Gardening Guide: Growing Patience

As this warm February weather has us itching to start ALL the Spring things, including gardening, we invited our friends at DiamondB to help us do some thinking and planning. You know…BEFORE we go digging up the yard.

Growing Patience – How planning your garden can save you money, time, and heartache.

It’s that time again.  The weather is warming, and while we aren’t without cool mornings, we can see that spring is right around the corner.  On grocery or hardware store trips, we encounter displays of seeds, bulbs, flowers, and herbs, all laid out in rows, begging you to bring them home.  As tempting as it is to load up your cart with whatever happens to be available at the moment, there are a few reasons to avoid rushing into a purchase and, instead, carefully plan your garden.

The most obvious reason for being patient would be that it will save you money.  Take seeds, for instance.  If you haven’t yet made an inventory of the seeds you already have left over, you may buy more than you need or can use.  When it comes to young transplants, if you haven’t evaluated the space that you have available, you may get too many of one thing, not enough of another, or put them in the wrong location and end up not getting the yield you expected – or worse, having the plants fail to thrive or die.  There’s nothing worse than investing your hard-earned cash into some beautiful plants only to lose them a short time later and not get a return on your investment.  This leads to the second reason that being patient pays off… You save not only money but also time.  Starting over after a failure means fewer weeks left of the growing season.  And finally, being patient saves you from disappointment and heartache!  While garden failures are something everyone can experience from time to time, it can be very demotivating to put so much effort into something and not see it succeed.  Luckily, you can take a few easy planning steps to avoid these pitfalls and increase the likelihood of success.

Planning Step 1:  Inventory your seed stash

You may have forgotten some things if it’s been several months or a year since you last took stock of your seed collection.  I can’t tell you how many times I picked up some seeds on sale late in the season one year, tucked them away, and then re-discovered them again AFTER having already purchased another set the following spring.  This is where labeling your seeds with dates becomes handy.  You want to use up the oldest seeds first.  I have found just marking when I bought them before I store the seed packets will keep me from having seeds go bad before I can use them. Some seed packages will have a “packed for year” or “sell by” date stamped on them.  In that case, you should use those dates instead of your own purchase date when making your plans. 

Organize your seeds somehow to make it easier to manage.  How you do that is up to you.  Some people will categorize them according to season (cool weather crops vs. summer crops, etc.), and some will store them by type (brassicas together, herbs together, etc.) or by variety (all tomatoes together, all beans together, etc.)  Be careful about mixing varieties of the same food in the same planting season…more about that later.

Maybe you purchased a bulk set of seeds that automatically included seeds for plants you are allergic to or don’t like, so should those seeds get thrown away? No!  Donate them to a seed bank or seed library for someone else to use. Seed swaps are a great way to try new things as well.  Social media is full of local gardening clubs that you can join to take advantage of the growing community near you to share seeds and knowledge about gardening in your area – its climate and all the other nuances about where you live.

Planning Step 2: Decide your priorities

Are any seeds nearing their shelf-life and need to be used quickly?  You may choose to prioritize those so that you have a chance to use them before their germination rate declines too much.  How are you planning to enjoy your garden space? Are you looking to build a garden based on beauty and aesthetics to win a neighborhood contest? Maybe you will select more flowers.  Are you looking for a peaceful place to sit outside and entertain? Perhaps you will choose things with a pleasant aroma or repel mosquitos to make being out there more comfortable. Are you interested in lowering your grocery bill?  Then, planting more edibles would be your priority.  Whatever your reasons are, make sure you are clear about your priorities and make decisions based on those goals.  If space becomes an issue, having a clear objective will help ensure your choices align with your values and keep you from buying something you don’t need just because it’s “on sale.”  This is especially true of the food category.  Don’t buy seeds for beets if your family doesn’t love beets.  Focus on your favorites.  It’s fun to experiment sometimes, but certainly, don’t buy things out of obligation or because that’s what you think a “real” gardener would grow. 

Draw out your garden space on paper or use a gardening app and map out what you think you want to plant in those spaces.  Try to keep it to scale as much as possible, considering the spacing between the various varieties.  Can you actually fit everything that is on your list?  If not, it’s time to make some decisions – which shouldn’t be too hard now if you have thought about your priorities.  Resist the urge to cram more into the space than is recommended.  Certainly, there is value in what they call “vertical” gardening, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about overcrowding to squeeze more into an area than belongs there.  If you do that, you will be setting yourself up for failure.  Plants without proper spacing will become diseased, starved of light and nutrients, and ultimately won’t do as well.  So, do yourself (and your plants) a favor and plan it out to know what you can fit, and then purchase just the right amount for what you need.

You’ll want to consider whether the location for the plants you mapped out is compatible with other plants already in the vicinity, either on your property or adjacent to you.  What you plant could affect trees, bushes, and other crops nearby (and vice versa.)  If multiple varieties of the same plant are grown too close together, the cross-pollination of those could lead to unexpected results in the hybrid fruit (corn, for example, could be deformed, have stunted growth, and may fail if pollinated with another variety.)  That said, if sister plants of the same variety are not close enough together in enough numbers, your pollination rate may be too low to produce fruit.  Sometimes, you can boost your harvest by putting some companion plants in or near your garden.  For example, planting marigolds and basil near your tomato plants will improve the flavor and help with pest control.  Before purchasing your plant list, consider whether you can leverage companion planting and place those in your garden design.

While you are considering your priorities in your design, don’t forget about the rest of your life as well.  Think about what other priorities may vie for your time and attention during the growing season.  How much time can you devote to your garden, realistically speaking?  Is this a season to go all-in on exotic plants that you have always wanted to try?  Or is this a season to focus on easy to grow low-maintenance varieties or perennials that will require less care?  How much help will you need to do the necessary upkeep, like pulling weeds, fertilizing, pest control, and harvesting?  All of your life circumstances should also be part of your decision-making process when planning out your garden, and it’s always a good idea to give yourself some grace for unexpected things to overlap your growing season.

Planning Step 3: Prepare your space

So, you have gone through your seed stash, organized, prioritized, and mapped out your space.  There is still one more step before you purchase your seeds and plants.  I know…., but we are growing patience here! Bear with me. Before you start digging, you need to prepare your space for the transformation that will soon take place.  It all starts with your soil.  Soil matters.  A lot.  What type of soil do you have in your area?  Rocky, sandy soil?  Clay? Most plants respond very well to soil that holds some moisture but drains and doesn’t stay soggy.  Amending your soil to work in some materials to either hold more moisture or drain better – depending on what your upcoming plant selection will need – is not a step you want to skip.  Also, if you haven’t done a soil test, be sure to do that and determine your pH levels in the various areas of your garden space.  You may need one side of your garden to be slightly acidic but the other to be more neutral, depending on what plants will be growing there (refer to the map you created).  The time to think about soil amendments is well before you begin planting in the ground so that the soil has time to incorporate the new material. Amending the soil the previous fall or winter for planting in spring is ideal.  But if you didn’t do it – don’t fret – just knowing the type of soil you are dealing with before you plant is a step in the right direction. 

Next, you will want to observe your space at different times of the day to look for sun and shade patterns.  It helps to take a photo of the space every couple of hours during the day and then compare the pictures to see how much time your garden space is exposed to the sunlight.  Based on this, you may want to adjust the garden map you created to ensure that what you plant tolerates those conditions.  Also, think about your local weather, and if you are prone to high wind, do you have a built-in wind break to protect young plants from being knocked over?  Sometimes, a fence, building, or even a bush or tree positioned just right will provide that protection.  If not, consider how you might introduce a windbreak to reduce the effect of the prevailing wind. 

Of course, water considerations are going to be very important.  An automatic sprinkler system is ideal, but that isn’t the only thing to consider.  If one side of your garden bed is more elevated than the other, you may end with a dry top and soggy bottom that will affect the growth of those plants because the water isn’t distributed evenly as it runs down and pools at the bottom of the hill.  Also, consider whether your plant variety can tolerate the wet leaves that an average hose sprinkler would create or if a soaker hose just on the roots would be more appropriate. 

Ready, set…. wait!

Planning your garden can be a fun and exciting exercise.  Thinking about all the possibilities can bring renewed energy after the dreary and cloudy winter.  Once you have your plans in place and have prepared your space, you will want to jump in and finally start planting to make your plans a reality.  But before you do, you should ensure the timing is right.  Maybe the seeds you picked out need to be started in January, and it is now March.  Oops!  You may have bad results if you force it and plant it anyway.  The plant may bolt too soon because it can’t mature before the summer heat arrives.  Garden fail.  Or perhaps the seeds you picked out need to be started in May.  If it’s March, your soil may not be warm enough, and the seeds will rot before germinating.  Garden fail. 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t trick Mother Nature.  Your seeds and plants know what time of year it is, and while you can extend your growing season a bit using greenhouses and indoor grow lights, etc., you will generally yield better results if you don’t fight it and learn to go with the flow.  It’s great to have a plan before you start, but don’t be so stuck to your plans that you don’t leave room for adapting to new circumstances and leaving room for the timing to be right.  Gardening is a continuous learning process; the most important thing you can grow is your patience!

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