January can be a difficult time for homesteaders, especially those of us who rely on our gardens for both income and activity. The excitement of the winter holidays is over, and spring seems like it will never come. The good news is that spring will come. The better news is that there are things you can do in the dead of winter for your garden. Gardening in winter, including winter garden chores, not only helps you pass the long days of January and February, but also ensures the success of your market garden in the year to come by getting a jump-start on your market garden.
1. Review the previous year. What worked well last year? When you review, consider not only what grew well, but what was popular with customers. The opposite also applies. What did you struggle to grow? Remember, time is the most important resource we have and if you spent the majority of it babying a crop, it may not be worth planting again. If something grew well but was not popular at the market, there are a few options to consider. First, you can decide not to grow it again. Second, you can turn it into a value-added product, or, third, you can donate the crop to a community food bank.
2. Start a new market journal. Record your garden plans now, and your successes and problems throughout the year. Keep track of miscellaneous market inventory, as well as sales when the market opens. If you are operating a virtual homestead, this journal is where you will jot down your username and password, as well as your editorial calendar. Writing down contact information for fellow homesteaders, clients, and local markets may seem unusual and unnecessary in the computer age, but it is a good habit to re-establish.
3. Pick one new product. There are so many varieties of fruits and vegetables, yet most market booths sell the same items. An easy way to stand out at the market is to offer something no one else does. Attracting people to your booth with a new item means more money. Even if they don’t buy the new item, they will almost assuredly buy something else on your table.
4. Think outside the box. Adding unique produce to your booth is important, but that’s just the beginning. Most people who shop at farmers’ markets are interested in the homesteading lifestyle, especially the gardening and cooking aspects. Create one or two products for this interest. Keep in mind that people who are interested in, but not dependent on, homesteading as a lifestyle are attracted to products that you may consider nice but unnecessary. Personalized garden tools are popular, as are stamped metal garden markers. Potted herb gardens and container salad gardens are also big sellers. If you sew, tea towels and potholders do well at markets, as do aprons. Homemade essential oils and bath products are always a hit. The key to making these items a profitable addition is to choose something you are already skilled at making and create an inventory during the winter. Spring and summer are always busy. If these types of craft items are not your main draw, you do not want to spend too much time working on them during the main market months.
5. Plan your booth. Marketing matters and even if you have the most beautiful veggies in town, you will lose customers if they are simply thrown on a table. When considering your display, think about height, colors, and textures. An interesting table will draw the eye and an organized table makes it easy for customers to shop. Every item should be labeled with the name and the price. Fun signage also includes little-known facts about the produce, and recipe cards are always a hit. Readability is key. If your penmanship looks like chicken scratch, print your signs and recipes from your computer and laminate them for continual usage.
6. Walk your beds. Once you have a plan, spend time in the garden. Remembering the importance of rotating crops, decide where you will plant each item. For a more productive market garden, companion planting is the way to go, especially if you are in an urban setting and space is at a premium. Companion planting increases the variety of produce you can offer while protecting crops from common insects and diseases. Now that you have a plan for your garden beds, you can test the soil and add any necessary amendments. This is also a good time to rid the beds of weeds and lay down a layer of black plastic, which will not only prevent early spring weeds but will allow your soil to warm more quickly in the spring.
7. Care for your garden tools and containers. Although you don’t necessarily need to bleach out every garden container, it is a good idea to dump the soil and any plant material into your compost heap and wash the container with hot, soapy water. Set them in the sun to dry before stacking them to prevent mildew. Garden tools can be cleaned, sharpened, and repaired before using them again in the spring. Another important garden tool is your compost, which can be added to throughout winter. Make sure it is getting enough circulating air and, if you have worms in your bin, add extra brown compost material such as shredded straw or hay occasionally.
8. Prune brambles and fruit trees. Pruning back your fruit producers ensures a healthier and more productive harvest. This gives you a good opportunity to check the health of each bush and tree. Do any need to be replaced? Is it time to add to your orchard? Are you ready to add another variety? If yes, where will that new variety go?
9. Winter is the time to build and repair. Raised beds make gardening so much easier – especially if you are gardening with a disability or in a small area. You can build your own beds from scrap lumber or purchase a kit from your local home and garden center. Repair any damaged trellises and construct cages for your tomato and pepper plants.
10. Seed inventory and selection. This is everyone’s favorite chore. Go through the seeds you have, throwing out any old seeds and making a list of the seeds you need. If you haven’t ordered your seed catalogs yet, do it now! Nothing makes spring seem closer than circling items in the seed catalog.
11. Make a garden timeline. Planting artichokes and eggplants? You are going to want to start them ten to twelve weeks before you put them out. Grab your calendar and find your hardiness zone and start counting backward from your last frost. You also want to note which of your plants are succession crops, and how many times you can sow them. Even if you have an excellent memory, I suggest marking the sowing dates on your calendar. Why not make things as easy on yourself as possible?
12. Build a growing shed. This can be a true outdoor shed, your garage, or a closet that has been emptied out. You can get as fancy as you want but your seeds basically need a light and heat source, as well as shelves that can accommodate your seed trays.
13. Using your garden calendar, start your seeds as appropriate. For example: start celery seeds 12 weeks before your last anticipated frost, pepper seeds four weeks after celery seeds, and eggplant two weeks after your pepper seeds. Label your trays, and be sure to give adequate moisture, heat, and light. When your plants have sprouted their true leaves, allow a fan to blow on them for a couple of hours each day to strengthen their stalks.
14. As soon as the temperature allows, repot your seedlings and harden them off in a protected area outside. It may seem like an unnecessary effort to repot seedlings into larger pots instead of simply putting them in the ground, but the success of each plant increases if the shock of transplant can be avoided.
15. These plants should be left to grow in their larger pots for a few weeks, then added to a greenhouse, or transplanted into your high tunnel. They can stay in their larger pots until you – and the frozen ground – are ready for spring planting.
The good news, as I said, is that spring is right around the corner. When you think about how quickly it will be here and how much work there is for you to do to prepare for it, the excitement of getting a jump-start on your market garden should replace the winter doldrums.