Friday, January 11, 2002
Gardening in January: time to plan ahead
This article is the first in a new series on gardening in Carlisle.
January can be dark and dreary or sunny and frigid. January does not inspire gardeners. But gardening isn't just about planting seeds or popping in six-packs of annuals. Winter gardening tasks are cleaning tools, washing garden gloves, scrubbing out pots, and getting everything set for spring planting. But the real fun begins when the long-anticipated catalogs start filling your mailbox and imagination. They should come with warning labels that read "Danger! Over-ordering can lead to shrinking of your free time." The photos are glossy and the descriptions glorious, and before you know it, you've ordered ten packets of zucchini seeds. In August when you harvest all the baseball bat-size vegetables you'll wonder why you planted more than one hill of zukes. Soon your neighbors will pull their shades when you drive home from Foss Farm, fearful that you will generously offer them more of your abundance of produce.
Good plants for starters
This problem can be avoided. When you are ready to choose from the catalogs, first make a list of the vegetables you want to grow. If you are new to vegetable gardening, start slow and easy, listing the old-time favorites that do well in Carlisle. These include green beans, carrots, radishes, zucchinis and summer squash, tomatoes, lettuces, spinach and peas. These don't require special planning or attention, are easy to grow, and offer the most success for beginning gardeners. If you are ordering seeds, one or two packets are plenty for a small garden.
For those who are ready for more challenges, in addition to the list above, you might try corn if you have a large-enough space. Corn is pollinated by the wind, and you need a good-sized patch. A plot no smaller than six by six would be required. Brussels sprouts can be planted in March, have a long growing season, and can be harvested through the fall. Broccoli, full of vitamin A and calcium, is a cool-weather plant also. We eat the unopened flowers of the plant, which will bolt to bloom during the warm months. Cauliflower and cabbage are similar to broccoli in difficulty, both enjoying cooler days. Other plants that are somewhat challenging are onions, leeks, melons, beets, Swiss chard, Chinese cabbage, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, potatoes, pumpkins, winter squashes and turnips.
When to plant
Whatever kind of seed you plant, try to pick the ones that have the shortest number of days until harvest. We have approximately 90-100 dependable frost-free days in Carlisle. Many plants, such as carrots and lettuce, can be planted before all danger of frost is past. Most other vegetable plants and seeds, to be truly safe, cannot go into the ground before May 31. If you pick a melon type that needs 120 days to ripen, you will be disappointed when September comes and all you have are little ball-sized green fruits. There are melon seeds that ripen in 80-90 days and those are the ones you should be ordering.
Sources for seeds and plants
There are 11 USDA plant-hardiness zones for the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. The zones are sorted by minimum and maximum temperatures. Seeds and plants for sale, especially perennials, bushes, and trees, should be rated by the correct zone. You can view the USDA plant-hardiness zone map at www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/index.html. Carlisle is in Zone 5 and there are many catalogs that specialize in Zone 5 plants. The website www.zone5gardening.com is an excellent resource for researching local catalogs, such as Johnny's Selected Seeds (Albion, Maine), The Cook's Garden (Londonderry, Vermont), Pinetree Garden Seeds (New Gloucester, Maine), Shepherd's Garden Seeds (Torrington, Connecticut) or Vermont Bean Seed Co. (Fair Haven, Vermont). For those who want to experiment with unusual seeds, try Le Jardin du Gourmet (St. Johnsbury Center, Vermont) for gourmet seeds or Old Sturbridge Village Seeds for heirloom seeds. Heirloom seeds are old-fashioned versions of plants, vegetable or flower, grown commonly more than fifty years ago.
January is a quiet time for gardeners, but it's a great time to sit by the fire and map out a new vegetable or perennial garden. Just keep your feet on the ground and do not let yourself get too carried away. Write down everything you could possibly want to grow and then erase every other item from your list. Someday I will do that, too.
Kids corner: Grocery store gardening
January may not feel like the best of months to do gardening with your kids, but there's plenty they can do. Kids love starting seeds, and large, easy-to-handle seeds are best for the under-five crowd. Give them some bean seeds, dirt and small plastic cups, and they'll produce lots of creative gardens. Spread some newspapers, give them stickers to put on the cups, and strange objects such as plastic animals to stick in the dirt, and you'll have them busy for a while.
For older kids, it's good to make gardening a science experiment. Drag them to the grocery store and have them pick out some root vegetables, such as beets, carrots, celeriac, onions and turnips. Make sure the beets, carrots, and turnips still have their tops and roots. At home, cut off the stems about one-half inch from the top of the vegetable. Leave the roots alone. Place each vegetable in a pot of soil, with just a bit of the vegetable showing on top. Water them, and then make predictions about what will happen, and how long it will take. All the shoots that appear will be edible, and getting nine-year-olds to eat beet greens could be an interesting winter challenge.
The third-grade teachers will appreciate it if you make a growth chart and have your child list the height of each plant in centimeters and inches.
Younger kids will enjoy making a "crazy head" from a sweet potato (a regular potato will work as well). Give them a pot and ask them to make a crazy face on one side. Have them plant the sweet potato and water it. Eventually it will sprout very wild, curly hair. The stems and leaves of the sweet potato and potato are not edible, however.
When you have finished eating oranges or grapefruit, save the seeds and plant them. They turn into little orange and grapefruit trees, and the leaves smell wonderful when you rub them.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito