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Winter Pruning

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I feel like I am saying this all the time – winter is a sad time for the gardener. But this is the natural way; the tomatoes get smaller as the summer heat is blown away by the refreshing autumn air, the trees shed their leaves & soon the snow will be falling. Though the winter is an off-season (until we get some land with high tunnels or greenhouses :)) it is one of the most critical seasons for reflecting, planning, & executing a great next season.

There is great pain in destroying all that you created to support your garden, but also great satisfaction in looking back to all that we harvested & enjoyed, and the lessons learned along the way. Just from clean-up I learned 1 thing – I am never using bamboo as a staking method for tomatoes again. Bamboo is a go-to stake because of cost & the sustainability factor, but I ran into a few issues:

  1. Insert the thicker end of cane into the ground, not the skinny end. Once the tomato plants got loaded up with fruit, the weight coupled with wind & rain, caused some of the stakes to actually snap!
  2. A little too flexible for the Florida Weave Trellis (check it out here).
  3. What do I do with all this used bamboo?? Once the season was done, I pulled out the bamboo stakes – 50 from the tomatoes & 60 from the peppers. The labor wasn’t difficult, it’s just the clean-up & disposal that takes time. And the fact that the stakes can’t be reused makes me feel wasteful – even though bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet.
  4. Tying & securing plants to stakes is another area I want to modify. Next year I’ll be moving my plant tying to a Max Tapener Machine – basically, it holds plant tie ribbon in a dispenser & with one hand you can secure a plant to a stake. The tie holds up to the elements, but the main challenges we kill with this machine are labor for plant tying & saving money switching from the ADC bands I’m currently using.

As a gardener, you want to reuse everything; to be the most sustainable & resourceful steward of the land that you can possibly be. But this isn’t always the case. You need to pull yourself from your emotions & throw your old & consumable supplies away to prevent the spread of disease from this year’s plants to next.

When you think of a gardener, you probably envision someone covered in dirt and who isn’t afraid of getting dirty – you wouldn’t think it, but cleanliness of the garden is the first thing on their minds – and it starts in the off-season.

Winter is about reflection, but it’s also about pruning the excess from your life in order to facilitate growth. We must clip dead limbs & branches from our trees & shrubs, opening the plants to more sunlight exposure, managing excessive growth in some parts of the plant, and encouraging new growth in other parts.

It isn’t only the plants that need pruned. Take a minute to examine where you’ve grown so far this year – is it where you wanted to be? Why not? What grew unexpectedly from your inputs & maintenance throughout the year? Or maybe, what stunted your growth?

The most important thing to realize through all of this is that the environment had less of an impact than you think, or less than you want to think. In the case of overgrowth, is this “good” or “bad”? What were your goals? If you wanted to grow, then “overgrowth” is just your first reaction to growth because you’re not sure how to manage it; how to deal with success. There were so many areas you excelled, shouldn’t you leave all that success in place to grow & thrive naturally? We are so scared to cause a flaw, that we would rather let it grow untamed & without a purpose other than rampant growth. You need to take a look and say, this was a great year – what can I remove from this success to make the next year even more successful. It is so hard to cut branches from a beautiful rose bush – but it’s just as painful to watch it grow without a purpose, plan, or care for the aesthetic pleasure.

And in the case of stunted growth we can only ask “why did this happen here”? Is the environment to blame for this?

With my garden, stunted growth came in 3 forms.

  1. Lack of irrigation for plants in Root Pouches. Due to the wet start to the season, I did not set up drip irrigation, so watering depended on hand watering with hose attachments.
  2. Lack of growing space or planted too densely. With the trends of square foot gardening, vertical growing, etc. all touting the benefits of packing plants in & increasing the yields per square foot. This works for certain crops, but not as well for tomatoes that seemed to need a little bit more room – I do this every year because tomatoes start so small & then just grow like crazy and jungle-ize the garden.
  3. Growing location. Growing too closely to other plants cuts down on air circulation, water circulation, and light. This can leave some plants without the proper ventilation, too wet, or too shaded. Next year we’ll only interplant with manageable options like garlic planted with tomatoes.

Environment wasn’t necessarily my issue, but how I was using my environment. In the garden, and in life, our first reaction is to create MORE. More is better, more plants = more tomatoes = more salsa = more tomatoes to sell. We did get MORE, but the quality of the plants eventually suffered. Bugs are natural & expected, and were controlled for organically with Neem Oil, Hot Pepper Wax, & Diatomaceous Earth. But the fungus & disease is what got the tomato plants in the end. We harvested a ton that we used for salsa, pico, spaghetti sauce, chili, and anything else we could use them for, but would we have harvested longer with healthier separation of the plants? Or was the disease already present in the soil?

These questions lead me to envision what my future garden would look like – and I’m not even quite sure what that will look like next year. It seems like every year that I garden on, I narrow my growing focus. The first year I grew everything from broccoli to watermelon & this past year I cut the varieties, but still had:

  • Lettuce
  • Tomatoes
  • Green Peppers
  • Jalapeños
  • Habaneros
  • Raspberries
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Dill
  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Oregano
  • Mint

Okay, so that seems like a lot, but the onion, garlic, and lettuce were mainly in the spring, we didn’t add mint or oregano until late summer, and our main focus was Tomatoes & Peppers. Right now I’m tossing around the idea of growing a slew of peppers next year. There are so many different varieties that I have never tried & think it would be a great talking piece for the Farmer’s Markets.

Leave a comment below with what you want to see me grow!

The garden does have some current tenants – raspberry plants in their first year, blackberry, some garlic, and tree seeds that I planted in Root Pouches. Those trees are: Paper Birch, Japanese Flowering Cherry, Boxwood, and Blue Spruce. These seeds need to be vernalized; exposed to the cold in order to induce seed propagation. I hope that they’ll be okay in the Root Pouches they’re growing in, but may cover them with a frost blanket before deep winter sets in.

I am really excited to see what happens next year. This is my first foray into growing trees & I feel like a “real grower”. That and I feel confident & curious enough to grow just about anything. I truly believe that the garden is my one small step for Dan-kind – I’m just preparing for my giant leap!

Learn more about that Giant Leap here & help support us by becoming a member of the Gardening 4 Gains Community Garden below!

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Start your Seeds!

It isn’t too late to start your seeds indoors! Spring seems right around the corner, but for us in Ohio, we’ve still got a while. The last frost date in my area is listed as April 20th, but local gardeners always go by the Mother’s Day rule for spring planting.

With that date in mind, we’ve got 8 weeks until we can plant outdoors – which just happens to be the perfect amount of time for tomatoes & peppers. Here’s a few tips for starting your seeds.

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  • Refer to your garden plan – or make a garden plan if you haven’t done so already. It’s quick & easy to do and ensures that you have enough of the supplies you need when it gets to planting time.
  • Select suppliers – there are tons of seed & seedling companies out there, do some research to find a good intersection of quality products with great pricing.
  • Determine last frost date –  this is the most important thing unless you’re growing under cover of a greenhouse, or using frost blankets. Check out your last frost date here.
  • Check planting instructions & set a planting date for each crop – this is important so you don’t have pumpkin vines growing in your closet in March!
  • Location, Conditions & Care – make sure you have a location that will get 8-12 hours of sunlight or from grow lights. Keep your seed trays in a well-ventilated area that is around 70 degrees for optimal germination. And finally, be sure that you are checking daily for water, fertilizer needs, and turning trays if seedlings are reaching.

There is nothing more satisfying than watching the seeds you’ve sown, sprout & evolve into the plants in your garden – and eventually become the salsa in your fridge!

Stay tuned for more gardening tips through the spring & season. And drop me a line if there’s something you are curious about and I’ll tackle that issue in a future post – thanks & happy gardening!

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Winter Gardening: 5 Steps to Planning Your Garden

Winter is a sad time for most gardeners, unless you have a greenhouse or some other structure to extend your growing season. There is always something you can do during the offseason to better prepare yourself for a successful springtime. Here are a few steps you can take, and projects you can work on to maximize your yields, minimize your waste, and Garden for Gains.

  • Pick the plants you want to grow – This seems like an easy task,but there is so much out there that you could grow! Do you want to grow fruits, vegetables, herbs, annuals, perennials, or trees or all of the above? No matter what your growing aspirations are, you can accomplish them with a plan. Research your growing zone, your last frost date, and the germination times of the seeds you select to sow.
  • Develop a farm plan with propagating, transplanting, & harvest schedules – It’s better to keep your seedlings inside or under cover until the threat of frost has passed. After that, transplant away! If you do run into a late frost you can cover your plants with frost blankets or make cloches – a mini greenhouse made by cutting a plastic bottle in half. If you plan on having a steady supply of fresh produce, then you’ll want to calculate how many trays to seed, how much space those seedlings will eventually take up, and decide how much of your space you would like to dedicate to each crop. cloche
  • Decide on a fertilization method – I think most gardeners tend to wing it in this area of gardening – spreading manure or granular fertilizer with no regard to what is actually necessary. Talk to your local Extension Agency to get a soil analysis. This will give you a true profile of the available nutrients in your soil along with the knowledge you need to supplement your plants’ needs.
  • Create a compost area – Composting is a great way to turn grass clippings, leftover food, leaves, coffee grounds, and garden waste into nutrient-rich organic matter for loosening up clay soil as well as feeding your plants & building soil microbial health. (More to come on composting in a future post!)
  • Order tools & supplies – This is the fun part, but not always the easiest. Everyone’s first instinct is to go to the big box stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot, Menards, etc. but I encourage you to go to your local garden center or nursery to get expert help from someone who also has the horticultural bug. My personal first & only stop is my place of employment AM Leonard (also have our sister company Gardener’s Edge). We have just about everything you can think of that you need to grow or landscape along with our own line of high quality tools – give us a call some time!

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