Updated on 09.17.14

Planning Ahead for Next Year’s Garden

Trent Hamm

Our garden by trenttsd on Flickr!You might be surprised to find that, as winter sets in here in Iowa, we’re eagerly planning our garden for 2009. In fact, I’d argue that the winter season – spent planning, preparing, and organizing – is as important as the other seasons for having a manageable and cost-effective garden.

What’s so important about gardening? A well-planned and well-cultivated garden not only provides healthy food all throughout the summer and fall, it also provides a very inexpensive hobby that gives you exercise, a lot of fresh air, and an opportunity to get your hands in the dirt. An afternoon in the garden is not only fun, it makes me feel healthier, provides healthy food for my family, and scarcely costs a dime.

What am I doing right now to plan ahead for next year’s garden? Here are ten winter tactics that I use to prepare for the spring.

10 Tactics I Use to Plan Ahead for My Garden

1. I plan what I’m going to plant in the spring

I spend some time thinking about what exactly I want to plant – what vegetables and fruits do I hope to get from my garden? For me, this is usually led by the dishes I want to make – for example, if I want to make a lot of salsa, I’ll plan for lots of tomatoes and make space for peppers and onions.

2. I research varieties

This usually involves getting a number of seed catalogs as well as searching online for more information. For example, if I’m making salsa, I like very firm tomatoes that don’t have many seeds. Knowing this, I dig through online forums and seed catalogs seeking the kind of tomatoes I’m looking for. This year, I intend to plant some Rio Grande tomatoes, of which I’ve read several recommendations.

3. I order seeds as early as possible

The earlier I get the seeds, the more sure I am that I’ll get the varieties I want as early as possible. I want to get them early – in January or February – so I can get the plants started in the house before spring begins.

4. I create a “growing calendar”

Once I have the seeds ordered, I take the information about growing times and my own knowledge about temperatures in Iowa and plan when I should start the seeds inside – usually sometime in late February. Some people start seedlings earlier than this, but I’ve had bad experiences with late frosts lately and I’d rather be safe than sorry.

5. I start seedlings in the basement

This is actually quite easy. All you need is some soil, some reusable plastic cups, and your seeds. Poke a few tiny holes in the bottom of the cup, add the soil, then plant the seeds. Obviously, I do this in concert with the growing calendar. I also hang up a grow light over the plants that turns on and off every twelve hours, simulating daylight. Then, each day, I just go water the cups. Easy as pie.

6. I maintain my compost

While it’s too cold for the compost to really work in the winter, we still toss vegetable waste, egg shells, and coffee grounds into the composter. In the early spring, when the weather begins to warm, we’ll just add water and a few handfuls of soil (and maybe some compost starter) and a few weeks later, we’ll have wonderful compost.

7. I maintain my garden equipment

On decent winter days where I must go outside out of stir-craziness, I’ll go out and get my garden equipment in shape. I clean it up, make sure it’s dry, and sharpen things that need sharpening (like pruning shears). This way, when the weather actually gets nice, I’m ready to head right out to the garden.

8. I educate myself

Since winter months are time to hole up inside and read, I do just that. I grab some gardening books from the library and learn more about gardening techniques in Iowa. If I see any good ones, I jot them down and try to implement them in the spring and summer.

9. I collect newspapers

I love using newspaper to cover the garden (leaving just gaps for the plants to come up). With a bit of straw on the top, it’s a great way to keep the weeds at bay. So, during the winter, I save up the newspapers so that in the spring I can easily make a layer of paper on the garden several sheets thick.

10. I enjoy the bounty of the previous year – and use it as motivation for the coming year

On the coldest day of the winter so far, I unthawed some whole tomatoes. They were delicious – a slightly sweet taste of summer that not only fulfills me now, but motivates me to get out there and garden in the spring.

Gardening is a spectacular frugal hobby – and winter’s just as good a time as any to get started!

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  1. It’s reading articles like these that makes me wish I had a garden! But alas, not enough space, so for the moment, I only have a few pots of flowers and aromatic herbs. But these tips would work just as well for those of us who don’t have a large garden, especially to start planning what we would like to plant.

  2. Geoff says:

    Trent, A great book for cooking and growing your garden wonders is Jamie Oliver’s ‘Jamie at Home’ book. Some great recipes and helpful gardening tips make this a great inspiration winter read.
    Good luck with next years crop.

  3. Michael says:

    I would enjoy this post more if it had some meat to it. For example, what did you plan last year, what have you used for your variety research, who are reliable seed vendors, what does your growing calendar look like, what have you read on gardening, etc.

  4. Anne KD says:

    I’ve been thinking about what and how to plant in my garden next year. This is a good post for those of us who’ve never had a garden before. I have to start looking at catalogs soon! And start making compost. Previous attempts at starting a garden in MA went bust because I was planting like I was back in NJ where I grew up. Now we’re in PA and the dates for planting, temperatures, soil type are different again. I’ve been reading gardening books specifically for region/state where I live. Maybe that’s why Trent didn’t put in information about what he read, Iowa gets a lot more sun than my garden and it most certainly has a different soil type. Check out the local library and garden club and newspaper.

  5. Corrie says:

    I’m curious — where/how do you order your seeds? I’ve never shopped from a seed catalog before, so if any of you have suggestions for where to start, I’d appreciate it!

  6. Kelly says:

    Another book I kind of like is: “Gardening in Iowa” a month by month guide to what to do to have a nice garden, by Melinda Myers. I’m trying to save my bulbs from lillys and dahlias for the first time this year, also trying to keep my raspberry plants alive in pots in the garage. Wish I wasn’t living in a rental so I could keep my flowers in the ground! I forgot about starting some seedlings early, I just waited until June last year when it finally got warm enough to start seeds outside. But it would make me divinely happy to see little growing plants in February, March and April! Gardening does wonders for my mood!

  7. Frugal Dad says:

    My square foot garden last year was more a project for the kids than an actual produce producer! However, we’ve got the gardening bug now and will do more to prepare things for this year’s garden. I hope to follow along with you to learn some gardening pointers.

  8. Allie says:

    I’m interested in starting a compost pile also but am afraid of all the bad things I’ve heard. Like the smell, mess, etc. How do you get start with one? I’d love to see a post about it.

  9. Kevin says:

    My garden is probably going to have to wait another year since we’ll likely move this spring. I’d start some in the house, like you, but since we’re unsure of the timing of the move they might be there awhile.

    I’m with Michael above, though, I wish this post had some more detail to it.

  10. Kevin says:

    @Allie – there really shouldn’t be a smell since you’re using plant material only – i.e. no meat. I started mine in a metal trash can with some holes in it this summer and turn it now and then. I’ve put grass clippings & leaves from the yard plus veggie waste, coffee grounds and eggshells so far. Too early to see how it will end up, but it hasn’t smelled at all. The mess is minimal except what I spill out over the sides when I’m turning it.

  11. A few years back my grandfather and I (when I was 16) used to do a lot of gardening during the winter in preparation for the summer.

    How much space does this all take though? Seems like you take it seriously enough to fill an entire basement.

  12. spaces says:

    Question for you all —

    In the back of my yard, I garden in roughly 100 square feet of raised beds. Some herbs and peppers survive multiple winters here. I plant an assortment of vegetables in the main beds, with flowers around the perimeters, every spring. I’ve maintained this plot as an organic garden for about 5 years. I keep a compost heap nearby (sometimes two heaps, if one is finishing up and I’ve started a new one).

    I’m hoping to sell my house next spring / summer. I’m afraid that the garden, and particularly the compost heap, would be a turn-off to sellers (though I would see it as a big plus). What should I do about the garden? About the compost heap?

  13. CathyG says:

    @spaces, comment #10 –
    When we moved into our house, we were THRILLED to have an already-dug garden in the back yard. We always wanted a garden, and it saved us a lot of work to just move into a house that had one already extablished. It was actually a selling point of the house.

  14. Sandy says:

    This is the kind of article I like to read…in fact, if you did a book review about gardening, I’d read that!
    Planning is really fun for me, as my garden is different every year. Some years do better than others, and if you plant different things, you’ll find that (no matter where you live) some things will grow better than others.
    For example, for some reason, my garden doesn’t do well with things like broccolli or brussel sprouts. They are very slow in coming, and in the area that I have them, I could grow 3 seasons of leafy greens that do great! So, I know what NOT to bother with anymore. I want to make use of every square foot!
    For me, and considering a certain level of self-sufficiency, there is little that can compare with going out to your garden, harvesting whatever you’ve grown, washing it off and serving it with dinner that evening. A great thing!

  15. George says:

    @spaces – if it’s a nicely finished raised bed garden, then it won’t be a tough sell.

  16. Jackie says:

    This is a great post, but for absolute novices (like me), it really could have been a series. How do you make your growing calendar– do you use a spreadsheet, or a diagram, or a wall chart? Do you have a template? What are some of your favorite online forums for gardening? For people like me, the amount of gardening info available on the internet is overwhelming. Ditto seed catalogs– any recommendations? Using newspaper in the garden and starting seedlings in the basement could both be longer, more detailed step-by-step posts. How about ideas on container gardening for those of us in cities?

    I’m only throwing my two cents in here because you so recently asked for feedback on future directions for TSD :).

  17. Kevin says:

    @spaces – I doubt someone would NOT buy a house because of a garden and compost heap. At worst, they would just dig up what you have and replant to their tastes or do away with it altogether. Personally, I’d be thrilled to get that, but to each his own. Like CathyG said above, I would try to make it a selling point if I were you.

  18. Heidi says:

    Thanks, Trent this is a great post. Like some of the others, I’d be interested in more details as well. We are moving into our first house in January and I’m excited but overwhelmed to get started on my own garden.

  19. kim says:

    You remind me of my Dad Trent! His favorite part of gardening happens in January – when the seed catalogs arrive. There is something deeply satisfying about choosing new varieties and planning the gardening year.

  20. Dooley says:

    What a great post! I agree that a bit more information, especially on calendars and what kind of research to do, would help beginners.

    I miss gardening quite a bit. A friend of mine got an indoor grow lamp the year before last that she brought with her to college. Is there anyway to successfully grow indoors without a lamp? I would love to have some sort of greenery inside, but all I have so far is a tiny aloe plant. :)

  21. susan says:

    I want to go play in my garden! There is nothing like going out back and picking your salad for dinner, the herbs to season the meat and some fresh lavender to make the house smell nice.

    C’mon Spring! :)

  22. Kelly says:

    All this talk about gardening, sent me to my favorite source of heirloom seeds. Diane’s seeds! I have no connection to them, just want to pass on a link to great heirloom seeds.


  23. cynthia says:

    This year my garden plans were hosed a bit by the deer and bunnies that freely come in to my yard. Do you have any wildlife? What do you do to prevent the fruits of your labor going to the animals? I don’t have a dog and I live in the city (and am a vegetarian) so, turning them into food won’t work for me. . . thanks!

  24. M says:

    Too funny that you posted this, as I was just being made fun of by a co-worker on Monday for planning my 2009 garden.

    The red raspberry bushes that were planted Spring ’08 (2 year canes) should produce fruit this year. I am very excited for their arrival!

    I decided to K-I-S-S this year. I need intant gratification and long producing items in the garden to keep my interest (and to help me keep up with weeding!). We will be planting: Roma Tomatoes, Big Boy tomatoes, Greenbeans, Soy Beans (edamame), Zuchs, Brussel Sprouts and Basil.

    We are also planning on adding a few more fruits for future produce if the budget allows: Grape Vines (Niagara & Concord Grapes), Blueberry Bushes (Qty. 3) and a Blackberry Bush or two.

    We have a couple of tins of used coffee grounds we have accumulated from people (we dont drink coffee), we dry out our eggshells and crush them and mix with the coffee for fertilizer. This is the first year for this, so we’ll see how it works out!

    I’m so glad I’m not the ONLY “crazy” one planning my garden 6 months in advance! :-)

  25. albina says:

    Before putting your house up for sale, plant your garden beds with annual flowers (seeds of course, not expensive plants)–new owners wont have to worry about harvesting vegetables but will have lots of fresh floral bouquets in their new home…
    worked out well for me when i sold my last house.

  26. Kelly says:

    to “spaces”: We are currently selling our house, with 2 composts heaps. We, however, keep them in large plastic containers designed for holding compost, and they are in the side of the yard, out of the way. I think you can still sell the house just fine as long as your compost pile is fully enclosed (my opinion only of course). If you have lots of space even an uncovered compost pile can be fine. Maybe hide the pile behind a shed or garage? I agree it should be a selling point, but that’s up to you and your realtor!

    to “cynthia”: your cheapest options to protect your plants from deer and rabbits: even if you don’t own a dog, ask your friends who own dogs or cats to collect some fur when they brush their animals (or volunteer to brush their animals for them and collect the fur), and spread the fur around your precious plants. It may sound gross, but you can also use human urine to deter your furry pests. Keep in mind, you’ll have to reapply either of those every so often to continue keeping pests away. (Have fun with that!) Less gross: is to use something like chicken wire, wire panels with very small openings that the animals can’t penetrate… but that costs more.

  27. Carrie says:

    We’ve had our garden completely enclosed by chicken wire for the past 2 years and haven’t had any rabbit problems. Now if only that worked for the squash bugs too.

  28. Jillian says:

    I LOVE seed catalogues! My garden is all in containers at the moment since we will probably buy a house next year, but I can’t resist buying far too many seeds for the amount of space I have available. And even though I order my seeds through a website I still have to buy the catalogue – it’s so much fun to flick through.

    Spaces, I’d love a house with an established organic vege garden, and I think a lot of people are getting more interested in growing their own food these days so I don’t imagine you’d have trouble selling it. Unfortunately where I live there’s not much chance of getting one – everything with a decent-sized yard gets snapped up by developers who want to subdivide and build another house, so the prices are crazy.

  29. Georgia says:

    cynthia – if you think dKelly’s idea was gross, mine might be a little worse. My daughter and son in law had mole problems. Also rabbits and deer eating their garden. They used the same idea for both – used cat litter. They poured it into holes into the mole trails and spread it around the outside of their garden. Of course, with the moles that just sends them to your meighbors.

    Daughter said she had a funny instance with the garden. Rabbits, deer wouldn’t even come into the garden, but 2 squirrels sat outside looking at the garden. Then they would run in, grab something, run back out, and eat it there. Usually they would just sit in the garden and enjoy themselves.

  30. marlene says:

    Love reading your posts. A couple of posts you referred to “unthawing” something…when really you meant “thawing”.

  31. bjc says:

    I agree with many comments, that I’d like more ‘meat’ to this topic. Living in the downtown core of a big city (Vancouver), we’re hoping to secure a small plot in a community garden project. Any suggestions for tiny gardens? We haven’t got room in our condo to do much in the way of composting or growing sprouts.

    Also, would assume you meant to ‘thaw’ (rather than ‘unthaw’) your tomatoes? ;-)

  32. SS says:

    I had the idea of planning my first vegetable
    garden. I plan of getting cups and soil and seeds
    and planting them and growing and then replanting.
    I will make a raised bed. I have have a lot of squirrels that I will have to keep out by using
    chicken wire. They will try anything. Also birds.
    I will use a scarecrow too. Those are inexpensive
    at the dollar store. The growing light –I will have
    to find one before January or February. This is my
    plan. Thank you for this post. It helped me put it
    into prospective. I am looking forward to doing something I want to do but have not. Please
    write more articles on this subject too. I love
    the idea to eat my own vegetables and being self sufficient and frugal and healthy. I will have to
    find the garden club up to see the growing info. they have for my area of the mountains.
    Have a great day. This was a highlight of my day posting. Happy Gardening!!!!

  33. M says:

    You can get the grow light bulbs at Home Depot/Lowes with the regular light bulbs. They are bluish (sp?) in color. Cost is approximately $3-4. We put the bulb in our closet and put the trays on the shelf last year – it worked great.


  34. Gwen Jones says:

    You can also dry seeds from tomatoes and other vegetables and grow them the next year. This saves money on the more expensive heritage seeds. Just keep them in a cool/dry place until you’re ready to start them.
    — Gwen

  35. John says:

    I want to comment on one thing I tryed that worked before the first frost you have green tomatoes on vines, if you pull them up and hang them upside down in basemrnt or pump house you can have fresh tomatoes for several months after the season has ended. cherry tomatoes work good.

  36. Oh, I very much want to start a garden in 2009, but the year that I graduate college and move to who-knows-where is not the time for me. Next year!

  37. Michael says:

    What type of tomatoes do you suggest for spaghetti sauce?

  38. deRuiter says:

    Roma (Italian plum) tomatoes are traditional for sauce, but you can make sauce from any tomoatoes of which you have. The compost heap in an old metal trash can with a rusted bottom works great as the water percolates through it. If possible put it directly under the drip line of a garden shed or barn, so rain water flows into the barrel. In winter the water freezes, breaking up the plant tissue. We use three barrels, in a row, one current, one “working” and one ready for spreading on the garden. In the warm weather it’s easy to dig a small hole in the garden, among the tomoato plants, bury the day’s compostables which will rot directly into the earth, saves the work of composting. Vegetative compost won’t smell and it doesn’t have to be messy. Compost “starter” is not necessary, because organic stuff ROTS. This is a good time (dead of winter) to collect used horse bedding or straight manure (from the fields) to bed down your garden. We have covered the asparagus and rhubarb beds with a foot of woodchips laced with horse manure. You can also compost horse, or bunny manure along with your household compostables, talk about a “starter”! Happy gardening all!

  39. Vanessa says:

    A few gardening comments – an EXCELLENT seed catalog is Vesey’s (www.veseys.com), which operates in Prince Edward Island, Canada. Their prices are reasonable, and for each variety of seed or plant (vegetable or flower seed, rose bush, tulip bulb,etc….) they provide an ample description about the characteristic of that item. This is great if you want a tomato with few seeds, or a pea that is an excellent freezer. Their catalogs often come with a code for $25 off when you spend $50 or more. I have never paid full price using this method!!

    Secondly, there is a new planter product out now (you can see it at Vesey’s and many other places) that allow you to plant tomatoes and others (cucumbers, peppers, eggplant) UPSIDE DOWN. Sort of like a hanging basket. Claims to work extremely well, very user friendly, and excellent if you are short on space. Price is so-so – $50 for three.

    Finally, the newspaper as weed cover, and compost contributions, are just two ways to be a frugal gardener. I am saving all 2L plastic pop bottles I can find to use as a make-do bell jar type of protector and insulator for new transplants, and then flip them over (cap side in earth) to store extra water and irrigate the plants. Scrapes of wood from home projects will be turned into stakes and pea/bean growing fences, and left over craft supplies can be turned into pretty plant markers and containers with a bit of creativity.

    It is VERY, VERY easy to try to do too much in your first year or two, and it is important to realize that gardening is a life long learning process. Looking in gardening magazines demonstrates how you could easily spend thousands of dollars on a small dollar and you have to find a balance between quality products and tools that provide you with significant help, and spending so much on gardening toys, specialty tools, treats, etc… that you are actually loosing money by growing your own produce.

    For a beginner, I would recommend picking up some inexpensive already-growing plants from the garden center and try to nurture a few tomatoes, a cucumber, a pepper, and basic herbs on a window sill, fire escape, front step, etc… Lettuce is a great thing to try from seed for the first time. Instant salad! For flowers, marigolds and pansys seem to be the most forgiving to garden klutzes and provide bright color, a very long blooming season, and easy planting.

  40. Georgia says:

    Another thing you could do is save your own seeds, but you should have heirloom plants. We did save some seeds from a cherry tom (non heirloom)& they turned out just fine. It’s really easy.

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