The garden is mostly indistinguishable from its surroundings, covered in white. The compost piles are blocks of ice. I do enjoy snow, and if I didn’t I probably wouldn’t be living in Michigan. But it’s hard to be locked out of the garden for so long.

You do what you can, when you can.

Winter’s the time I turn to stockpiling, to quell the boredom and to prepare for goosing the garden in a few months. If I were to look at my stash from an objective viewpoint, I’d probably think ‘Sanford and Son’. But I’m not objective.

A few things I hoard over the winter months:

Half-gallon milk jugs. I like this size for tomato and pepper seedlings. A lot of folks use whole gallon jugs, but they simply take up more room and use more growing medium than I think is necessary.

milk jugs

Vermicompost, the harvest from my indoor worm bin, composed of worm castings and decomposed organic matter. I store mine in an unsealed 5 Gallon bucket indoors. There is life in this stuff that needs warmth and air to keep it active till spring. It makes a powerful addition to a homemade potting mix.


Plastic net apple bags. This is a little personal niche that no one else probably cares about. I use them to support melons grown vertically.

Pulverized banan…I said I wasn’t going to bring these up. Oh well, I lied. I’ve been drying and pulverizing our banana peels to use as a measurable potassium supplement in next year’s garden. So there.

pulverized banana peels

Coffee grounds, wonderful worm food and compost nitrogen source

Pulverized eggshells. See previous paragraph, replace potassium with calcium.

pulverized egg shells

Liquid laundry detergent jugs, for making garden markers. We don’t go through that many jugs, so I need to catch my wife before they go into the recycle bin.

Cardboard boxes. Worms love corrugated cardboard, and it really helps keep weeds down under a mulched garden path, as well as being a source of carbon in the compost piles. Cardboard turns flaccid and non aggressive as soon as it’s been soaked.

Most people stock up for the winter. I stock up for the spring.



As my brain makes random associations, I generally take off the leash and let it run. Recipe for disaster.

Whether or not to save cucumber seeds? Mmm, probably not this year anyway. It would be a real chore to isolate the picklers from the slicers, and even if I did, there’ve been a few disease problems with my vining crops in recent years. I don’t want to chance losing a whole year’s worth of vine crops just to save my own cucumber seed.

Brain click…whirr…cucumbers…recipe…pickles. And away we go.

Pickles have been a bit of an obsession in recent years. Constantly trying new recipes, even delving into fermentation a little. (Loved the sauerkraut, especially the red stuff). There have been some really tasty dill pickle recipes too. But I can’t say that I’ve found the magic Kosher dill; the one that says ‘You have it, Dan. The Holy Grail’. This summer I’ll share the recipe for my favorite so far, but come on, it’s too cold here to do that now, and who wants a recipe for someone’s favorite, almost-great pickle anyway?

Fermented pickles, I’m not so sure about. They have an interesting taste, different from canned pickles. Varying fermenting times yield different flavor. I’m pretty sure that they’re not flavors for my palate. I ate a lot of fermented pickles this summer, different recipes, different fermentation times. It’s a distinctive taste, pretty complex. But probably not for me. My favorites are the 3 or 4 day old deli pickles, but you can’t save that taste for January.

And then the canned Kosher dills. That’s the recipe that I quest for. Something to brighten the winter.

When you think of Kosher dills, you probably envision a nice long quarter-cuke or a big-fat-hog-salami of a pickle. But last year I found that the jars I treasured most were those full of whole small cukes, dill gherkins. Just a perfect amount of pickle to get your Kosher pumping, but not an intimidating blimp that can’t be comfortably downed in one sitting.

Brain click…which leads me back to seeds and such. I’ll probably plant my pickling cukes more closely than usual next year, and plant more of them. With good fertility I think they’ll be fine, giving me more of those thumb-sized gherkins that rock my world. That way there’ll be more chances of a flush of baby cukes at the same time. Just gotta keep em picked.

Maybe there really is a point to this post. And we’ll pretend that it’s this; garden decisions you make now can affect what you’re having for lunch next January.

So there’s my brain on…nothing. Hope that didn’t frighten you. And you should not let me dissuade you from trying fermented pickles. It really is an intriguing taste. I can see why some people might have them at the top of their list.

A final pandering; if you’ve made a Dill pickle to die for and want to share it with us, I’ll kick in a free pat on your virtual head as grand prize, fees and taxes included.

random ideas for next year’s garden

I may actually have enough shredded leaves to mulch the whole garden. Or not. It never works out that way.

No purple vegetables next year.

Without a doubt, my favorite garden structure is the concrete reinforcing wire tomato cage. I tried it last year for the cantaloupe plants, which climbed up the cages without effort. Besides a bunch of pickling cucumbers, I always grow a couple of regular cukes for fresh eating. Next year, they get the tomato cage treatment. No more crawling around on hands and knees trying to find hidden, hideously huge cucumbers.

Speaking of pickling cukes, mine grow on a moveable fence trellis. For the first time last year I planted early snap peas on the opposite side of that fence. By the time the cukes start climbing, the snap peas are pretty much done and can be cut off, with a little extra fixed nitrogen left behind for the cukes. I’ll recycle that idea for sure.

Time to renovate the strawberry bed next year after harvest. I’ll mow the tops and then till the outer edges, leaving a strip of plants down the center.

Starting carrot seeds under boards really works. Helps keep the weed seeds from getting ahead of the baby carrot tops. Another recycled and proven idea for next year.

And of course, next time the garden will be perfect.

transitioning the garden

It’s always tricky to do things differently than the way you’ve done them forever. I think it gets a lot easier if you bear down, commit, and consider everything that you can absorb.

I’ve been mulling the idea of creating identically-sized beds (instead of my existing hodgepodge sizing) for a bit. As I mentioned previously, there would be both benefits and drawbacks either way. I like the freedom that irregularity offers. If I blow up the plan and decide to add 5 extra feet of length or width, no biggie. Irregular beds are irregular.

But today it started to make sense that regular, orderly bed rows could be a major time-saving and productivity-enhancing concept. And something that I should seriously consider.

A few days ago making uniform-sized beds seemed a little distant. With parts of the garden off limits, planted to garlic and strawberries, there would be no realistic way to reorganize the whole garden until 2016.

One of my nice readers (Deby…thanks!) suggested trying permanent beds on a small scale first. And I looked over the garden plan and realized that I could change virtually half of the garden with very little extra effort. I guess that’s not really small-scale, but small is relative, right? The gears started to smoke.

What would be gained?  Maybe a lot.

Every year it’s the same battle with the garden-squatting life forms that want what I grow as much as I do. The woodchucks, rabbits, and deer regularly saw off the tops of my tender bean, lettuce and corn seedlings. Then the greener life forms move in to tackle my cole crops. I deal with it, but not with a whole lot of zen or efficiency. There are some monstrous wood-framed chicken wire panels that get dragged out and tented dangerously over the bean crop. Bird netting over the corn seedlings. Cold frames for the lettuce. A little later, the Bt and neem oil.

With identically-sized beds, I’d be able to make efficient, transferable hoop houses out of rebar, PVC pipe and agribon or plastic. Costly? Mm, a little. But with covered beds, there’d be a huge reduction in the need for purchased biological controls, and most likely an increase in plants that thrive. At least that’s what happens in my head.

Starting to sound doable, even exciting. I wouldn’t need to cover the whole garden at once; just the beds with young seedlings, then later, beds susceptible to certain crawlies. And maybe I could even logic out a way to reduce the amount of tilling that I do (although I doubt I’ll ever believe that pulling back a mulch will allow for better small seed beds than tilling. We’ll see.)

Nearly half the garden could be converted to a modular system next year! Doesn’t take much of the right thing to get me pumping.

But not to jump too far too fast; the next step is living with this uniform system in my winter head. Picturing what it would be like to deal with the new physical structures, the layout, running through the whole lineup of plants that will live in their new mathematical homes. It’s going to be a great winter.

order and chaos

I’m pretty sure it was a mistake to start blabbing about pre-planning next year’s garden. It might have caused me to cross the line into actual planning.
Oh well.

There are people, my wife included, who can just look at a problem or plan and see the possible pitfalls and screw ups. Me, not so much. To make up for a lack of logical sense, I need to work the issue to death in my head, picture every aspect, put it away for a while and then do it again.

Which leads me to last night. I made the mistake of picking up next year’s garden plan. The jumble bothered me. It’s not very neat or particularly orderly. The beds are all different sizes.

Next year’s plan is pretty much a done deal. The garlic’s planted and I amended the soil specifically for the arrangement that I came up with. But I COULD start planning for 2016. Hmmm.

What would it be like to have uniform, orderly rows and permanent paths?

Next year’s garden will look like this:

2015 Garden

So I deleted everything and made nice, tidy 4′ evenly spaced rows like this:

Revised Garden

The benefits would be the ability to possibly use permanent mulch with permanent paths, and uniform-sized beds that could have interchangeable row covers if I ever decided to fork out the bucks.  Easier and more logical crop rotations. And order.

The drawbacks would include my brain, which constantly craves change, relocating my current strawberry bed, lots more work, and order.  I’m not sure I deal well with order.  My personality demands nooks and crannies and chaos.

But there’s a long winter ahead.

my garden journal template, free

Planning the spring vegetable garden is what keeps gardeners going on the cold winter nights.  Now I’ve tried a bucketload of different garden journals and planners and layout tools, mostly online versions. Some were good, most not so much.

One of the good ones, the Mother Earth News Garden Planner, is free to try for 30 days, but then $25 a year if you want to remember what you planted where.  Too much for a hobby that’s geared around saving money.

There are lots of others, including phone-based and pad-based apps.

But I use this Excel spreadsheet:

Garden Journal template

It does everything I need, and allows one-click access to any previous year’s crop information.  And it’s easily modified at a basic level, unlike most of the apps and planners.

Download a free blank version here:

Garden Journal

For garden layout I use an older, free version of OmniGraffle.  I don’t think it’s around any more.  But if you want to spend a hundred bucks (WHAT?) it’s a great garden layout tool.