Monday, January 6, 2014

Gardening 101-2 - Choosing Plants

Today's step is not for the faint-hearted.  If you're going to be growing plants that are already seedlings or even tiny actual plants (or sometimes large ones - our local nursery is well known for tomato plants that are 1 foot or taller!) this is a step that may need to be held in place until you are about to buy your plants because you will be basing your choices on the options available.  If you're a "seed family" or purchase "offers" of plants from online wholesalers, this is where you need to start your process.

All sellers of seeds/offers/starters/bulbs are not equal.  Many will do their best to entice you in with offers of sales.  Others will have fancy schmancy websites designed to make you drool over the lovely produce that can be yours for the bargain price of only $19.95!  Another favorite is the "This plant is an exclusive of Company XYZ!"

To choose your plants you need to develop your own "plant requirements".  No different than choosing a curriculum, a recipe book, or anything else you would purchase for your family you need to know the following at a bare minimum.

1. Will your family eat what this plant bears?
2. Can you grow it where you live?
3. Does it have special growing requirements and can you meet those needs?
4. Is it a GMO seed/starter/bulb?
5. Can I preserve what this plant will yield?

Let's dissect these one by one.

1.  Will your family eat what this plant bears?

Chances are if you're already feeding your family on a regular basis, you already know what they will and will not eat.  There is no point in growing broccoli if no one in your family will eat it unless you are planning to grow it for barter/sale.  If you have a local farmer's market that doesn't require certification to sell or you have friends/family willing to purchase from you and/or trade work for veggies, planting a few things you don't want can be lucrative!.  Plan in advance what you're going to do with that plant.  Start thinking in terms of "I buy X bags of potatoes per month that weigh Y."  You're going to need this information for Day 4!

2. Can you grow it where you live?

Some plants just do not grow well near where you live.  A perfect example of this is that I absolutely love pears but there is not a pear tree on the planet that will survive where I live outdoors.  -40 winters make for interesting growing seasons.  Other plants, such as blueberries, don't like extreme heat.  Learn about the plant you wish to grow and do some homework, especially if you are planting to grow perennials or things that will bear fruit year after year.

The way you can tell if a plant is able to be grown in your neck of the woods is to find out what Hardiness Zone you live in.  The USDA provides you with an excellent Zone Finder on their website.  Just punch in your zip code and find out what zone you live in.  Alternately you can look at the map below and take your best "guess".  If you live near an edge, please go use the zone finder and don't gamble with your planting. Your Hardiness Zone is based on how cold it gets where you live in the winter.  You can "bump" the zone of some plants but we'll get into that far later down the road.  I recommend first time gardeners plant 1 zone colder (lower number) than where they live if you're in a cold region whenever possible.  I grew up in zone 5b and without fail plants that could go into zone 4 always performed exceptionally well.  Now I live in zone 3b and honestly, it's a push quite often without running a special needs camp for plants!

One of the best ways to do that homework is to start talking to locals who have gardens.  We are blessed that the pastor of the church that hosts our Boy Scout Troop also has a small orchard and is willing to share all his tips and tricks with us.  Start networking with the locals and become friendly with Google.  You'll be amazed what you can learn.  Gardeners love to find other gardeners.  We're rather passionate about our hobby.

3. Does it have special growing requirements and can you meet those needs?

Plants are like people.  Some will just go with the flow and be happy where they land such as strawberries and peppermint.  In your area these are likely to be the kind of plants you can find when you go for a walk through nature.  Others are rather picky.  They may need a certain kind of soil.  They may want some shade or need full light.  Look at where you're planning to plant and then think about what will work in there.  Most fruit bearing plants like full sun places.  They want lots of sun to get lots of energy to bear lots of fruit.  Take a look into what your plant likes before you commit to attempting to grow it.  As you develop more time gardening you will be able to make more adaptations to your accommodate more "difficult" plants but until you know but if this is year one, this is not the time.  For more advanced gardeners or those wanting to attempt to make some minor adaptations, we will be addressing those in the upcoming weeks.

4. Is it a GMO seed/starter/bulb?

I cannot emphasize enough how much this is a very personal choice for each family.  Some families live in areas where GMOs are especially helpful because they have a short growing season and/or other difficult conditions to overcome.  Other families vehemently do not want GMO plants in their gardens.  Whatever your choice is, be ready to move forward with your family's goals in mind.  If you're a non-GMO family get ready to make more adaptations to accommodate those plants.

Plants aren't going to be running around with a "I'm a GMO!!" tag on them.  You really have 2 options.  You can weed through more traditional seed markets and look for taglines such as "heirloom", "organic" (be careful - not always *really* organic!), and "wild harvested".  Some taglines to avoid: "exclusive", "hybrid", "modified", "adapted", and "improved yield".

If you're willing to purchase your seeds/starters/bulbs online and/or are planning to purchase in person and want non-GMO products, please refer to the Council for Responsible Genetics Safe Seed Pledge List.  This is the most comprehensive list of companies that promise to only supply non-GMO products and purchase from non-GMO sources.

5. Can I preserve what this plant will yield?

 Ah, the ultimate question.  Do I have the skills necessary to finish the job?  Sure, I can start it, grow it, and harvest it but can I actually manage to eat it?  Think about how you eat the plant that you wish to grow.

Let's talk carrots.  Carrots are fairly friendly in terms of a plant to grow and they're really a marvelous "starter" root vegetable.  Our family eats carrots fresh, steamed, and in stew.

How can you purchase carrots in the market?  Usually they're in bags.  You have the "baby carrot" option (not really that great for you - do your homework!).  The other "major" choice for carrots would be the frozen and canned sections.  So, carrots can be kept fresh for a period of time in bags, canned or frozen. 

I'm going to get a bit ahead of myself and give you some figures.  In #1 I told you to start collecting these and you're about to see why.  Our family eats approximately 1.5 5 pound bags of carrots a month. That means we eat about 7.5 pounds of carrots a month.  Times 12 is 90 pounds of carrots a year.  I don't know about you, but I can't fit 90 lbs. of carrots in my freezer.  There simply isn't enough space to accommodate them all!  I could can 90 lbs. of carrots, but I'm not a fan of canned carrots and we like to eat about half of our yield raw so that really won't work for me anyway.

So how does one keep 90 lbs. of carrots?

First off, I don't need to keep 90 lbs. of carrots.  I know that carrots take about 2 months to grow so for the months that I can have a garden growing starting at 2 months in I can start pulling carrots.  Carrots are first sewn 2-3 weeks before the last frost of the year so I can have fresh carrots to eat straight out of my garden beginning in June. The end of my natural growing season usually sometime in late August.  I might, if I'm lucky, eek out a week of September before the temperatures begin to plummet.  That gives me about 3 months (or 22 lbs.) of carrots I don't need to preserve.

But carrots are magical little plants.  They don't mind a bit of cold, especially if you loan them a blanket.  By putting a frost cover (blanket) on my carrots, I will be able to pull them well after the first frost.  In fact, the variety of carrots I harvest can actually stay in the ground...ready for this?...ALL WINTER LONG.

That's right.  I don't have to preserve a single of my 90 lbs. of carrots as long as my soil is loose enough to continue pulling them after it freezes (it is here).  In fact, if you leave carrots in the ground through the winter, they get sweeter over time!  I just have to dig through the snow to get to them occasionally so I keep them in a part of my garden that is easy to access throughout the winter.

Now, not everyone wants to grow carrots and certainly not all plants can do this, but it gives you an idea of what can be done to preserve your produce now with a bit of creativity and some planning. 

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