Posted on Leave a comment

The Growing Zone Paradigm

Contrary to popular belief your growing zone means almost nothing to your vegetable garden in North America. What?? Bear with me and by the end of this post I’m sure you’ll agree.

Just a few years ago when I really delved into gardening – spending hours poring over five-star growing guides and watching breakout channels on YouTube – I was getting inconsistent information as far as what I could grow in my garden, when I needed to start seeds and direct sow, etc. This is mostly caused by an assumption that your zone dictates when and what to do with your annual vegetables. Unfortunately, your growing zone only affects perennial plantings. By definition, in fact, a growing zone is characterized by the average low temperatures in a geographical area, dictating what perennial trees, shrubs and other plants will survive the winter and come back the following year.

Wait. Aren’t most garden variety fruits and vegetables in fact.. annuals? Yes, you’re correct! And therein lies the problem. One of the things I find most infuriating about folks who are trying to teach gardening online is that they refer to gardeners by zone, as if that broad category is important enough to even warrant mention. By titling a video “When To Start Seeds in Zone 6,” you’ve created a rift in the timing that a budding gardener like myself desperately needs to understand in order to be successful, especially in a zone like mine! While north Idaho varies greatly in growing zones (ranging from 4a to 7b) for example my area has a majority zone of 6b. Within this zone there is a variance of up to a month of growing season, meaning a huge difference in first and last frost dates within the same zone!

This is imperative to remember when planning for success in your vegetable garden: your last day of frost, in the first half of the calendar year, is when your growing season begins. Your first day of frost, in the second half of the year, is when it ends. Given that there are just a handful of perennial vegetables to be grown in most of the contiguous United States, don’t you think that’s much more pertinent to your garden planning and execution?

Frost is First

So here we’ve come to the meat and potatoes of this important lesson: ditch the concern and constant mention of zone and trade it for a focus on frost. If I had known this my first season I would have saved loads of time and energy – so much so that I made it my mission to differentiate the two so that others may learn from my mistakes.

Your frost dates are what dictate when you start your seeds, when you can plant your seedlings out into your garden beds, when your first harvest will be, and when your last harvest will be. In contrast, your growing zone only describes your average low temperatures during the winter, based off historical averages in your area. This means next to nothing to when you’re going to direct sow or start indoors – you have to count backward from your last day of frost which can be found on the Farmer’s Almanac website here – because zone doesn’t tell you when you’re going to see freezing temperatures.

So if you really want to nail down your gardening timeline visit the Farmer’s Almanac, put in your zip code and get your frost dates here. For a detailed look at what a gardener’s year should look like see my post on Grow Your Own.

Posted on 1 Comment

Grow your Own: A Gardener’s Year

In my quest to find a comprehensive gardening calendar that fits any growing season (and sadly coming up short) I’ve compiled this collection of resources to fit any gardener in any region and any climate. Just a few supplies are needed to put together your ultimate gardening guide and can be found for very cheap, or even free!

Planning – let alone executing – a vegetable garden can seem like a daunting task, but if you take it one season at a time you’ll be pleasantly surprised how much food you can grow for your family. For this program I chose to start the year on the most unlikely day – the day that Mother Nature kills all that is green and tender! This is the day that preparations begin for the next growing season, even though you may not be finished enjoying the harvest you’ve just picked, stored, and probably thrown at anyone who will eat summer squash. Especially in colder northern climates it is a wonderful time to amend beds for their annual hibernation period.

While this is your planning period, don’t forget that it’s a time for rest and relaxation for the gardener as well. Depending on the length of your growing season this off-time may be shorter than not. Count your blessings because this means your fruitful season is longer than mine! Though winter can seem dead and dreary it is a wonderful time to curl up in front of the fire with a tablet and pencil out your allotment for the coming growing season. One of my favorite and most valuable tools in my garden is my notebook – a free download of all my printouts can be found in our online store here. A three-ring binder and some dividers are all you need to put together your very own gardening handbook.

So take the opportunity during this period of rest (for you and your garden) to prepare for the coming year and all the work it holds for you. Yes, it’s a ton of hard labor – sometimes backbreaking – but when you taste that first tomato of the season or prepare a basket of fresh veg to share with your neighbor it fills you with such incomparable joy that by the end of winter you may even be itching to wrestle with bags of soil and cart seedlings in and out of the greenhouse.

To begin, enter your zip code on the farmer’s almanac website below.

The First Season – Planning (FDOF)

Now that you’ve marked your first and last frost dates on your calendar it’s time to block out Season 1 of your Gardener’s Year – the season I call Preparation. Beginning on the day of your first fall frost, this is the time to prep (or build) your garden beds, compost the dying foliage that has been overtaken by frost, amend the soil for their winter vacation, and straighten out your shopping list for spring: take inventory of your tools and materials, order what is needed, and peruse seed catalogs. Use the seeds worksheet from my printout package to take inventory and make a wish list of varieties you’d like to try.

This is also prime time to improve the infrastructure of your garden and surrounding areas. Take this opportunity to reorganize the tool shed, shore up your fences, and do some hardscaping if needed. This will make the spring much easier when you’re trying to juggle timing, and everything is already in its proper place and in tip-top shape.

Now, make sure you leave enough time in late winter to start your seeds indoors if you’re going to go that route. In most parts of North America you’ll want to start sowing indoors at least 8 weeks prior to your last day of frost in the spring.

The Farmer’s Almanac has a comprehensive planting calendar available by your zone here.

When it’s finally time to tear open the first packet, visit my seed starting post here. It’s chock full of information I’ve gathered over the years starting my own seeds, and I’d love it if I could help you start the gardening-from-seed journey by sharing what I’ve learned.

When your seeds are started and cooking in their little plugs it’s a waiting game for the next 2 months or so. Take good care of your seedlings, read a book or two and savor the quiet and calm that is the season of snow. If you don’t get snow in your area, head for the mountains and go sledding or snowshoeing! This resting period of your year will soon be over so have your cozy winter fun while you can.

The Second Season – Execution

No, not death. Copious and abundant life is about to explode from your fingertips! I don’t mean a tangled jungle of a vegetable patch. Just a few squash or a bucket of thriving strawberry plants are a success to be boasted about. When you fail (and you will, we all do – every. single. year.) remember that each plant is a lesson and the garden is a classroom no matter how seasoned you are.

Now is the time to execute the cautiously laid plans that filled your handbook with goals and dreams. Harden off your starts according to your planting calculator – see my post about hardening off here – and in no time some of the tougher crops like kale, radishes and others can go out into the world even before your last day of spring frost. Direct sow what you can directly into the garden and watch the magic of cold-hardy germination unfold, and say your last goodbyes to the passel of tomato plants that have been vying for space (if you’re like me, in your already crowded laundry room.) As soon as the soil is warm enough they’re out on their own!

When you’ve finished prodding, digging, and generally violating your garden beds there’s a quiet period while things get settled in. I like to savor this time before the heat of summer waves in by taking my toddler into the garden and reading a book while he wanders around, babbling to the beans and peas he’s discovered are of the early maturing variety. Keep an eye on your calendar though, because things like legumes, greens and other early harvests can quickly get out of hand before you think much of anything is going on behind the lush greenery of spring.

As you wait for the first blossoms to form on your cherry tomatoes you might discover that gardening is a generous (if sometimes torturous) exercise in patience. Revel in the unfettered grace of mother nature, who blooms for no one. By the end of this journey you will find, along with horticulture, there are life lessons to be learned in the garden.

Water, mulch and prune as needed until you see miniature green replicas of your favorite fruits hanging from their vines. If you are inclined to do so, keep track in your notebook of which varieties set fruit and when (if you’re a northerner like me you may be hunting for cultivars that do particularly well in colder climates.)

I beg you, resist the urge to pull up a carrot or radish every day to see if they’re ready! Their eager shoulders will bare themselves when they want to be picked. The time of harvest will soon be upon you, so set reminders in your phone to keep yourself in check if you must – before you know it you’ll be swimming in more food than you know what to do with. Trust me.

The Third Season – Peak

It’s here, it’s finally here! You’ve got a basket (or a bushel) of veg that you have no idea what to do with. Browse the internet for garden fresh recipes and make the most of the early crops you get from your precious plot. The first months of summer are for fresh eating, while the later months you should reserve for putting away in the pantry what you can – more on that later.

Remember to implement healthy practices when harvesting your fruit so you can prolong the production period of each plant. Keep up on pruning and preventive treatments like neem oil and BT, and you will have a much easier time later in the season when plants get a little out of control.

Make sure your watering is sufficient and timely. The heat of summer is the hardest on your plants, so set your drip or sprinklers on timers so nothing goes thirsty. If you water by hand, enlist some help when you have a heat wave. During the peak of August just 24 hours without water can stunt even the most heavily mulched plants.

Most of all, enjoy this time of great abundance in your garden! Check your cucumbers, okras, and beans every morning, lest they grow large and become chicken fodder. As you pull the cold-hardy, spring weather crops out of your beds, succession sow them with some extra summer veggies that will produce a bumper crop in the fall. While you’re waiting for long-term crops to come to maturity, take shelter from the beating sun and clean out your pantry or root cellar; stock up on canning supplies; and frequent your local farmer’s market to round out your garden-fresh cuisine.

The Fourth Season – Retreat

The fourth and final season of a gardener’s year offers some respite from the dog days of summer and preps the garden for cold-weather survival mode. Soon you will be harvesting winter squash, cabbages, onions, and corn before the threat of frost knocks them back. Don’t forget to use the Farmer’s Almanac calendar for your late summer plantings and seed starting.

Didn’t we already do our seed starting for the year? But wait, there’s more! If you’d like to reap the reward of a succession planting, set aside time and mark your calendar for later plantings that will peak during the final weeks of frost-free weather. Some hardy crops may even keep producing far beyond when frost touches down – things like kale, carrots and radishes are even sweeter when harvested from beneath a dusting of snow! In an area like ours that has cold, snowy winters and moderately hot summers, crops like broccoli don’t perform well in spring and early summer, but rather should be saved for fall planting when they’ll finish off in the colder weather, which is their preference. There are many opportunities to extend your food production into the later part of the year, and if you want to maximize the time and energy you put into your pantry, carefully timed succession planting can be a huge asset to your food independence.

Otherwise be sure to keep up on preventive maintenance (whether your methods be organic or not) during this high season for pest and disease pressure. Keep tucking away those tomatoes and put up some food for the winter! Crisp fall days are the best time to prep and cook your lovingly grown produce into something delicious for canning, freezing, or dehydrating. Check out local farms and cooperatives to complement your pantry with things like apples, nuts, and berries that you may not have established in your home garden quite yet.

When the first fall frost is finally predicted you’ll find yourself running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying desperately to gather up every last morsel off the vine before chilly weather renders it useless. Tomatoes can be brought indoors, still on the vine, to slowly ripen in your pantry or cellar; similarly, winter squash will grow out of their green tint with some time to themselves in a cool, dark area. When you’ve brought in as much produce as you can manage it’s time to take a short rest before putting your beds to sleep for the winter, and this is when the gardeners year begins anew. When the leaves have finished falling (hopefully you’re scooping them up and into your compost bins!) you can chop and drop your mangled, dejected plants and cover them with compost and mulch to marinate for the winter season – and begin making notes and lists for the next growing season.

I hope this picture of my year as a gardener can help you follow through the dreams you’ve always had of growing an abundant vegetable garden. Oftentimes making the decision to garden can be harder than the actual gardening, so don’t be scared to get your hands dirty. You might find, like many of us, you prefer to forego the gloves and nurture your connection to the Earth in a more personal manner.

For more tips and zone-specific growing instructions check out my lessons page here. You can sign up for private lessons or group seminars through Takelessons, or shoot me an email with a question you’re just dying to get answered – and don’t forget to download the free printables package from our web store!