Garden Planning For Beginners

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Why plan your garden ahead?

Here you are, stuck indoors with only the memories of your bountiful summer garden. Or maybe in reality it wasn’t such a bountiful garden…those tomatoes never did really produce well. Or maybe you had wanted to start a garden – you had thought about it, talked about it but just never quite got around to it…Now’s the perfect time, no matter what last year’s situation was, to send away for a stack of catalogs, curl up in a cozy chair and start your next year’s garden planning.

There are endless possibilities for this coming year. Garden planning is relaxing. When my catalogs arrive in the mail, I feel the same excitement I did as a kid when the Christmas catalogs came in the mail (anyone remember the Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward and Miles Kimball catalogs?). And if you hate the paper, no worries, you’re not left out because almost every company offers their catalogs online as well. Not only is it relaxing but done wisely, it can result in a better garden, with more variety and better yields.

Which brings us to a warning we feel obligated to mention (lawyers may be involved here): be careful while browsing! You do know what happens when you take your four year old to the toy store? Just so you know – it can be easy to get carried away.

Do you know how many seed catalogs there are out there?

Some catalogs are more informative than others and that’s a good thing to look at as you’re browsing. As someone looking to buy seeds, you want to have a good description of the plant you’re going to grow. You need to know how big it will get, how far apart to plant it, how long it takes to sprout, and when it will actually produce fruit. Does it grow well in the heat or the extreme cold? Is it prone to diseases in damp weather? If I tend to have a late frost in May, I want to grow a variety that can withstand it; if my August temp’s are over 90, my plants have to make it through. A good catalog is going to give you information on this. You need to know something about what that particular variety can and can’t tolerate to make a good, educated choice.

There are catalogs for everything you can imagine – and things you had no idea even existed. We’re going to give you a list of some of the best general catalogs out there as well as a few specialized ones. Some of these companies are big; some of been in business for a long time; some are small or are relatively new to the market. All have good reputations and have something that makes them unique.

It can be worth it to go with a specialized catalog if you’re really passionate about growing a particular item. If it’s a long-term investment of either your time or money, such as a fruit tree or asparagus, it’s best to shop around and do your research on what will work best in your area. A company geared towards either those specific plants or your region is the best way to go.

Are These Seeds Safe? 

There’s a big list of companies who have voluntarily taken what’s called The Safe Seed Pledge. This means they’ve decided they won’t sell genetically modified seeds – they’ve pledged that the seeds they sell don’t contain genetic material from other species and that they’re committed to selling seed we can save and use to grow again instead of having to go back to the owner of the seeds to get more. You can get more information about the pledge here:

If you want to save your own seeds, you’ll look for Open Pollinated or Heirloom varieties. A lot of times these are abbreviated in catalogs as (OP). When you grow these, as long as you’ve taken care that they don’t cross breed with another variety, you can save the seeds and plant them next year. It’s a fun project and can not only save money but can help you develop seeds that are adapted to the very specific climate you’re growing in. Heirloom varieties are also living history – some of these have been grown for hundreds of years; some were unique to a certain region or family. There’s a lot of interesting stories around some of them. They preserve genetic diversity at a time when a few big seed companies want to license and patent seeds so growers are forced to purchase a few varieties from them year after year.

The other type of seeds is hybrid. There’s nothing wrong with buying and using them and in some cases, hybrids may be an easier choice for a particularly challenged environment because they can be bred with specific disease resistances. That’s no guarantee but it can be a help. Weigh out all of your options and see what works the best for your situation.

So Now What?

So now you’re prepared to spend a few pleasurable hours browsing. Don’t make this a rushed thing; enjoy it and take your time. Just thumb throughGrow Best Tomatoes and dog-ear pages or circle things you like as you go through the catalogs. It’s okay – go ahead and be a glutton! We’re going to put these aside for a few days and make a reasonable, realistic plan before you actually spend any money.

When you’re ready for a second look, make a real assessment of the actual garden space you’ve got and what you need and want to plant. Now’s the time to be realistic. You can’t plant all of your corn and potatoes for the year if you have a 10 x 10 foot space. Don’t decide you’re going to grow all of your tomatoes to supply sauce and paste for the year if you work 60 hours a week and have three children under the age of 4. If this is your first garden, don’t decide to plant one of every vegetable. Make this a successful experience from the start by being realistic. We all bite off more than we can chew but keep it within a reasonable limit.  If you want to go crazy, buy some extra radish or lettuce seeds; you’ll find a place to tuck them in and they won’t go to waste, even if they aren’t used this year.

Check your work

Once you’ve decided what you want and need to grow, go back and work through the catalogs you really liked. Pick a vegetable to start with, say for example tomatoes. You may want to make a list of the varieties that really caught your attention. Maybe you want to plant a paste tomato, a yellow tomato, a big ol’ beefsteak and some tiny ones for snacking. Use that general plan and narrow down your choices. Make a list by those categories and then weigh the pro’s and con’s with each selection on your list. Maybe one paste tomato matures faster; maybe one has less seeds. Take a look at things like days to maturity, your climate, the amount of space you have, the flavor description, and what you want to use it for. Now you’ve got to make the hard decisions. Some varieties should rule themselves out easily: if you live in Zone 5 and that tomato you liked takes 110 days to maturity you should probably cross it off the list and find something that matures faster. Make a note of which catalog offers that variety and the price – there can be significant differences.

Sometimes it can pay to order all of your seeds from a single source, depending on how the shipping and handling fees are set up. But if there’s something you really want, it can be worth it to figure out what else you can buy from that company to justify the shipping cost.

Is that all there is to it?

After you’ve gotten all of your essentials planned out and decided upon, you can give yourself permission to go back and look for the little fillers or “fun” items. Maybe there’s a new flower you want to try? Never planted gourds before? Maybe you want to add a few unusual herbs in between plants? This is where you can be creatively inspired by the catalogs and all of the things they offer that are really unique. You may end up with a new discovery that becomes one of next year’s “regulars”. Good things to look for as easy additions are “off-season” vegetable (early spring or late fall), small varieties you can tuck in among your regular beds (lettuces, herbs, greens and flowers) or container plants.

Have fun and relax with this even as you’re making your plan. Its part window shopping, part daydreaming and part just good old garden planning. When it comes time to start those seeds, either indoors or out, you’ll be ready.

As you get more into reading the catalogs and trying different offerings year after year, you may find yourself coveting a particular variety or a particular vegetable. You look at the catalog and get upset because the green beans you had ordered last year (and loved!) are no longer being sold…while there are always tried and true varieties offered, you can also count on something new appearing every year. Maybe that’s what keeps us hooked. That and the hope that this will finally be the year without the bugs, the weeds and with the gorgeous, bountiful harvest.


Do you have any tips you’d like to share? A favorite seed catalog we missed? Something you’d like more clarification on? Leave a comment below and we’ll get back to you.

Some good catalogs:

General Catalogs

Photos courtesy of

The Father of All Chickens – A Short Story of the Red Jungle fowl

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The Red Jungle fowl is an ancient bird said to have roamed the jungles of Asia as early as 5,000- 8,000 years ago. It sustained generations of mankind and appeared in early cave art in parts of SE Asia. The birds still run wild today. This tropical member of the pheasant family roams areas of India, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and even the Hawaiian Islands. The Red Junglefowl is the father of all chickens.

In July 2012, Dr. Alice Storey of the University of New England and her associates made a big discovery: the Red Jungle fowl was the ancestor of all modern chickens. This team of scientists studied the mitochondrial DNA of ancient chicken bones collected from a huge variety of geographical locations, including Spanish Colonial Florida, Europe, Chile, Thailand, and Pacific Islands. The results? Every modern chicken breed descended from the Red Jungle fowl. According to Science Daily, humans kept Red Jungle fowl as livestock 8,000 years ago. It’s believed that they were first kept for cockfighting. Later, they were used for religious reasons. Then, the Red Jungle fowl was raised for food.

Since then, hundreds of unique chicken breeds have emerged. Just how did one breed of jungle birds turn into hundreds of distinct chicken breeds? Swedish zoologists Daniel Nätt, Per Jensen, and associates tackled that question in early 2012. The results of their study were published in BMC Genomics. Nätt and Jensen studied how individual patterns of gene activity in the brains of modern chickens differ from the original gene activity patterns in the Red Jungle fowl. Throughout their research, they found that hundreds of genes showed distinct differences.  Domestication has led to a variety of epigenetic changes.  The greater amount of methylation in the genes of modern chicken breeds may have something to do with the huge amount of variation within the chicken species in such a short period of time.

The male Red Jungle fowl is even more brightly colored than its tame counterpart as well as larger. Deep red facial skin, a metallic-green tail, and orange or red crown and neck feathers make this fowl stand out. Females are smaller and a diminutive brown. In the wild, the Red Jungle fowl lives in small, mixed-gender flocks with three to five hens per each cock. Some groups have been spotted with up to twenty birds. Young cocks live in isolated groups of 2-3 birds. The Red Jungle fowl subsists on seeds, fruit, and insects. There are five subspecies of Jungle fowl recognized today. All varieties are extremely shy and will scurry or fly into underbrush for cover at any sign of danger.

An endangered species in some parts of the world, including Singapore, the Red Jungle fowl is affected by habitat loss. Poaching is also a problem, too. Yet inbreeding with domestic chickens is perhaps the greatest threat to this ancient species.  Many Red Jungle fowl held in captivity have turned out to be genetically mixed. The prevalence of this puts the breed at a great risk for extinction.

It’s an amazing opportunity for mankind to be able to examine the chicken’s early ancestor and its modern offspring side-by-side. There aren’t many chances in life to see evolution so distinctly. However, without some serious conservation efforts, this is an opportunity which will not be afforded to our grandchildren. The Red Jungle fowl’s future lies on the line…. What can we do to ensure that this breed doesn’t join the list of extinct species?

Domestication of the Chicken: Out of the Jungles of Asia and Into The Modern World

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Backyard chickens are all over the news these days. In towns and cities across the United States, people are fighting for their right to raise their own food. The United Kingdom has also seen a rise in the popularity of small-scale poultry farming and other European cities have legalized the practice as well. Have you ever stopped to wonder where this trend came from? Or consider that raising chickens was popular for thousands of years before it became unfashionable to have chickens pecking about one’s yard?

Photo by: Garrett Heath
Photo by: Garrett Heath

Between 5 000- 8,000 years ago near China, the first chickens were domesticated from a wild Red Junglefowl. The success of this breed couldn’t be contained; Chickens slowly became popular throughout other parts of the globe. Chicken bones have been discovered in the tombs of ancient European Pharaohs. The Greeks also portrayed chickens in their pottery around 500 BC. A bit later on, the Romans considered chickens to be oracles. 7th century BC Corinthian pottery features pictures of domesticated chickens. A 2007 study by The University of Auckland’s Department of Anthropology suggests that prehistoric Polynesians were the first to bring domesticated chickens to the Americas. Other studies claim that chickens arrived in the Americas with European explorers. Easy to care for and inexpensive to purchase, the chicken offered man quick and nutritious food. Chickens were vital to early American colonists striving to survive in a harsh and unforgiving new world. Pioneers brought chickens West, relying on their eggs and meat in a vast land.  Chickens were an important part of life. Regardless, these useful birds became popular wherever they were taken, raised for eggs and for meat and sustaining generations of humanity.

Today, there are more than 24 billion chickens worldwide, making it one of the most common domesticated animals in existence. Men have bred and changed chickens in countless ways over the years, creating birds that meet every requirement imaginable. There are breeds that do well in hot climates and those that thrive where it is cool. There are birds that do well living in confinement and those that do best in a wide, open yard. With hundreds of breeds in existence, there’s one to meet every need.

Industrialization brought about a lot of changes. As people moved to cities for work, raising one’s own chickens became less popular. People got away from farming, and likewise away from the source of their food. Commercial farming made the problem worse. It’s far more common today for chickens to be raised in huge, commercial buildings, living in cages or cramped together in tight quarters than to be raised on a traditional farm. Consumers turned to the supermarket for their chicken meat and eggs. Raising chickens was seen as unsophisticated and unfashionable. Many traditional heritage breeds almost disappeared from existence because of this dramatic shift.

In recent years, raising one’s own chickens has made a huge comeback. The ugly side of commercial farming has been exposed time and again and people have started paying attention and taking control of their own food. It’s no longer unfashionable to raise chickens, but instead rather hip. Whether for health, environmental, or economic reasons, caring for chickens is a popular trend in modern society. More cities are allowing chickens within their backyards each year. The chicken seems to be the ultimate comeback bird. With its long and varied history, it’s not hard to believe that this bird is here to stay.