The Rapidian

Beat the Gray Days of Winter: Plan a Color Packed Garden

Underwriting support from:

/Roberta Tenharmsel

/Roberta Tenharmsel

/Mark Tenharmsel

Startled awake by the grating of my neighbor's ice scraper, I roll over and pull the covers over my head. A continuous chip, chip, chip, interspersed with the grating suggests we received some freezing rain overnight. Opening the blinds confirms it; gray skies, frozen ground partially covered with snow, and a thick coating of ice that encases cars, mailboxes, and even the power lines. This probably sounds familiar to anyone who lives in Michigan. If you are like me, donning boots and trudging through the late season snow and slush of February and March is just depressing, and you ache to feel the warmth of the sun on your back as you work in your yard. While it is still way too early to break out the garden tools, it is a perfect time to look forward and plan your gardens. Simply imagining the warmth, the colors, and the feel of my hands working the soil always cheers me up.

Planning Tools: Simple and Inexpensive    

·         a spiral notebook

·         pencil

·         ruler

·         tape or glue stick

·         scissors

·         seed and plant catalogs

First, Find Your Sun
Roberta Tenharmsel, Master Gardener and employee of Harder and Warner Nursery Inc. in Caledonia, says, "Knowing how much sun your lot gets and what type of soil you have is crucial to the success of a garden plan." Most flowers need at least six hours of sunlight and vegetables like even more. So smile as you put those boots on, take a walk around your yard, and try to remember the patterns of sun and shade. Do not despair if you are new to your area, just start small and build as you become familiar with your yard. Planting in containers and moving them, if needed, is another way to create a colorful landscape your first growing season. Once you know where you will put your garden, you can begin with your plan.

Determine the Location and Type of Garden
The amount of sun and the proximity of water should determine where you start your garden, and how big of a garden you plan should correlate with your experience. I went too big when I first started gardening and could not keep up with the weeds, not to mention the plants that failed simply because they were wrong for the location. According to Michigan Native Plant Producers Association, native plants need less attention. They are adapted to the soils and climate of the area, need less water, and help to keep invasives at bay. Whether you choose to plant flowers, vegetables, herbs, or any combination of the three be certain to select plants that are hardy in your zone. The seed and plant catalogs will help you with this.

Collect Plant and Seed Catalogs
Pouring over the catalogs is an instant pick-me-up. Whether you are planning a vegetable or flower garden, the colorful pictures and garden examples will lift your spirits and give you loads of ideas. You will have to decide whether to start from seeds or to purchase plants from your neighborhood nursery. Study your catalogs first to learn what plants will work best in the area you wish to cultivate. Pay attention to hardiness (zones), planting and harvesting dates, space and sun needed, and types of soil for best flower or vegetable production. Michigan is in planting zone five, so be certain that the plants and seeds you select thrive in this zone. If you are planning a vegetable garden, choose the type of vegetables your family likes to eat. If you are planning a flowerbed, select flowers by height as well as color; however, choosing plants by looks alone can get you in trouble. "Be wary of invasive plants when selecting your perennials," says Tenharmsel. Terms like "fast spreading" or "self-seeding" can mean "hard to control." Mint might taste and smell good, but it can take over a garden before you know what has happened. Use your notebook to keep track of the information you gather about the plants you choose. When you see a plant that you want to grow, write it down in your notebook. I suggest beginning gardeners cut the picture out of the catalog and tape or glue it to the page. This will help a novice to remember what the plant looks like. Alongside the name, include information you will need: required sunlight, soil type, planting date, depth to plant, spacing, water requirements, and harvesting date for vegetables. Yes, the ground is still frozen and covered with snow, but Late February-to-March is the perfect time for a gardener's day trip.

Visit Local Gardens
Take a tour through one of the botanical gardens in the area. Fredrick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture park offers tours of their indoor garden year round, and the outside tram tours start back up in March. Also happening the first weekend in March is West Michigan's annual Home and Garden show at Devos Place. Tenharmsel will be there with the Harder and Warner Nursery Inc. exhibit and says, "It's a great opportunity for gardeners to see what's new and talk to experts in the field." Can't wait until then? A sunny weekend will make a great road trip to Ann Arbor to visit the Healing Garden at Michigan State University's Matthael Botanical Gardens Conservatory. The exhibit runs from February 23 through April 4, and you will not only see bulb and fresh air plants, but also participate in activities and learn the benefits of meditation, aromatherapy, and color and mood interpretation. You will come away with ideas for your own garden and the activities are sure to bust your winter mood.

Draw Your Garden to Scale
Now that you know what you want to plant and the area you will be cultivating, it is time to decide how big and what shape to make your garden. A simple square or rectangle shaped garden is easier for a novice to care for, but if you have your heart set on an oblong border with rounded ends, go for it. However, take heed and avoid taking on too much your first year. Once you have decided on your garden size and shape, draw it to scale in your notebook. I usually use a scale of one half inch to represent one foot of garden. Simply outline the perimeter and mark it with one-foot gridlines. After you draw a scale of your garden, use your research about the plants you selected to decide where the best spot is for each plant. The experts at Gardens Alive, a mail order company committed to environmentally responsible products and the biological control of pests, recommend that you divide your vegetable garden according to plant family. This helps with cross-pollination, not to mention it makes your garden impressive to look at. While placing your plants in your garden plan, leave a 12 to 18 inch space between rows of vegetables to make it easier to weed and water. Flowers usually look better in groups or clusters, so get creative and enjoy playing with the colors. Throughout the growing season, you should make notes in your book; the shade from the sugar snap vines extended the spinach harvest, or this location too sunny, went to seed early. This way you have all of your information in the same place, and your notes will help you the next growing season.

Time to Borrow or Buy
Once your garden plan is finished, it is time to secure the proper tools and supplies you will need in the spring to make your garden successful.  The nearest garden store has staff specially trained to help you select the proper tools, fertilizer, compost or other soil treatment you may need, but do not overlook your gardener friends. They can offer a wealth of information specific to your area, provide you with bulbs or cuttings from their garden, and share tools to cut down on your expenses. Bring along your notebook with your garden sketch, and you can be confident that you will cover any possible problems before they occur.

Starting a new garden can amount to a lot of work, but whether you end up with beautiful fresh cut flowers on your dining room table, or the best tasting vegetables you have ever eaten, it is always rewarding. So - don those boots and get started. Spring, believe it or not, is just a few weeks away.

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I am feeling really inspired. Thanks for posting this!