Happy New Year and welcome to real winter! At this time of year, it seems there is nothing you can really do in your vegetable garden. Snow dusts the ground; your raised beds are iced over, and ice fishermen are walking their skids towards their favorite lakes. This happens to be one of my favorite gardening times of year, planning. Grabbing a sheet of graph paper and drawing my space and dreaming of the spring. Pouring over catalogs, both in hand and online, and designing what comes next.

This fall I set up my raised beds and added some winter kill oats and radishes to grow in the late fall and then die back during these cold days to prepare my planting area. Many people prepare their raised beds and certainly their gardens in the spring, turning soil, adding compost or worm casings and mulch. However, in the relative quiet of the deep winter it is a great time to plan what is going in those raised beds or gardens.

One method that works for many is dividing your area, in raised beds or direct to the ground, into 12-inch by 12-inch squares. Square Foot Gardening has many online sites that will help you know how many of each plant can grow in a square foot. It makes planning easier and more controllable.

One thing to keep in mind, is if you are new to vegetable gardening, it is best to start small and then expand slowly over several years. The amount of watering, tending, weed control can be overwhelming if you plan a huge area your first year. This point is reiterated in this Purdue.edu link. https://www.purdue.edu/hla/sites/yardandgarden/advice-for-first-time-gardeners-start-small/.

In Square Foot Gardening, there are charts that will help you plan. One cauliflower or one tomato, for instance, can grow in a square foot, but 16 carrots can grow in the same space. This method is quite nice for weed control and organization which works well for smaller home gardeners or beginners who want guidance.

In raised beds you want to avoid larger items like corn or butternut squash. This gardening method works best for smaller vegetables and herbs.

For larger and spreading vegetables, row planting in larger areas will work better for your larger plants. A good resource for planning how many plants can go into a square foot is at this link: squarefootgardening.org/2019/03/planting-chart-cheat-sheets/

Another thing to consider as you plan is the direction of the sun and how many hours of sun you will receive on your garden. South facing is generally optimal and in open areas that are not blocked by trees or other obstructions. Also think about the height of the plants that you are putting into your bed. On the north side of my south-facing raised beds, so in the back, I put the tallest of the plants, tomatoes, beans, eggplant so their trellising doesn’t shade the plants in front.

Other plants, like broccoli can be grown in front of lettuce and it will extend the growing season of lettuce, shading it as temperatures climb in the early summer. Here is one of many links to companion planting. https://gilmour.com/companion-planting-chart-guide.

One thing that brings me joy in February is buying a few seeds to start under a grow light or near a sunny south-facing window. Now my record with seed start is extremely mixed. I know I often do better buying a 3-inch tall tomato plant than I do growing my own, but there is nothing like seeing little seedlings sprout – even though I know there is at least a better than even chance that the seedling will never make it. I’m too impatient and often plant too early. Around here, last frost is not considered to be until after Mother’s Day and even then we’ve been known to have a cold snap. (last year I believe!)

However, that said, there is a wonder in knowing the tomato you ate in August is the seed you planted in February. So, hope springs eternal and I always sew seeds into seed pots around Feb. 15. I tend to use the little peat hockey pucks you can buy in most garden areas. Once soaked with water the peat expands and a seed is placed into the center.

This year, I’m going to try using cardboard/paper egg cartons with a bit of very lite soil. Lite soil is mostly not soil but a growing medium of approximately 1/3 soil, 1/3 sand, perlite or vermiculite and 1/3 peat moss. Another soil suggestion is using ½ soil and ½ coffee grounds, which sounds like it would work and would help to add nitrogen and phosphorous.

The egg cartons are cut into individual sections before planting to make it easier to plant in your garden when the time comes. The egg carton ‘cups’ can be placed in a shallow pan or plate where you can water from the bottom. Always keep about a 1/8th inch of water in the plate. The egg carton cups are completely biodegradable and are planted directly into the soil when your plants go outside.

The roots of the vegetables will often grow right through the egg carton, if your plant starts to push roots out before it is time to plant. It can be temporarily transplanted into a larger pot for a while until it is time to set them outside.

Finally, what do I plant?

The most important thing is to plant vegetables you enjoy, that you would use. Two or three tomatoes will be plenty for two people. For over abundance, of course you can share, but you will need to start canning or even do a veggie sales stand if you plant six tomatoes. Two cucumber plants per person will be plenty and if you want to grow more, you can always make pickles.

Another idea is to find out if any of your neighbor gardeners are planning an abundance of certain vegetables and coordinate space for who grows which veggie.

So, grab that graph paper, pull up your favorite chair, and start dreaming!

Cecilie Keenan is a Purdue Master Gardener in Noble County and the author of The Noble Gardener. Contact her at keenancd@aol.com for information on gardening topics.

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