Winter Planning

Hello from the cold tundra that is our HillTop!

This is one of those winters that is a blessing and a curse. Western Pennsylvania is known for snow this time of year, but this year the Farmer’s Almanac has our area on a light snow in combination for a winter style slush-rain mix.

Frozen egg found from a late afternoon layer. It froze overnight and cracked open.

The blessing side is we don’t have a heavy winter snow this year. While snow doesn’t bother me for driving, (mainly because I lived in Erie, PA for three years), it is a large pain when it comes to chores for our animals. Frozen waterers, frozen eggs and chickens that won’t go outside for more than a couple minutes does not make for fun.

The curse side is that on those warmer days, when the weather is in the low forties or even upper thirties, you start to get the itch to garden. It’s a cruel trick to your mind thinking that spring is just around the corner, when in reality, you have months to go.

So what then does one do with themselves in these months? What does one do to keep utilizing the winter months without feeling like they are losing or wasting time?

What Do You Do?

Gardening Planning

This is a great time to work on your garden layout. You should lay your garden out for a few reasons. One, each year you should plan to rotate your crops. While there is a good chance you are thinking, I’m not a large scale gardener, I do this just for my family…so I have no need for rotation. Untrue.

The reality is if you plant tomato plants in the same area each year, they are pulling the same nutrients from the soil year after year. In a short amount of time you won’t see as strong as a harvest. Rotation also aids in keeping disease down in your garden.

By having a plan, detailed or very basic, it’ll help you to know how to move the crops. There is a best practice in garden rotation, but we’ll save that for another post.

Two, rebuilding your soil is another basic task you can do during the winter months. Composting is not always the best in winter months, but if you are going to attempt, consider a compost bin in your garage. The breakdown works better in warmer temperatures, however, some do attempt this time of year.

If you are new to composting, consider a cost affect option like the one Glad offers. You can find tons of outdoor options on Pinterest as well, which again, we are talking about building it now. The compost process kicks up in warm weather. One thing we do, is we add our chicken shavings to our barren garden from November through February. Chicken waste is considered “hot” because of the high amounts of nitrogen, so it requires three to six months to “cool” before planting. Otherwise it will damage the seedlings. We place it on for those months, creating a compost affect as soon as it warms up.

In my own garden I’m working on several aspects of garden planning. I’ve never done companion gardening. For those who don’t know, there are some herbs and flowers can assist in the resilience or growth of vegetables or flowers. For instance, basil can help tomato plants battle against garden pests and helps improve the taste. Marigolds are great to line your garden to keep away certain bugs.

Another area, in my own garden I need to improve is secession planting. For some vegetables, their growth does not take the entire growing season. For example, if a cabbage head takes four to six weeks, but I plant it outside two weeks after the seedling is started, I can begin another one inside approximately two weeks prior to harvesting the one I transplanted outside. That way I’ll have multiple harvests throughout the growing season.

For both of my garden goals, I need to lay my garden out in a grid system to determine rotation and companion gardening. Once done it helps me to determine which seeds I need to purchase.

Current seed stock pile. Some envelopes are empty, I keep to know what to reorder. Some still have seeds from last year, even though germination will drop, success with them is still possible. My new orders have yet to arrive.

Seed Purchasing

While planning your garden layout, you’ll want to have an idea of what you want in your garden. For years I simply went to a local greenhouse, picked our seedlings and away I went. That works for many people, and if you are one that does it that way, it’s more than fine!

However, as you dive into gardening, I challenge you to attempt one item to grow from seed each year. I never had done this, yet, had the privilege to learn from a friend (follow her on Instagram @pgh_gardengal) this past spring. Half of our garden grew from seed this past year and honestly, I had the best success from it.

This was only a portion of my seedlings last year. I grew our tomatoes (except the Romas we purchased), all our peppers, some herbs (basil was my only one to succeed well).

A reason I like growing from seed is to expand my garden’s possibilities. Typically bigger hardware stores will carry only so many options. Greenhouses will offer more than the hardware stores, but you are still limited to what they have found success with. One year I rejoiced to find celery as an offer, and the following year the same greenhouse did not offer it.

Buying seeds let’s you open up to a whole new realm of vegetables or flowers. For instance, peanuts are known for being grown down south. Yet, I found an organic seed company and bought Northern Hardy Peanuts that are adapted for the northeast region.

This year I am planning to grow everything from seed, less my herbs. I have always had strong results with my purchased herbs. However, I’ve placed my seed orders (yes orders, as in plural) and I’m happily awaiting my seed packets to arrive.

Plus, it’s always a bright day when you get seed catalogs in the mail midwinter. It allows you to begin your daydreaming of warmer weather.

Clean Up

My husband and I try to utilize the winter months for clean up. We spend time clearing brush and prepping land that will be hosting a project. I try to take inventory of my gardening items so I can hit the ground running, already having my area organized.

One cleanup project I’ve been working on a lot has been our berry patch. This has been a two, realistically three, year project in the making. Two years ago, Matt put in the eight posts that would be used as stakes to hold up fencing. That was all that was accomplished that year. Last year we wrapped the back side of it (it’s right along the side of our house) with wire fencing, along with the front three bottom feet and whole top.

I proceeded to plant eight raspberry plants and twelve blueberry plants. I had variations of each and hoped they would flourish. Que the laughter.

The berry patch earlier this January.

Life took over and I over did what I could handle. So a jungle of weeds grew. I kid you not when I say there were some taller than me. I’ve been using the warm days to clean out the dead plants and weeds that do not below. I have been able to confirm I do have some plants that made it, but I’ll confirm more when I have the final count.

Expansion Projects

Winter allows you to reevaluate your property for projects for the upcoming spring. Sometimes when you wait until spring, you’re already behind. Maybe you want to add new garden space, a raised bed or composting, as mentioned before; you can use the winter to build the frames or needed equipment. If you don’t have a handy person in your life, you can use this time to save for the purchase.

The only garden expansion for us is a small bed area in front of the berry patch. I have a few ideas and I’m excited to show the process (follow our stories on Facebook or Instagram to keep updated this spring on the progress).

One bad part of winter for me, is I always start dreaming of new animals. That’s so dangerous!!! Last year we added to our flock, but not with more chickens…again, more in a future post (promise!).

We currently are not expanding this year with animals. I had some that I batted around the idea of, but have placed it on the back burner for now. Matt was on board, but as I researched it, I realized how much it would take for us to do and how little I knew about these creatures.

Research

Wanting to expand or take on a new project requires research. I know it sounds boring, but you need to understand what you are taking on. It’s always easy for me to want to take on a new project, but two things stop me at times…one: my husband…two: what I find during my research.

Having three months of winter to pour over books, articles and talk with someone who’s already done it to give you time to determine if what you are taking on is something you can handle.

That’s exactly what happened this year. We had a creature in mind, as a family we agreed and were excited. As I researched there was way more undertaking than I felt prepared for. Even a little more in cost than I expected as well.

With the material you obtain through research, bounce your ideas and projects off someone. My husband is my “go to” person, as he should be. He is typically the one I lovingly convince to build my wild ideas.

When you discuss it with another person, you never know what you maybe missing in your design, thoughts and planned execution.

Go Do It

Currently, the less than desirable weather has us pining for warmer days, we can use this cold and quiet to dream about the warmer months. Enjoying our view as we look out over the porch, seeing flowers in bloom, as birds sing, and knowing our dinner will be coming from our gardens as the vegetables continue to ripen in the summer sun.

Soon enough, the snow and rain will give way and these day dreams will be a reality.

Spend some time pondering, while the snow and rain are still here, what do you want your spring to be like. Do you want to hit the ground running or feel behind once the warm weather gets here?

Utilize this time to plan and prep what you’ll be doing outside. You won’t regret the time spent.

Morning sun over our backyard during this winter.

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