This year is going to be different! I say that every year. It always seems that as I sit inside in the early evening (it gets so dark so quickly at this time of year), next year’s gardening seems so easy. I envision a thriving, beautiful garden in the summer with a bountiful harvest in the fall.  Then, reality happens.  It never seems to work out as we thought it would. Last year was a disaster, in many respects, due to the never ending rainfall. Connecticut recorded it’s third wettest summer on record. There were some crops, however, that seemed to do well.  Anyway, we cannot control nature, but we can manage our time and efforts. This is a list of my New Year’s resolutions for the garden. See how many can help you as well.

I have to say I am off to a good start. The warm weather, defined by me as non-frozen ground, has really inspired me. I started a big tool reorganization project in my garden shed and hung a board that will hold all my tool holding hooks. This should make it easier to find what I need right away, saving a lot of time, and less frustration when I go in that shed, as I will no longer trip over the tools! Daylight is limited, so I will have to finish this project another day.

The New Year’s Resolutions are off to a good start as the author planted all his garlic, even if it was in January. Photo by mrl2022.

Another thing we frequently overlook is a soil test. This is really the simplest thing a gardener can do to ensure success, but we so frequently do not think about it (at least until April). We also need to give the lab time to do the tests, and then get the results back to us (usually a week except during spring rush when it might take 3). In a warm January where the ground is not yet frozen (may be by the time you read this), this may be the perfect time to gather our soil samples. The second most important part to a soil test is following the recommendations for soil improvement. If you are deficient in some nutrients but do not add them, anticipate plants may struggle. Give yourself the time needed to source and purchase the proper amendments. 

A portion of my soil test results from three years ago showing nutrient levels and liming recommendations. It may be much different for your yard, but the only way to know is to test. Photo by mrl2022.

My next resolution is to open more ground. I always wonder where my limit will be. There is more space to garden left untapped. If I am careful with my time, I can open up more ground to plant. Now is actually a great time to start prepping the soil and mapping out new gardening areas. Remember, the ground is not frozen and the snow has not fallen (yet). It does look like we will be getting really cold though. This unseasonably warm time cannot last forever. At the very least we can plan out where the new plots will go and measure the square footage of our new patch. This information can help us know how much of something we need to purchase/ add based on the recommendations from our soil test. 

Probably the most important resolution is to weed when the weeds and plants are small.  Weeding when the ground has not frozen is easy, compared to later in the year when the weeds are tall and the roots are deep. If you do not weed until your plants are overgrown, the weeds have already competed with your plants for nutrients, and may have even shaded them out, and/or stunted their growth. If this situation is left unchecked, we may lose our plants. 

Mulching can significantly reduce and almost eliminate weeds.  Mulching should be done right after planting.  Leaving that ground uncovered will only encourage weed seed germination.  If not done, you will only have to pull all the weeds out by hand, and then mulch later on.  Why make all that extra hard work for yourself?  In the mean time, your plants will have their growth negatively impacted.  Do yourself, and your plants, a favor and weed in the early spring or even during winter thaws.

My next resolution is also off to a good start – planning. Over this past weekend, I did a complete inventory of the seeds I have, the seeds I need, and updated my list by what performed well in the garden (or not). I also tried to save some money by cutting out the species that did not seem to perform well. This also saves some time, because why plant some varieties that just do not seem to do well in the garden?  Right now, I am in the process of figuring out my ground preparation and planting schedule. This should save me some time in the long run and help ensure successful crops. 

One example of poor planning last year was my sweet potato crop. I did not have the soil ready and when they came in, they sat for too long before planting. To make matters worse, they seemed to not have come in that good so they were already stressed. Whether it was the excess rain or too long of a holding time before planting, I experienced a total crop failure. This will not happen again this year.

The other thing that can happen, and even more so to the experienced gardener, is that you acquire your plants too quickly, and there is a build up of plants waiting for placement in the ground. I had this happen once a few years ago with my tomatoes. They so needed to go into the ground, were suffering nutritional deficiencies, and were highly stressed. Now, I knew how to fix this situation, but growth and production certainly were impacted. Try and pace yourself, and plant what you get as soon as possible.

A small fraction of the seeds ordered by the author for the 2022 gardening season. Seeds do not last forever so be careful of using old seed. Photo by mrl2021.

I think some additional time and attention is due after the crops are planted. I really want to make sure that I water at correct intervals. Last year, I think I only had too water twice at the beginning of the season.  After that, it started raining and never stopped. Many times, I have people ask me about how much or how often they should water. That is a difficult question to answer because it will depend on soil structure and composition. Fine-textured silty or clayey soils tend to hold moisture while sandy soils tend to dry out. One inch per week is a general guideline, but you really might want to poke your figure into the soil to see how wet it is below the surface. I am always surprised at how a dusty, dry surface can be nice and moist a half inch down. There are also moisture meters you can buy to help with this task and provide a numerical value if you prefer.

In general, plants benefit from some drying between waterings. In addition to the one inch of water per week, it is better to put a lot of water down at once, rather than short, frequent waterings. The thought is that the roots will go deeper if watered less frequently, and therefore the plant will be better able to tolerate dry periods. A rain gauge can assess how much water your garden received. This is a great way to measure how much water your sprinkler puts out during a given period of watering time as well.    

Watering and precipitation can affect soil nutrient levels. Too much water can leach nutrients from the garden. This may mean you would need to fertilize more frequently. Organic fertilizers are often more resistant to leaching than conventional ones. Once again, your soil test will dictate how much fertilizer to put down. You cannot just take a guess and hope for the best. The manufacturer of your choice of fertilizer will make some recommendations for how often to put it down. Without a soil test, follow the application suggestions on the fertilizer package.

While plants may grow without additional fertilizer, they are typically more productive, show better disease resistance, and are less susceptible to insect pressure when they have proper nutrients. I have found that many times I get busy during the growing season and either forget to fertilize at the proper interval, or I knew I should, but did not. This seems counterproductive as the whole reason for planting crops is to enjoy the harvest. A few missed fertilizer applications can severely impact your harvest. Adding soil amendments, such as compost, can supply plants with many of the nutrients they need. Do keep in mind that the nutrients present in a compost depend on the materials used to make it, so not all composts are created equal. Soils amended with compost can be tested every 2 to 3 years and if nutrients are lacking, they can be added before planting. Unfortunately, because of its complexity, UConn does not offer compost testing. However, once compost is incorporated into the soil, a composite sample of the mixture can be sent to the lab to determine pH and nutrient levels. I resolve to be more diligent this year in my application of fertilizers (if needed).      

A portion of my soil test results discussing fertilizer amendments. Photo by mrl2022.

The last two resolutions go hand-in-hand. I resolve to harvest my crops at the right time. This is another “easier said than done” situation. It is better to harvest cherry tomatoes right before a big rain to avoid cracking. Green beans are best harvested young, or they can get tough and stringy.  Zucchini is really a wonderful vegetable when small, but gets a tough skin and is really seedy when they gets large. Get it while the picking is good or you might need to compost the crop.

Many times, the rains affect our ability to harvest. Keep an eye on the forecast and try and build some time to harvest into your week.

The second side of this coin is food preservation. There is nothing better than being in the middle of a long, cold winter (they always feel like they will never end – except for this year when it just is starting), and having a nice dinner made with vegetables harvested from your garden. The down side is that it takes a lot of time to prep and preserve the literal fruits of our labor. When it is warm and sunny, who wants to stay inside and can, blanch, freeze, etc.? Maybe set up an outdoor workstation? 

This year I am really going to try and stick to my New Year’s resolutions. If I do, I should have the most amazing garden, and plenty of food to eat and share. We all know that life happens and not everything will get done perfectly. I think the most important part of this story is that not everything will go perfect, not everything will get done on time, but most things will. If the occasional watering does not get done on time, a fertilizer application goes down a little late, that is not a very big deal. If waterings are missed repeatedly, or fertilizer applications (based on soil test results) are regularly missed, the plants will not grow very well and production will be severely impacted. Try to not miss the same things all the time.

 Do your best. Enjoy your gardens and the fruits of your labor!

Raise a glass of that canned tomato juice or peach shrub to the New Year! 

Matt Lisy