The most wonderful time of the year
The stockings are hung by the chimney with care, TBS plays "A Christmas Story" 24 hours a day, and Nat King Cole croons the soundtrack for a briefly revived mall. Someone is baking grandma's secret cookie recipe, someone is lighting the Menorah, someone is planning their NYE outfit, and someone is just excited to play Minecraft all winter break. (Hold on ... is TBS even a channel anymore? Does it still do the "Christmas Story" marathon? Or am I dating myself by referencing Ye Olde Days of Cable Television?)
That's all very Norman Rockwell, but it's not the best part of December. The best part of December arrives in the mail. No, not an Amazon package delivered by the indentured servant of a billionaire. No, not your Taco Bell order. Wait, what? Why would you make your UberEats driver stuff your meal into a mailbox, anyway? That's kind of rude. Plus, now your chalupa supreme is smushed and soggy.
No, the best part comes without packages, boxes, or bags (or chalupas) — it is seed catalog season, my dudes. And with catalogs comes planning. In December, there's little need for the digging, weeding, pest diagnosis, and other malarkey that consumes your gardening time the rest of the year. Right now, all is fallow. It is time to sit down by a fire (or a Netflix fireplace
simulator) with a warm cuppa, reflect on last summer's vegetable garden, and dream about the possibilities of next year's.
Most seed companies send out catalogs by the end of December, often with orders opening at New Year's. I recommend ordering as soon as possible, as some things will sell out in January. You thought Ticketmaster breaking from so many fans vying for Taylor Swift tickets was wild? Wait til you see hordes of gardeners clamoring for the same limited-run heirloom bush beans!
Here are some things to consider when planning your annual vegetable garden:
What you don't need
This may seem obvious, but if you're anything like me, you want to plant all the things — and all the varieties of all the things. Ambition is good, but balancing your wildest garden fantasies with a dose of reality is important. This may not be the most fun part of the process, but it can save you from disappointment and difficulty later. So if your seed order is longer than Santa's Naughty List after Black Friday, here are some questions to ask about each crop: n Do I or anyone in my household really like this? Do we like it enough to eat as much as it likely will produce? n If the yield is too much for me to eat fresh, who can I share it with? How can it be preserved? Will I have the time, energy, motivation, and supplies to preserve it? n Do I have the correct climate and site conditions (sun, moisture, soil type)? n Do I have room for it? (Especially important for sprawlers such as gourds.) n Do I have patience for it? (Especially important for something you can't harvest for a few years, like asparagus.) n If I've grown this in the past, was it rewarding? Was it challenging? Was it worth it?
It's vital not to grow the same plant in the same spot again and again. Pests and diseases established in the soil one year will be happy to hop back on the same host the next. The best practice is to plant a crop from a different family which is unlikely to be bothered by said diseases. For example, suppose you had cucumber mosaic virus on your pumpkins in one raised bed this summer. In that case, you should avoid growing another crop from the cucurbit family (squash, melon, cucumber) there for the next couple of summers. Instead, use that bed
for a brassica (broccoli, cabbage, kale) one year and a nightshade (tomato, peppers, potato) the next. People rotate crops to improve nutrients in the soil, too. For instance,
growing legumes one season makes more nitrogen available for the next season's plants. There are various methods, from simple 3-year cycles to detailed 5-year systems. Many home
gardeners won't have space or need for the most advanced rotations, but learning and following the basic principles will improve the health of your soil and plants long-term. I like to
draw out a rough draft of where various veggies will go before ordering anything new to ensure I can rotate everything adequately.
Gardening can be dirt cheap. It also can be a black hole of spending if you let it. Just ask my bank account. I simply love to walk into a nursery for one specific plant and wheel out with a barrowful. It's me, hi, I'm the problem, it's me. I'm the Dark Taylor of irresponsible spending on plants. I step on a scale, and it reads "BROKE." But you don't have to be like me. When you've just lost money on holiday cheer or winter recreation, it is a perfect time to evaluate your finances and set expectations for the following year.
And if the gardening budget is tight? You can thumb through the catalogs for inspiration or a few basics while planning to source most seeds elsewhere.
Springtime comes with a plethora of free seed swaps and plant exchanges. They're easy to find if you're on cursed social media like Facebook or NextDoor. Facebook should have a gardening group or BuyNothing page for your neighborhood or city where people advertise such events. Free seeds are sometimes available through your Extension office or Master Gardening
program, and they can appear at food banks. BuyNothing is a great place to ask not just for plants but also for supplies like pots or tools — or to share the extras you have lying around. From my Netflix fireplace to yours, happy holidays, and may your garden be bountiful and weedless in the New Year.
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