January is an excellent time to prepare for the new gardening season by setting goals and ordering seeds. I have two gardening goals for 2017: expand winter production of vegetables, and increase wildlife habitats with native plants.
Searching the seed catalogues for old favorites and new selections is great activity by the warmth of the wood stove on a chilly day. I prefer ordering most seeds and some plants via catalogues because of the access to reliable organic dealers, the wider selection, and more information that includes quality native plants. I also like to get seeds early because I start cold crops in February — inside of course.
Seed selections can be overwhelming, with stunning pictures of luscious vegetables that jump out from the pages begging to be tried. However, I have wasted too much time, energy, and space growing varieties that do not get eaten or do not produce sufficiently. Therefore, I have decided to follow several gardening parameters that just make sense. First, grow what we will eat and grow more of it. I do like to try one or two new varieties some years, but overall I stick to what works.
It is also valuable to expand recipes. For example, yellow squash grows well in Arkansas, but will get old unless presented in new ways.
Second, grow crops that do well in local conditions. There is a reason why certain items grow well here: Climate and soil conditions are right. If any fruit or vegetable requires heavy maintenance — especially chemicals — to survive local conditions, it's not worth it. Indigenous crops work best.
It proves helpful to keep notes on lessons learned from the previous growing season, what grows well, and what does not. Was it because it was hot and dry, or cooler and wet? Conditions are changing quickly. Climate change is here, which brings us to the benefits of hoop houses to help control these elements as well as provide fresh vegetables year round. I garden in 3’- to 4’-wide beds. This makes it easy and inexpensive to apply hoop house technology. I construct a hoop house from 1/2” PVC pipe, 3.5 mil plastic, and a frost cover for approximately 30 dollars for an 18-foot long bed. This winter I am harvesting spinach, kale, and mustard even after single digit temperatures.
I have concluded that the healthy mental, physical, and spiritual benefits I get from gardening make it more than a hobby — it is a way of life. Working with indigenous plants and the cycles of nature secure my place in the natural world.