now, I take over one of our guest bedrooms, prop the mattress against a wall and utilize the bed frame (it’s solid plywood) as my growing space!
#5: Create Your Garden Calendar
You’re almost there! All that’s left is figuring out when to start your seeds.
Every vegetable and herb is different in regards to when they prefer to be started before planting outdoors. Some vegetables like onion, brussels & eggplant prefer to be started months in advance, where others like melon & squash only need a few weeks. Then, there’s vegetables like potatoes, corn & garlic that should never be started indoors!
How do I know when to start my seeds?
The best place to look is on your actual seed packets. The instructions there are not only specific to the type of vegetable, but to the variety you’ve selected as well!
Another great place for general information is my very favorite gardening book: The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible. It’s the only one you’ll ever need!
Next, figure out when your “last frost date” is
The seed packets and gardening book won’t tell you exactly which day to start them; they will only tell you when to start your seeds based on your individual last frost date. This is important to figure out because someone in Texas will have a drastically different last frost date (March 12th) than I do here in Minnesota (May 11th). To figure out what your last frost date is click HERE. Once you have that figured out, you just work backward to figure out what day to start your seeds!
How do I keep track of it all?
If you are growing more than 4-5 vegetables, I highly recommend using a garden growing guide so that you can keep track of what to start and when. It also serves as a useful document for keeping notes throughout the growing season as well!
I created one that I’ve been using for years and it’s very helpful to refer back to and tweak for future seasons! Ryan helped me make it an editable document so that you can work on it electronically, or, if you’re old fashioned like me – you can still print it out and write it in by hand. You’re definitely going to want one! Join my exclusive email list (located at the bottom of this post & side bar) to gain access to this valuable document, plus much more to come!
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