A long, gloomy winter can do a number on both your mind and your garden, but with spring right around the corner, it's time to perk up and turn your thoughts to all things green and growing.
Spring doesn't start til March, but that's no reason to put off your garden planning. Preparation is key for a great growing season, which means thinking about organizing your garden, starting your seeds, and setting your soil up for success.
Many seeds won't grow well, or at all, if you plant them directly in your garden. So, you'll want to start your seeds indoors in the weeks leading up to spring. You can start with small containers such as small pots with drainage holes, paper cups with holes punched in the bottom, or even creative, eco-minded options like empty egg cartons or used K-cups.
Choose a seed-starting mix best suited to your particular plants, and fill your chosen containers, leaving about ¼ inch of space before the brim. The soil should be firmly packed, but not overly compacted. Use the instructions on your seed packets to determine how deep to plant the seeds and how many to plant per container.
Next, cover the containers loosely with plastic wrap, and keep them covered until the seeds begin to germinate.
Determine the light requirements for your specific seeds and place them somewhere in your home that receives adequate natural light and will keep them relatively warm. If you're worried you don't have an appropriate seedling setting, fluorescent lights and heating pads can help make up the difference.
Once the seedlings have sprouted and are showing their first leaves, re-pot any that look crowded so they can continue to grow until it's time to plant them outside.
A great foundation for garden organization is a neat and tidy shed. Late winter or early spring is the perfect time for some spring cleaning in your garden shed - go through all your tools to see what you need, what you have, and what condition it's all in. Check for rust, squeaky hinges, and general wear and tear. It's also a good idea to take the time to build any structures you'll want later on, such as trellises or tomato cages, rather than scrambling to build when it's already time to plant.
Next up is plotting out your garden itself. Whether you're working with last year's plot or starting from scratch, it's wise to plan out on paper exactly how you'll want your garden set up. Sketch out a garden map so you can see how much space you have and how best to use it. This can save you both time and money by having a plan ready when it's time to plant, and saving you from accidentally buying too many seeds. You'll also want to consider how best to plant, whether it be in long rows, smaller groups, or in raised beds, which can provide better drainage and help keep out slugs and snails.
Once you know roughly how many seeds you'll need, you'll want to put some thought into which ones you're going to plant. Make your decisions based on what kind of vegetables you prefer, and think about which ones you planted last year as well: rotating your crops can help you avoid depleting the nutrients in the soil, and keep pests at bay. This is also a good time to make sure that the plants you've chosen are appropriate for your hardiness zone, and to mark your calendar with the appropriate planting time for each plant, as well.
Next it's time to get your hands dirty and tidy up the garden itself. Pull up any visible weeds and add them to either your compost or burn pile before they have the chance to germinate. Late winter or early spring is also the time to prune plants that bloom on new wood, such as butterfly bushes, flowering dogwood, honeysuckle, and crepe myrtle. Also be sure to clear away dead organic matter that has built up over the winter - if it needs more time to decompose, you can throw it in your compost pile; if it's already well broken down, you can work it right in to your soil.
After the final frost of the season, it's a good idea to till your garden down to 12 to 14 inches, as soil can become compacted over the winter, which can make it more difficult for new plants to grow. A good test to determine whether your garden is ready for digging is to take a handful of soil and squeeze it in your fist. If it crumbles apart easily when you relax your hand, it's dry enough to dig away! If it sticks together in clumps, however, it's still too wet to work with.
Another type of soil test determines the acidity, pH level, and composition of your soil, as well as which nutrients are present and which are lacking. This can help you decide which fertilizer is right for your garden. Soil testing is easy and hassle-free with the do-it-yourself soil test kits offered at Southern States.