Building a new homestead from scratch means establishing new gardens.
Not just a vegetable garden but an herb garden as well as an orchard. Now is the time of the year to get seed and nursery stock on order whether you are getting started for the first time, you already have gardens established or you are starting over as we are. A good use of these drab winter days is perusing seed and nursery catalogs – order now for spring planting.
Some companies may offer a discount as an incentive to order early and avoid the last minute rush. Ordering early also ensures availability is not an issue due to shortages or outages of stock or seeds. Frustration is studying the catalogs, making selections, then placing the order only to discover said choice is sold out. Ordering early minimizes the chances of that happening.
What varieties and quantities of vegetable seeds and nursery stock you decide to order is highly individualized and is governed by your food preferences, eating habits, how much room you have to plant things, the growing zone in which you reside, how much time you have to devote to food production, as well as what your intended goal is. For example, do you merely want some fresh veggies for the table during the summer months or are you looking to grow and put by a year’s supply?
Your budget is another factor to consider. Fruit trees and other nursery stock are expensive. We are establishing an orchard here that will include the “small fruits” : raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and strawberries as well as trees of pears, plums, cherries, apples and even a couple of hardy peach varieties. Due to budget constraints, this year I only ordered half the apple trees I want to plant and the purchase of grapes will be delayed until next year.
When ordering nursery stock, be sure to order varieties that are hardy for your locale. All nursery catalogs state what growing zone each variety is hardy to. Growing zones have been established for both the USA and Canada. Gardeners can use them as guides to determine the climate and environmental conditions in their area. This enables growers to make educated guesses as to what plants will survive where they live. In the US, the USDA plant hardiness zone map is the standard by which gardeners can determine which plants are likely to thrive in their location. The map is based on the average yearly minimum winter temperature and is divided into 10 degree Fahrenheit zones with zone 1 being the harshest and 13 the mildest. You can see the map here: http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov
In Canada, Ag Canada developed their map based on the minimum winter temperature, length of frost free days, summer rainfall, maximum temperature, snow cover, January rainfall and maximum wind speed. The map has nine zones with 0 being the harshest and 8 the mildest. You can see the Canadian map here: http://www.agr.gc.ca/atlas/agpv?webmap-en=78529700717d4cab81c13e9f9404ef10&webmap-fr=c1b454842d3748b0bb0807d7817d34c2 Both countries update their maps periodically based on the latest climate data.
You should remember all the maps and zones are guides. There will always be a fluke weather event in any given area that is not accounted for in the maps. An unusually cold or snowy winter happens every so often no matter where you live. Microclimates also exist that may be harsher or more moderate than what’s expected for any particular zone. For example, when we lived and homesteaded in northern Maine, we were in a low lying area and often got frost when the neighbors didn’t.
Water bodies and wind breaks create microclimates too. Trees, bushes and tall hedges on the north side of a property give protection from cold winter winds. In fall, a nearby water body (pond, lake or ocean) may help delay the first frost as the water is a heat sink of stored heat from the summer sun.
It is possible to create your own microclimate too. In Maine, where we were in zone 3, I planted grapes on the south side of our house. By doing so I effectively increased my zone from 3 to 4 thus enabling me to raise grapes where none had been raised before, to the amazement of the locals.
It’s okay to buy nursery stock varieties that are hardy to a zone colder than yours but it’s inadvisable to purchase something that is hardy to a zone more moderate than yours. For example, when we homesteaded in Maine, I selected items that were hardy to zone 3,2 or 1. If I opted for a tree species hardy to zone 4 or warmer I would have been taking a big gamble.
Zone 0? Yes, really!
In northern Saskatchewan, we were in zone 0. I could find no nursery stock that was supposed to survive in this extreme climate so I ordered items that were hardy to the coldest zone I could find-zone 3 and planted those. We were able to grow raspberries, strawberries, saskatoons, red and black currants, gooseberries and sand cherries. I can only surmise that few people attempt to grow fruit in zone 0 so no nursery is aware just how hardy these plants are.
Now we are in zone 5, which is almost like the tropics, so we’re hoping to have better luck than we’ve ever had before with fruit trees. Nevertheless, I have chosen varieties that are hardy to zone 4 or less to increase my chances of success.
A word about where you order your nursery stock. I would avoid ordering from a nursery that’s located in a zone warmer than where you live. The plants will be better adapted to your zone if they were raised in a colder zone or in the same zone as your own. This will contribute to their survival. For the Maine homestead, I could have bought plants from several southern nursery companies. Even though they had varieties that were supposedly hardy to my zone, the fact that they started life in zone 5,6,7 etc certainly minimized their chances of surviving a northern Maine winter.
In addition to plant hardiness zones, I use other criteria when choosing nursery plants, chiefly disease resistance. Because I want to keep my spray program to a minimum, I need varieties that have some resistance to things such as fireblight and scab. I also select varieties based on their end use. For instance, I want some early “summer” apples which are good for sauce and fresh eating but which don’t store well. I also want some “winter” apples which mature in late fall and will keep for months in the root cellar. For pears I want disease resistance plus I want varieties that are good to eat fresh as well as to can. Lastly I want our orchard to include some tried and true Heirloom varieties. All these factors played into my decisions when choosing nursery stock.
Another factor to consider when selecting fruit trees is their rootstock. Every fruit tree is made of 2 parts, the rootstock and the variety that is grafted on to it. There are many different rootstocks, each with their own characteristics that determine things such as hardiness, the age at which the tree will start to bear as well as the size of the tree…will it be a dwarf, semi-dwarf or a standard sized tree.
As a rule, standard rootstock produces trees that are extremely rugged and hardy because their roots go deep. They are more tolerant of poor soil conditions, are very long lived as in decades of life, and are more capable of thriving even if somewhat neglected. But the trade off is standard sized trees are large and take more space. Although they can be planted as close as 10 to 15 feet, a spacing of 20 to 25 feet is better. Pruning and thinning can keep a tree from getting out of control. Be aware that standard trees take more years to begin bearing fruit. With few exceptions, all the fruit trees I ordered were grafted on to a standard rootstock.
Semi-dwarf trees are smaller so they can be planted closer together, something like 15 to 20 feet. Some semi-dwarf root stock will yield trees that may be more productive than normal.
Generally, dwarf rootstock produces very small trees. This makes them easy to spray, prune and pick. They also take up very little space since you can plant them 5 to 10 feet apart. Dwarfs bear at a very early age, but they aren’t as long lived as other sizes of trees nor are they as hardy. Because the tree’s root system is shallow, they are more susceptible to poor soil conditions.
Vegetable Seed Selection
Regarding selection of vegetable seeds, growing zones are not so important, although it’s quite helpful to know how many frost free days your location has. There are a multitude of ways to extend your growing season in both spring and fall so you aren’t limited to this theoretical number, but knowing the number of days is helpful when choosing which varieties to grow. Here’s what I mean. If you have a short growing season, say 60 days, choosing a corn variety that takes 90 days to mature isn’t the best choice.
Seed catalogs give the number of days it takes for any given vegetable to mature. Sometimes the days are given as the number of days once transplanted out. In those cases the days that elapse from the time the seed is planted indoors to when it’s ready to set out are not included in the days to maturity.
Other criteria play a role in what veggie variety to buy. Is the variety bolt resistant once hot weather arrives? This characteristic is important for spinach and lettuce as they prefer cool weather. Does the variety have long term storage capabilities or is it meant for immediate use or short term storage only? Long term storage is a valuable asset in the winter keepers such as winter squash, potatoes, onions, carrots and beets particularly if your goal is vegetable independence and freedom from supermarket produce.
Whether a variety is disease resistant or disease prone is important too. If you’re trying to raise food organically with a minimum use of sprays, resistance to various fungal diseases and wilts is an asset.
How much space you have is another factor to consider. In northern Saskatchewan where my growing season was short, we used hoop tunnels over growing beds. Space was at a premium; the beds were intensely planted, so I opted for bush varieties of winter squash, pumpkins and cucumbers. In Maine, we didn’t use hoop tunnels, but just planted these seeds in hills spaced several feet apart so I didn’t need or use bush type varieties.
If you plan on saving your own seeds, you must select open pollinated varieties, not hybrids. The home gardener can’t successfully save seed from hybrids. Well, you can, but the seeds will not produce anything like the original plant. Instead you will end up with something inferior compared to the original hybrid plant.
Catalog descriptions of size, shape and taste are helpful but do need to be taken with a grain of salt especially when it comes to taste. Sometimes it helps to pay attention to what characteristic they fail to mention as much as what they do say. Remember they are trying to sell their seeds so any description will generally be a positive one.
When the ground is blanketed with snow and a cold wind is howling, there’s nothing like sipping hot tea and perusing seed catalogs with their colorful pictures of succulent produce while dreamily envisioning your own garden’s splendor. But if at all possible try to avoid the temptation of ordering one of everything in the catalog. This may take considerable willpower, but you’ll be glad you thwarted your over exuberance come summer when you’re battling the heat and bugs while weeding, thinning and cultivating your prized garden. Hmm… Now if I can only take my own advice and not get carried away with my ordering.
Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!
Ron and Johanna
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