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Planning the Garden

February 23, 2015

I’m not a complainer – especially over things that are out of my control, like the weather – but winter has officially worn out its welcome and needs to scram. I’m already dreaming of warmer days ahead, when Wisconsin’s sliver of the earth slowly comes back to life.

I also like playing in the dirt, so that, along with my interest in healthy, sustainable foods, makes me look forward to gardening season the way a child looks forward to a trip to Disneyland. As January winds howled outside, rattling the panes of glass in the windows of my 1925 home, I was hunched over seed catalogs with Sharpie marker in hand, placing an “X” next to almost every vegetable and flower I wanted to try in the garden this year.

Then the reality of my budget, lack of yard space and the growing climate of the Midwest had kicked in, crushing my Supergarden fantasy. So I whittled down my order to more realistic proportions, sent it in, and shortly after, my seeds had arrived. I am bitterly opposed to purchasing genetically modified (GMO) seeds, and it can be tricky to weed out companies that truly do not sell GMO seeds from companies that say they don’t source GMO seeds but actually do. My reading and research has led me to trust Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds ( and to Seed Savers Exchange (, a nonprofit dedicated to saving and sharing heirlooms. Their seeds are also available at Outpost Natural Foods.

It’s tempting to choose tomato varieties that are commonly known, but I’ve found that certain types just don’t fare well in city home gardens. This year, I’ve decided on Amish paste, sub arctic plenty, black prince and Sheboygan tomatoes – all heartier heirloom varieties known to withstand cooler weather.

Now to start the seedlings. Most gardening experts recommend starting tomato and pepper seedlings in March, but being the overeager sort that I am, I started in early February. Fill a peat pot about halfway with soil and compost, and put a couple of seeds in each pot, just below the soil surface. Water regularly, and as the tomato seedlings grow taller, gradually add dirt around the base of each seedling for support. Roots grow along the buried stems, making the plants stronger. If the seedlings start growing into plants before it is warm enough to plant outdoors, they’ll need to be transplanted into small pots until after the threat of frost.

I use peat pots, as well as halved plastic milk jugs, cardboard egg cartons, and plastic produce and deli clam shells (with holes punched in the bottom for drainage), which make excellent mini-greenhouses to start young seedlings for the garden. I’ve already started my herbs in a recycled egg carton. Place seedlings on a table near a south window or another sunny room in the house. I happen to have boiler heat with radiators, which get very warm but never too hot, so it’s a great place to keep the seedlings.

The backyard garden space is currently under a blanket of snow, but it won’t be long before it comes to life with vegetables and herbs I started from seed.

Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine.

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