Garden checklist: Plan for your vegetable garden now

Winter is a great time to go through your garden checklist and start planning for your vegetable garden.

As snow blows by the window, this unlikely time is the best opportunity to make plans for your vegetable garden. If the produce was less than stellar last year, work on a plan to improve your harvest. In the late 1800s, Liberty Hyde Bailey, founder of the Extension Service, said, “A garden is half made when it is well planned. The best gardener is one who does the most gardening by the winter fire.”

This advice still rings true today. Lay out your plans, locate sources for products, seeds and plants and make this the most productive garden ever. You also have the advantage of exercising and being paid in good food. Let’s look at some of the action items for your garden.

Siting your garden

Analyze your garden area to see if the key factors are conducive to happy plants. You need eight or more hours of full, uninterrupted sun during the middle of the day when the sun is most intense. This is not dappled sun or four hours early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Sun is energy that productive plants need.

There also needs to be available water with enough hose to get it to the garden. Unless you are growing vegetables in a shoe box, carrying many 8-pounds-per-gallon buckets of water is miserable. Do you need to choose a new location or get more hoses?

For more information, see “Choosing a smart site for your vegetable garden” at the Michigan State University Gardening in Michigan website.

Soil testing

If it has been three or more years since the last soil test at your selected garden site, find out if nutrients, soil pH or lack of organic matter are hobbling production. You can purchase Michigan State University Extension’s Soil Test Kit Self-Mailer at the MSU Extension Bookstore. You are aiming for a soil pH of 6.5, which is slightly acidic, and an organic matter content of at least 5 percent or slightly above. The soil test results will include a recommendation for nitrogen and possibly phosphorus and potassium to provide good growing conditions. Organic fertilizers are not available everywhere, so you may have to find a place in your area. Do you need a soil test? Do you need to locate somewhere to buy fertilizer or organic fertilizer?

For more information, see “Don’t guess - soil test! Get your Home Lawn and Garden Soil Test kit today” at the Gardening in Michigan website.

Sources of seeds and plants

Decide what you are going to grow, but make sure you have enough room for the plants you want. If you have enough room, you may want to experiment with one vegetable you have not grown, but are interested in meeting and eating. Certain plants need a longer growing season than we have in Michigan and are best put into the garden as transplants. Those include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and possibly giant pumpkins. There is rarely a growing season long enough to grow the big Charleston Gray watermelons, but you can grow the smaller, round ones easily. Others grow much better when directly seeded into the garden, such as beans, carrots, peas, squash, kale, collards and lettuces. Radishes will be up and growing in a week or so.

If you want a more varied list of vegetables, catalogs or online sites will carry many more than a store. Order your catalogs now or find them online and order your plants early. You can use a partial packet of seed; most will still be viable next year. Do you really need to plant that entire packet of zucchini this year?

Weed control

If weeds have been a problem with past gardens, you need a new solution. If weed control involved pushing a mower down the aisles, your weeds are winning at the expense of the vegetables. Consider using mulch to cover the soil after the vegetables have come up. Mulch aisles with something organic that will break down in one season, like straw, leaves, newspaper or cardboard. Do not use hay because it contains many weed seeds. Mulch should stay at a depth of 3 inches in the aisles. The price of straw can double at a retail location versus a farm. Can you find a farm near you that sells straw?

For more information, see “IPM: Smart pest management for the vegetable garden” at the Gardening in Michigan website.

Make sure you have a rain gauge so you know how much to water. Your plants should need about 1 inch of water a week if mulched and there is no drought. It doesn’t matter if the source is a hose or the sky; water is critical.

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