The Vegetable Garden in January

  • By Cleve Campbell
  • /
  • January 2015 - Vol.1 No. 1

Recently, a non-gardening friend, knowing of my gardening addiction and the ridiculous size of my wife’s and my vegetable gardens, remarked,  “Well,  it’s January, and there’s nothing to do in the garden. It must be a boring time of the year for you gardeners.”  WHAT?  January’s a boring month with nothing for a gardener to do??  Well, let me tell you, it’s been a busy month for this particular gardener.

The seed catalogs began showing up in the mailbox in the middle of November and continued coming through the month of December, right in the midst of the busy holiday season. You guessed it — they were thrown in the desk drawer with more than a few older catalogs. Don’t you hate it when you attempt to open a desk drawer, but it’s so full that something catches at the top and you can’t open it?  And we already have two desk drawers filled to capacity with various vintage seeds and nursery catalogs.  Clearly it’s past time to throw out the old catalogs.  My bride gently reminded me to look for copies of order forms or notes before throwing out the old.   Of course, I reassured her that I had filed last year’s order forms in the “2014 Seed Order Folder” to be used as a reference in connection with future seed orders. I was also gently reminded that I had a bunch of seeds in the basement left over from previous gardening seasons, and that I should do a seed inventory before “going hog wild” ordering seeds that we don’t need.

As I headed to the basement to perform the seed inventory, I was reminded that the ashes needed to be removed from the wood stove and taken out. Ouch….Now hardwood ashes may be used in lieu of lime to make the soil less acidic – lower the acidity (raise the pH) of the soil, which can be helpful with our local soil, which tends to be more acidic than is desirable for vegetables.    In addition to raising the pH level in soil, wood ashes also contain potassium, magnesium and other trace elements essential to plant growth. http://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/wood-ash-can-be-useful-yard-if-used-caution.  Dumping the ashes in the vegetable garden might be just the thing.  But I had forgotten last fall to test the soil in our vegetable garden.  I am hesitant to add wood ashes to the garden without knowing the pH level because I could end up raising the pH level too much. The vegetable garden will be most productive in the pH range of 6.0–7.0, according to “Fertilizing the Vegetable Garden,”  Pub. No. 426-323,  http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-323/426-323.html

I had actually stopped by the local Virginia Cooperative Extension office and picked-up a soil testing package; unfortunately, I had misplaced the instruction sheet, but not to worry; I paid a quick visit to the Virginia Tech Web site to print off the Soil Sample Information sheet,  Pub. No 452-125,  (http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/452/452-125/452-125_pdf.pdf).  As for the ashes from my stove, they will be sprinkled around the apple trees. A soil test last spring had revealed a pH of 5.6, lower than the optimum range for apple trees, which is 6.00-6.50.  Pub. No. 426-842, “Tree Fruit in the Home Garden,” http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-841/426-841.html).

Now I needed to wait for a day when the vegetable garden was not frozen, so I could then collect the soil sample and mail it to the soil lab at Virginia Tech.  Why waste money on fertilizer and lime when it’s not needed?

After cleaning out the wood stove and depositing the ashes around the apple trees, I headed to the basement to perform the seed inventory. I was halfway down the stairs when I heard a familiar voice from upstairs reminding me to “look at the dates on the seed packets because some of those seeds are old and need to be tossed.”  What?   Throw away seeds just because they are old!!!!

Telling a gardener to toss seeds is akin to asking a hunter to take his best hunting dog out behind the barn and shoot him. Once again my seed inventory journey was interrupted.  Well, there must be a way to find out if a seed is truly too old to be viable.  A little online research located numerous sites, including various seed companies, that offer information on home seed germination testing.   One such site, Seedsavers.org, offered basic and simple instructions for “Home Germination Testing,”  http://www.seedsavers.org/site/pdf/HomeGermTests_LAFrevised.pdf. This publication not only offers information on how to test your questionable seeds,  but also includes a list of common household items that can be used for germination testing. Now I had a plan:  I would separate the seed inventory by two age groups:  those less than 3 years old and those 3 years old and older. I will sacrifice a few seeds (ten from each packet) to determine their germination rates. So I head back to the basement to perform the seed inventory and to determine what seeds needed to be tested for germination before tossing them out.

As I waded through the piles of seed packets that had accumulated over the years, I found many that were labeled 2005 and earlier.  Why hadn’t they been used?   I headed back upstairs to the old seed catalogs (good thing I hadn’t thrown them out yet) to research the descriptions on these old seeds. But then the lightbulb went on in my head. In my many years of gardening, I had never, ever run across a negative seed description in any seed catalog.  Quite the contrary —  the descriptions are always glowing — and that’s undoubtedly why I now have 417 various seed packets in inventory. Really, would I have spent money on a tomato variety described as “subject to early blight, often displays the attribute of cracking, poor production, small with acid flavor”? Heck, no!

So I grabbed my garden journal and headed back to the basement to resume the seed inventory.  I have been maintaining this journal for many years, and was hoping I had been vigilant in my journal entries, noting not only the last frost dates, first frost dates, and harvest dates; but also  enough information to determine if the variety was a “keeper” — worthy of planting again next season.  My seed inventory task was again interrupted with a plea from above: “I need your help! The bathroom light quit working. I changed the light bulb and reset the breaker, and still nothing.”  Then I remembered that the light switch had begun to feel loose recently. Luckily I had a spare in the shed; this wouldn’t take long.

As I opened the door to the shed, I came face-to-face with a disaster.  There were tools, hoses, dirty seed trays, dirty seed tray inserts and buckets in piles everywhere. No wonder my wife complains about the time it takes for me to find anything. In addition to the piles of clutter, I noticed that the vegetable sprayer — which had been used for Bt (Bacillus Thuringiensis) to control potato beetle larvae and cabbage worms — was in need of cleaning and a hose replacement.  Then it occurred to me that the tiller needs an oil change, new tines and a belt replacement to be ready for the 2015 gardening season.  But all that would need to wait, as my mission was to locate a spare electric switch in a cabinet at the back of the shed. Fortunately, I was able to secure it without tripping, turning an ankle or other mishap. Wow, what a project. It’s going to take several days to get the shed organized for this upcoming gardening season and several more days to perform the needed maintenance on the tiller and the lawn mowers, which need oil, filter changes and blades sharpened, not to mention the chain needing replacing on the chain saw.

After completing my critical task of replacing the electric switch in the bathroom, I headed back to the basement to get back to the seed inventory. I began by sorting the various seeds into stacks — tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, carrots, and radishes, etc. Then examined each pile and divided  the piles by the age of the seeds, two years old or less in one pile, and three years or older in another stack. The seed packets ending up in the three-year and older stack would be evaluated to determine if they were keepers, and if I wanted to do the wet towel germination test on a specific packet of seeds. Then I was reminded how well-organized my bride is — I was finding empty seed packets marked “empty” and  “reorder” in a familiar hand.  What a clever idea.  Those went into a separate pile to be reordered.

While I was busily sorting seeds, I felt a sudden urge to plant something. What to plant in January? It’s too early to start tomatoes, peppers or even broccoli or other cold weather crops, but EUREKA — there before me are “Candy” onion seeds and “Bandit” leek seeds.  The inventory would be  placed on hold.  I was off to the shed to collect a couple seed trays and seed starter soil mix.

Once I had planted the onion and leek seeds and covered the trays with plastic wrap to maintain moisture, I placed the seed flats in a warm spot inside the house, and returned to my seed inventory task, choosing which seeds to keep, which seeds to test, which ones to toss and which to re-order.  And it all needed to be done before the seed ordering process could begin. I needed to get moving.  I knew from experience that seeds can sell out, especially if you wait to place your order in mid- to late February.

Good thing the gardening season is over. How did I get so behind? I am indeed thankful that the month of January is a boring month with nothing to do. Hopefully all my January tasks will be completed by April when the “real gardening season” begins — at which time I can start on my February tasks!

To sum it all up, there’s plenty to do in January, and they’re listed briefly below:

  1. Before purchasing new seeds, perform a seed inventory. If you have old seeds, now is the time to test for germination, so you won’t be disappointed in the spring.Consult your garden journal as to what varieties performed well or didn’t performed well in past seasons. If you have not maintained a garden journal, make a New Years resolution to start keeping one; it will be very valuable in determining what seed varieties worked well or performed poorly. And remember, you can never enter too much information on an individual variety, planting dates, harvest dates and crop yield and quality. Also, it’s a good idea to place your seed orders early, as certain varieties tend to sell out quickly.
  2. January is a good time to schedule maintenance and repairs of your gardening equipment:  tillers, mowers, weed eaters, and chain saws. If you wait until the busy season,  you may need to wait 4-6 weeks to get this work done.
  3. Seed Starting:  It is still too early to start cold weather crop plants indoors. However if you want to grow onions from seeds, you can start them indoors in late January. If you want to start bulb onion plants, remember that onion varieties have “day length” sensitivity. There are three types: (1) Long Day or northern types, (2) short day- sweet onions and (3) intermediate day onions. The best performing bulb onions for Central Virginia are intermediate onions, examples being  “Candy F1” and “Cabernet F1”  — both perform well in our area.   Leeks can also be started inside in late January.
  4. If you have any soiled seed bottom trays and seed flats that you plan to re-use this spring, now is the time to wash and sterilize (use 1 part bleach to 9 parts water) them, so they’ll be ready for the seed-starting season.
  5. January is a good time to start planning your garden. Virginia Tech has an online guide that can help.   “Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates,” Pub 426-331,  provides an excellent planning tool for scheduling seed starting and transplanting. It is based on the estimated last frost date — which in our area is April 10- April 15.
  6. Clean, organize and inspect tools in the garden shed.