Early preparation now will give you a better and less-stressful garden next year. If you ever want to rely on your gardening ability to provide food for you if the supermarket is emptied, you’ll need to think of your garden as a year-round activity. The work doesn’t end after the harvest.
Here’s a couple things to do off-season that will make your next gardening season even better:
1. Review and Adapt
The first thing any gardener should do after the harvest is review what happened over the last year. Ideally, you took notes over the year as your crops came in. Even if you didn’t you can probably remember the highlights. Your notes should include what you did, what worked, what didn’t work, and why.
For instance, this last year I tried a straw bale garden. It did work for some crops, nitrogen-loving crops especially, and I didn’t have a huge bug problem. However, the resource intensity of straw bale gardening turned me off on using it in the future. While I have easy access to bales, I didn’t want to have to haul in bags of fertilizer every year to condition them for use. Next year I plan on returning to my existing raised beds, adding a few more, and doing an experimental mulch garden.
Speaking of garden beds, fall and winter are the best time to change up the style and size of your beds. I find that I can take my time and relax while doing it, rather than trying to beat the clock to the first planting date. Granted, if you’re a fan of using a tiller then you might have to go in just before spring to loosen the soil, but you can still mark out where the new beds will be and eliminate the existing plant life now. It’s also good to mark out what you’ll be planting on paper. Research now will save you heartache later.
2. Secure Good Seeds
Another thing that you can do now is start sending off for seed catalogs, unless you save your own seeds of course. The best seeds aren’t found at your local DIY store, or even your local nursery. Instead, you should find a seed supplier that sells the crops you’re looking for. Ideally, you want to find a company in your local region so that the seeds they grow are conditioned to your climate. Seeds that are cultivated in the North may not grow well in the heat of the South. A quick internet search will turn up many suppliers, and most will have a free catalog available in January for spring orders.
Also, you can go find your closest seed and feed store and see what they sell. This may be a bit of a drive for you if you’re in the city, but it is worth it to find a reliable supplier of seed. Seed and feed shops depend on farmers for their business, so they can’t afford to sell seeds that won’t work. The downside is that they’re only going to sell seeds that are profitable for large scale agriculture. If you want to grow herbs or something rarer, stick with the specialty catalogs.
3. Give Your Soil Some Love
While you’re at the seed and feed store, this is also a great time to pick up a soil testing kit (here’s one on Amazon). Topsoil depletion is a major problem. Most places have very thin topsoil. Even if you’ve just bought farmland, it may have very little due to modern agricultural techniques. By testing the soil now, you’ll have time to purchase the right soil amendments and work them in over the winter (assuming your ground doesn’t freeze) or have them on hand for the spring.
The best time to buy soil amendments is right around Halloween. Most garden shops will give heavy discounts for amendments to make room for new inventory, especially potting soils with time-release fertilizers. If you’re growing organic food you can sometimes find deals on compost, though ideally you should be making your own. Don’t forget the seed and feed stores too. If you need large amounts of agricultural lime it’s far cheaper to buy it there than at a nursery.
4. Take Care Of Your Tools
Finally, this is the time to take care of your tools. Old handles should be repaired. Loose heads should be tightened. Rust should be removed. You could be relying on your tools for your food supply. Don’t let them get rusty. A good practice is to oil your shovels and hoes by dipping the blades into a box of sand and crankcase oil to protect them from rust before hanging them up for the season.
Also, learn to sharpen your tools. Shovels and hoes are meant to have a sharp edge on the front and they’re not sold that way. If you hate digging into your soil with your shovel or hacking dandelion roots with your hoe, you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is after a good sharpening. This is an art in itself, but there are lots of resources online on how to do it properly.
If you do all these steps over the winter, rather than resting on your laurels like many gardeners do, you’ll be ready to go as soon as spring arrives. You’ll have the seeds you want, beds that are ready or near-ready, sharpened tools to go to work, and everything you need to make your soil strong for the next growing season. A little work in winter now will give you a much less stressful spring planting season later.