With the recent series of storms that are finally reaching our coast, it seems like the ideal opportunity to read all of those delicious gardening magazines and books that have been piling up since last summer, and to take the time to plan both your ornamental and your vegetable gardens for the coming year. Here's how to make the most of your time stuck indoors.
Evaluate for bare spots. By early March, the chinks in your winter-interest armor have become obvious, as the garden is about as bare as it's going to get. This makes it the perfect time of year to consider the "bones" of your garden so you can add trees, shrubs and focal points as needed to enhance the look of the flowering perennials most of us are drawn to in summer. While it can be tough to have clear-eyed insights about the space we see out the window every day, there's an old artists' trick that can help. Stand back as far as you can from a particular bed to get the overall view, then squint your eyes and allow your vision to blur. This technique quickly makes it obvious which areas of the garden lack structural or textural interest. After this exercise, you may decide you want to look out for a special evergreen something at the nursery this year. If that's the case, take digital pictures of the proposed planting spot and pop a bamboo stake in the ground as a visual reminder of where to plant.
Consider hardscaping such as pathways, patios, seat walls and more. The stark beauty of winter makes it easier to see what type of permanent landscaping would enhance your design and give your plants a better stage from which to shine. Because stone and concrete require such an investment, many gardeners procrastinate on them, preferring instead to focus on the easy beauty of plants. However, most people find that a well-placed patio or pathway does more for their enjoyment of the garden than does yet another shrub. If you'd like to play around with shapes and patterns, pick up the iScape app for iOS or Android, which allows you to take a photo, create outlines for bed shapes, patios and paths, and fill them in with stone, brick, plants and more so you can get a 3-D view of what your new layout might look like. The results look a little clunky, but having a visual helps.
See your garden in black and white. If you are geeky enough, you probably have a stack of photos sitting in your cell phone of the highlights and lowlights from the previous year. Select a few representative shots of the garden and use a free app like Instagram (iOS and Android) to make them into black and white images. Since our eyes are used to perceiving color as the dominant player in the landscape, looking at some favorite pics without the crutch of color is beneficial in showing areas that could use greater textural contrasts such as larger leaves or the strappy blades of grasses, differently shaped plants like a tightly rounded dwarf shrub or an explosively exuberant vase-shaped plant, or even just some changes to your maintenance routine such as allowing the plants to grow closer together or keeping them more tightly trimmed.
Plot out your vegetable garden. One of the reasons so many of us have underutilized veggie beds is that we don't think ahead. For example, last year in a fit of exuberance I planted half the garden in Swiss chard right away, and the other half in various squashes. Once everything began growing, I looked sadly at my stack of carrot and beet seeds and realized that while I would be eating squash and chard every day for months, there wouldn't be much to go with it. Don't follow my sad example. Use a piece of graph paper or one of the many vegetable gardening apps out there to plan out what will go where to ensure there's enough room for everything you like to eat and want to grow. Before you fill up your plot with virtual plants, remember that long-lived edibles like blueberry, rhubarb and artichoke can go in the ornamental garden, greens look beautiful alongside annuals in flowerpots, and espaliered fruit trees make an excellent living fence to visually divide areas of the garden.
Drool over the seed catalogs. You're wondering why I didn't put this step first, but years of experience have taught me that you shouldn't go seed shopping until you've thought about which plants you'll actually eat, and what you have room for. Once you've developed a rough design, it's easy to substitute one Brassica for another, and that's what seed catalogs are great for. Heirloom and interestingly colored varieties make both gardening and cooking a pleasure. For ideas, check out the book Edible Heirlooms: Heritage Vegetables For the Maritime Garden by Bill Thorness, a Seattle gardener who lives in a similar climate to our own.
Schedule it out. Though most people don't think about veggie gardening until the weather warms up, some of the first steps for a great harvest happen now, when it's cold and pouring down rain. That's why it's a good idea to plot your gardening year on a calendar. Google calendars is nice because you can easily set up recurring reminders for future years, so you only have to set things up once. There are two books I'm finding useful in scheduling: The Week by Week Vegetable Gardener's Handbook by Ron and Jennifer Kujawski, and The Humboldt Kitchen Gardener by Eddie Tanner. The Week by Week Handbook is a spiral-bound book that shows each gardening task in relationship to your climate's average date of last frost (May 2 in coastal Humboldt County), so once you fill in the dates, you have a highly detailed custom gardening journal. The Humboldt Kitchen Gardener has month-by-month planting charts for both coastal and inland Humboldt, which I also find useful for reference.
Cuddle up with a good book. Lastly, in case you can't tell, I think a rainy spring day is pretty much the best time ever to read gardening books. My favorite new one for general gardening is Refresh Your Garden Design with Color, Texture and Form by Rebecca Sweet. Sweet is a garden designer in the Bay Area, so almost all of the plant combinations shown are ones that we can take direct inspiration from here in Humboldt. Another favorite is Plant by Numbers: 50 Houseplant Combinations to Decorate Your Space by Steve Asbell, which not only has some dishy design ideas, but also has the most exhaustive listing of houseplants for different situations of any of my houseplant books. Lastly, American Home Landscapes: A Design Guide to Creating Period Garden Styles by Denise Wiles Adams and Laura L.S. Burchfield isn't a book that everyone will want, but if you own an architecturally significant home and want to create a garden that reflects its history, this book is a depthy and fascinating read to geek out on.
Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and owns a fine landscape maintenance company in Arcata. She blogs over at www.NorthCoastGardening.com.