Winter is a wonderful season —I’m still having fun snowshoeing and enjoying quiet time indoors— but I have to admit that there’s one thing I’m really starting to miss about summer: leisure time in the vegetable garden. I love hanging out in my pretty little potager, and every morning —spring through fall— I head outside with a big cup of coffee to do a bit of weeding, watering and harvesting before work. My pets usually join me —rolling around in the warm, golden straw pathways— while I garden. Later on in the day, I often return to the potager and settle into my comfy wicker chair with a glass of wine to enjoy the sunset hour. On warm evenings, I sometimes eat my dinner in the garden; surrounded by the fragrance of sun-warmed herbs and the sound of summertime birds. Vegetable plots always grow best when they are frequently visited by the gardener’s shadow, and to me, this is no trouble at all —it’s pure bliss…
I like to try different varieties of vegetables and fruits every year. But some old-favorites make it into the potager every year. My favorite tomatoes include Early Girl, Orange Blossom, Lemon Boy, Brandywine, San Marzanos. I also love cherry tomatoes; particularly Sungold and Sweet 100s
My diet is mainly vegetarian, and one of my favorite things about summer, is that I can completely avoid the grocery store for months (I buy my eggs and dairy products from a nearby farm stand). Growing basics, like potatoes, makes it easy to create impromptu, garden-fresh meals every day.
Now that I’ve begun sowing some early crops —herbs and onions indoors & arugula, spinach and lettuce in the unheated hoophouses— I’m really starting to get excited about the growing season ahead. I’ve ordered most of my vegetable seed —packages have already begun to arrive— and I just sent in my seed potato orders to Ronnigers and The Maine Potato Lady yesterday afternoon. Mid-late winter is a good time to begin planning and plotting out your vegetable garden on paper (1/4″ square grid paper works great for this purpose, with each standard box equalling one square foot of garden space), and to finish purchasing seed if you haven’t done so yet. Back in December, I mentioned that I enjoy the process of keeping an annual gardening journal and calendar. Not only is it fun to look back on my successes —and important to analyze failures— but my garden calendar & notes also remind me of things I want to plant (more potatoes and berries!), improvements I want to make (more vertical supports for peas, beans, melons and cucumbers, a new set of compost bins, and a garden shed!), and things I need to re-stock (like fish emulsion, twine and other supplies). Keeping a copy of what I planted —and where I planted it last year— is key to crop rotation (and avoiding pests and diseases). Drawing up a plan and listing everything out also prevents over-ordering or forgotten crops!
Building a pretty potager need not be expensive! My garden fence —pictured above— was built from saplings harvested on-site. And the wicker furniture in my garden was found —wearing a “free” sign— on the side of the road.
When laying out your garden, remember to include space for companion flowers and herbs. Although companion planting has become one of the more hotly debated horticultural topics —with some gardeners believing in its value, and others questioning the scientific proof of success— there is no doubt that flowering plants attract and support pollinating insects —like bees and butterflies— to your vegetable garden. And no matter where you stand on the companion planting issue, it’s pretty hard to argue with the horticultural value of pollinating insects and the beauty of flowers in the vegetable garden. Zinnias, sunflowers, cosmos, shasta daisies, calendula (particularly the French marigold) and nasturtiums are easy-to-grow, and all make gorgeous vegetable garden additions. In addition to planting flowers in and around my vegetables, I grow extra blooms in my potager —just for cutting. Climbers are also pretty in the vegetable garden, especially if you have a rustic fence or trellis (vertical supports are particularly useful if you have limited space). Old-time, deliciously fragrant sweet peas are best sown directly outdoors as soon as the ground can be worked, but many flowers —including climbers like morning glories— can be started indoors for earlier bloom. And if you like to decorate with dried flowers in late summer and fall —or want to make wreaths— consider growing globe amaranth (Gomphrena), love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), Bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis), statice (Limonium sinuatum), and other everlasting blooms in your cutting garden.
I can’t imagine life without a vegetable garden. I grew up with horticulture —my family raised and sold organically grown strawberries and other produce— and teaching me how to grow my own food —and more importantly, the joy and value of gardening— is one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me. If you have children of your own, I encourage you to involve them in as much of the gardening process as possible. When planning your spring garden, order a few extra seed packets —both flowers and vegetables if you can make the room— just for your kids. Children will always remember early gardening experiences like sowing seed, and harvesting their first crop of peas. Even the smallest task —like carrying the harvest basket or looking for bugs— teaches children that their contributions matter to the family. With kids, it’s important to focus on the process of gardening —not so much the product— so that the entire experience is rewarding.
I plant my vegetable garden in 3′ x 8′, raised, earth-mounded beds. I try to keep enough space between the beds to comfortably maneuver around with a weeding basket and to pass through with a wheelbarrow or garden cart. This system works well for me, but I have seen many other successful vegetable growing methods. Urban gardeners may grow in pots or planters, and some suburban gardeners like to build wooden boxes to contain vegetables in the square-foot garden style, and many country gardeners simply till soil and hoe rows. There is no right or wrong way to set up your vegetable garden: experiment, do what works best for you, and enjoy the process. If you are new to gardening, it is a good idea to start small and grow your space as your confidence increases. Over the years, as I’ve become more interested in cooking and baking, my vegetable garden has doubled in size. It’s such a pleasure to create meals with beautiful, ripe, organic vegetables, grown and harvested fresh in my own backyard. This year, I plan on adding more hard-to-get, gourmet produce in my potager. I’ll be planting crops that store well in winter (like gourmet potatoes and onions, garlic, squash, carrots and beets), as well as seasonal, enjoy-at-the-moment produce like heirloom tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, and other unusual fruits and vegetables from around the world. I love eating fresh food all summer long, and by adding row-covers and unheated hoophouses to the garden, I’ve been able to extend my growing season; harvesting some produce —like root vegetables and leafy greens— year-round. I can’t wait to dig back in! This week, I’ll be posting more details about my spring garden plans, and I look forward to hearing about yours both here, and on Facebook and Twitter!
Helianthus annus ‘Autumn Beauty’ – Sunflower in my Potager
Article and potager photos ⓒ Michaela at TGE
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