Right now, our garden area is under about four feet of snow, but we’re planning our garden anyway. It’s February, so that means it’s time for us to start seedlings for the food we can get into the ground early. It’s also time for us to plan our rows, organize our seeds, and make a planting schedule. Last month, I began a series on our family’s experiences and tips for growing food, and I’m excited to continue with my second post this month.
If you’re new to the gardening for food thing, welcome! I had never been a vegetable gardener until a few years ago, but the first year I tasted freshly-picked food, I was hooked. I’m here to tell you that there’s nothing like a pea, a strawberry, or a green bean you can eat the same day it was picked.
Plus, despite our financial struggles during our first few years of gardening (we always go organic, which was more expensive), we’ve figured out some strategies for making our garden work for us financially as well. So we get nutrition, delicious food, and save money. Yes, I’m hooked, and I notice that, each year, my husband expands our garden space a little more. I think he’s hooked too.
“Grow, don’t mow,” he says.
But since your yard probably looks like mine, you may be wondering what you could possibly do this time of year in Maine to prepare for your summer garden. Actually, there’s a lot of planning and planting that should be going on right now.
Here’s my list of things to do in February to prepare for your summer food garden in Maine.
- Make a plan for fertilizer.
I was so naïve about gardening when we first started that I didn’t realize how important some kind of natural fertilizer is. We didn’t want to use chemical fertilizers, so I learned quickly that things like cow poop and goat poop are of great importance. You do need to start thinking about what you will use in your garden. When we first started, we bought bags of organic fertilizer from local stores, but this method is too costly for us.
We have chickens now, and though chicken poop takes a long time to break down enough to be able to use as fertilizer, it’s free and effective. If you have animals, it’s important to learn how you can use their poop to help your garden grow.
- Make a planting schedule.
Not everything should be planted in late May or early June. Even here in Maine, there are plants that can start earlier. We always start peas early, and we’re hoping to get broccoli going this spring. Both peas and broccoli like cooler temps, and you can even run two rounds of them here in Maine with an early planting and then another one in the fall. Cabbages, kale, and cauliflower also like cooler temperatures, so you don’t have to wait until the end of May to plant these foods. You can plant early May, and in warm springs, we’ve even had peas in the ground at the end of April. For a list of planting dates for Maine, check out this planting schedule from the BDN.
- Plan your rows.
When you plan your rows, you’ll want to think about how many you’ll need (based on what your family eats), what grows well near each other, and how much space you have. Sometimes, it just takes time and experience to figure out how much of a food you need. After three years of potatoes, we figured out we need five rows to have enough to last all year. But, of course, needs will vary. I recommend checking out this site for learning more about which plants work well together. It’s good to make the most of the space you have.
- Consider companion planting.
We always plant our vegetable garden in rows every year, but we never thought about companion planting all that much until recently. Companion planting can mean anything related to putting plants that do well together near each other, but I’ve been reading about a particular type of companion planting, a Native American method of planting, the three sisters method.
In the three sisters method, you plant corn, beans, and some type of squash all together. The beans capture nitrogen from the air for the corn; the corn provides a climbing stalk for the beans; and the squash provides shade and moisture for the soil, as well as raccoon protection with those pokey leaves.
We’ve never tried it, but we think we’re going to give it a go this year, though we’ll probably still do rows for the rest of our veggies. But I’m hoping to write a blog post later in the year and report on how we did with the three sisters method in case others are considering it as well.
- Start your seedlings inside.
February is the time to start many seedlings inside. You wouldn’t want to start things like tomatoes yet, but we’re starting broccoli seeds now. This excellent resource from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension provides instructions for starting seeds indoors and tells you how many weeks ahead of putting the plants in the ground you need to start. Using this in combination with the planting schedule above will help you have a good plan for your garden—right from the start.
Growing your own food does take planning and work, but, of course, it’s totally worth it. I’m excited that it’s time to get going, and I hope you are too!