Even though spring is a few months away, this time of year my thoughts turn to garden planning and seeds. Now is the time to start, because I always try something different each year. When I stand out in the garden on a bleak January day like today, it’s hard to imagine how lush and verdant it all is in the height of the summer. Leafing through seed catalogs and looking at photographs of my garden from last season helps to kick start my enthusiasm.
My garden started as an experiment with raised beds in a semi-shady small suburban yard. Most soil in developments and subdivisions is terrible because it is mainly compacted fill dirt. In addition, in our area the soil has a lot of clay in it, which makes it that much worse.
So I built several raised beds from things I bought at a second-hand store for construction materials. One was just a sturdy cabinet laid on its back with the back removed. I filled them with composted horse, chicken and goat manure mixed with topsoil, sand and organic material. They have done phenomenally, even in the partial shade. I put together a drip irrigation system through all of this so that I could be as efficient with the water as possible.
Every year I modify or add structure, more beds or trellises. One year I built a simple cold frame by creating a frame out of two layers of 2-by-6s, and adding glass-paned cabinet doors with a hinge to the top. I was able to plant spring greens a month earlier and keep plants going a month later in the fall this way. It was super easy! During the warm months I simply removed the cabinet doors from the top so that it wouldn’t get too hot.
Last spring I built a few trellises out of repurposed PVC pipe and wire, and chose some vining vegetables and flowers to utilize the horizontal space in the garden. I planted red runner beans (a shelling bean with beautiful bright red flowers), pole beans, cucumbers, vining summer squash, climbing nasturtiums, and morning glories. This coming spring the experiment will be growing vegetables in straw bales.
A few new exotic, unusual, colorful veggies are planted each year. I mix in colorful plants such as rainbow chard, purple or speckled beans, long Chinese beans, purple potatoes, golden or striped beets, unusual tomatoes and a variety of colors of eggplants. Often the flavors of these unusual varieties live up to the liveliness of the colors, but occasionally they are disappointing, so I plant some of my standards as well. Cooking with colorful or new vegetables every summer is such a treat.
I’ve always been a practical gardener, and until last year I never planted flowers unless I could eat them. Last spring I did a little experimenting with colors and textures, and was really pleased with how it brightened up the garden and attracted pollinating insects. Marigolds served a dual purpose, because they are supposed to keep bad bugs out of the garden. I added some sprays of wild flowers, climbing vining flowers, and happy sunflowers.
In a few months, I’ll start reporting about the progress on my straw-bale garden project. In the meantime, I'll daydream as I flip through the seed catalogs, pick out new things to plant and sketch out my next gardens.