After church Sunday a fellow gardening fanatic said, "Hey, we can start thinking about gardening soon." She's exactly right. The late summer harvest and canning hangover is done. Fatigue from the epic battle with creeping malicious weeds has faded from memory. It also helps that we don't have five feet of snow on the ground like this time last year.
One of the gifts of gardening is that it connects us to the seasonality of the earth that sustains us. It gives us a new reference point as the days and months pass, literally anchored in land. We no longer can go into a new year imagining ourselves as isolated autonomous individuals of heroic resolve. We are reminded that it's not just our personal path that is turning the corner into a new year, but it's the whole of creation, of which we are but a part. Instead of going into the new year wondering what we can manage, administer and control, we think in terms of what we can nurture and grow and cultivate. We have no illusions that this year's crop is unrelated to what has transpired in years past. We think back three and fours years to the patterns and places of growth as we shape a plan for the new year. These are the practical questions of the gardener and the helpful metaphors of life that greet as we enter the new year.
So here are my recommended New Year's resolutions for gardening:
1. Make it bigger: My wife is going to freak out when she reads this one. We've actually run out of space to grow the traditional vegetable gardening bed, but there is always some under utilized corner or a boring landscape bed that can be re-imagined as a place to grow food.
2. Make it smaller: My worst gardening habit is crowding my plants. It's so counter-intuitive, at least to me, but fewer plants with more room will produce more food than more plants in a crowded space. You can't grow everything, so make your list of veggies you want to grow and pay close attention to the information about spacing of the plants. If you're worried about having enough room, make wider gardenings beds (4ft) instead of single skinny row.
3. Don't use a rototiller: Rototillers destroy all the hard work your worms have been doing all winter and because of the mechanical vibrations and weight of the tiller it creates a hard pack under the 6 inches of soil. If you're just starting out and the ground is packed down hard you may have to rototill the first year, but after that establish your 4 ft garden rows and walking paths and don't ever walk on the planting rows. In the Spring put compost on the top of your rows and using a pitchfork, the most important gardening tool, do the old plunge, push, pull. Plunge the fork into the ground and push and pull it. This aerates the soil, and allows the compost to drop down into the soil.
4. Grow Zucchini: This much maligned plant is the ultimate confidence booster for any gardener. Every year some of your crops will fail for whatever reason, except for zucchini. Grow the light green Armenian variety or the yellow ones for better flavor and harvest when small. We cut them up and saute them in butter and our kids eat them like they're french fries.
5. Choose a theme or project for the year: One of the most rewarding rituals for us has been having a project around the garden to work on each year. Our annual projects have included a rock wall and herb garden, a greenhouse, tearing out the lawn and the chicken coop. This year my project is native wildflowers. I gathered native wildflower seeds last summer and will be planting them all over our property this year.
6. Start your own seeds: You don't have to have a greenhouse to start your own plants. All you need is a flourescent shop light, a planting tray with a clear plastic lid and a heat pad helps. Here are my seed starting tips for the Inland Northwest.
7. Think outside the box: I used to think there was some primal rule that plants only grow if they're planted in straight rows. Well it turns out that they'll grow in any old way. If you're not going to be using a tractor or rototiller then you can make your garden rows in any old way you want. I use a modified raised bed method, where I create a two foot pathway and four foot beds that are elevated but not boxed in. Our garden is in the shape of a labyrinth. The one constraint you'll want to consider is your irrigation system.
8. Go organic: Why bother growing your own food if you're going to smother it in the same pesticides and herbicides that big ag does. If you rotate your crops and nurture healthy soil, you won't need them. My one compromise in the past has been supplementing my composting with some slow release fertilizer pellets that I scatter around. Hopefully with the chickens scratching and pecking and pooping all winter on the garden I won't have to do that this year.
9. Get chickens: This is our first winter with chickens and we are letting them free range as much as possible and they spend most of their time in the vegetable garden. I've never seen the fallow garden so clean. They are eating all the seeds and bugs left over from the summer. They are nipping at the weeds and scratching in their poop. It really is remarkable to see the whole interconnectedness of our little suburban farm. The chickens are feeding us through the winter with their eggs and setting the stage for feeding us this summer by prepping the garden all winter. One observation from last summer is that I didn't have any problem with aphids. I suspect the chickens gobbled them up before they could get established.
10. Get the kids involved: They love the miracle of watching seeds grow and harvesting food. It should be part of the essential curriculum of growing up. Make sure to plan on entering stuff in the county fair.