An Almanac For Organic Gardeners In The Northeast

Everything you need to know to grow year-round.

November 26, 2010

Amy Goldman is an accomplished home gardener, seed saver and collector, and a recognized authority on the art of growing vegetables. Every summer she grows hundreds of different varieties of vegetables in her gardens in the Hudson Valley of New York. She has won many prizes and awards for her displays of heirlooms, including grand championships in vegetables at state, county and regional fairs and flower shows. Goldman is author of The Compleat Squash: A Passionate Grower's Guide to Pumpkins, Squashes, and Gourds (Artisan, 2004); and Melons for the Passionate Grower (Artisan, 2002) — both recipients of Book of the Year awards from the American Horticultural Society.

Rare Forms Amy Goldman preserves the miracles of her garden, transforming them into works of art through sculpture, photography, and writing.



I've made do the last dozen years with a ramshackle garden fence of twisted chicken wire and frost-heaved wooden posts. Each succeeding crop of trellised fruit lowered the bar until last summer the fence finally lay prostrate, an open invitation to deer. Enter stage two in the life cycle of my garden. A new fence is under construction of sturdy stone and heavy metal. My mason is cold hardy and promises a spring delivery. Unconventional, not foursquare but asymmetrical, the garden will take its lead from contour intervals and the lay of the land. Amy's folly? Or a hope-filled beginning, with a bit of whimsy.

Go Dormant. Do nothing, if you prefer, and remain dormant. There are no pressing garden chores now.

Pantry Perfect Meals. Raid the pantry and make soul-satisfying meals of homegrown origin.

Devour Garden Seed Catalogs. Favor those that have taken the Safe Seed Pledge not to knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. To learn more visit

Stay Natural. Take the Safe Seed Pledge yourself, by deciding not to grow genetically engineered varieties in the garden.

Healthy Heirlooms. Grow heirloom and open pollinated varieties instead.

Keep Track Of Your Garden. Buy a garden journal and a garden planner and make good use of them.

On a sunny day in midwinter I sit in a cool potting shed and dream about spring. The days are lengthening now and I must figure out what to grow in the garden and whether to proceed with some building projects. Should I grow out my entire tomato and pepper collections? Plant more blueberries? What about building a fence around the orchard or digging a new pond? Soon I will decide. I will take an inventory of my seed stock and place my remaining seed orders, and I will fill seed requests from members of the Seed Savers Exchange who will grow out and reoffer some of the endangered vegetable varieties I am maintaining. Late in the month I will start my first plants from seed.

Decide on Seeds. Finish selecting this season's seeds from mail-order seed catalogs.

Who Doesn't Love Lettuce? Start some lettuces and leafy greens indoors under lights for an early taste of spring. Start onions and leeks indoors, too, as well as slow-growing flowers that need 10 to 12 weeks before transplanting outdoors.

Tasty Tomatoes. If you're craving homegrown tomatoes already and if you don't mind taking a gamble on the weather, start a batch of cold-tolerant tomatoes to be set outside under protection by mid to late April. 'Stupice' is a reliable and tasty variety.

Pruning Party. Prune raspberry canes and fruit trees while they are still dormant.

Birds Get Hungry Too. Keep bird feeders full of suet and seed.

Hit the Showers. Give your houseplants a cool shower in the bathtub.

Here Comes Spring. Spring is not too far away now. Make final decisions about what to grow in this year's garden.

Sketch It Out. Do preliminary sketches of your garden. Take into account adequate spacing, crop rotation, and succession planting.

Soon the snows will melt, birds will nest, and apple trees will blossom. The safe planting-out date (Memorial Day - for tender annuals and perennials) is only weeks away, and there is work to be done. Seed starting, pruning, and renewal of life begins in earnest now.

Do You Have a Passion for Peas? The tradition of planting out pea seeds on or about St. Patrick's Day is extreme gardening, in my opinion. If you insist, however, you'll do better to start transplants inside in a wooden flat two weeks in advance.

Cool Crucifers. Start seeds of cool season vegetables such as cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and broccoli indoors under grow lights.

Starting Seasonal Veggies and Flowers. Towards the end of March or early April, you can also start peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes from seed. You've got the go-ahead to start seeds of cool season flowers such as larkspur, snapdragons, coleus, statice, and verbenas indoors under grow lights. Cool season vegetables like peas, radishes, mustard greens and spinach can be planted in cold or warm frames (cold frames with heat cables or another heat source).

Prepare Your Beds. If the soil is dry enough, and only under that condition, prepare garden beds for planting. Does the soil crumble in your hand? Turn under winter cover crops and add compost.

Herb Garden. I'm putting in an herb garden this year, a pharmacopeia of culinary and medicinal herbs, and I encourage you to do the same. Many herbs—including parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme—can be started from seed now.

Over Amaryllis? If you've had your fill of amaryllis in pots by now, add a touch of spring to your home by forcing forsythia and pussywillow into bloom.

Spring couldn't be more welcome. It's a pleasure to see the snow recede and patches of earth and lawn reappear, even though it's looking a bit scruffier than usual. Mounds of debris, almost like mini terminal moraines, left by glaciers, sit deposited along my driveway. An overzealous snowplow was the culprit, of course, leaving no stone unturned. Despite all the hassle of clean up, I wouldn't trade my gravel drive for a paved one. Gravel says country, not suburbia; slow down, and kick up a little dust.

Ditch the Debris. Get an aerobic workout by raking away winter debris.

Seed Starting. Start seeds of warm-season vegetables like peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes the first week in April. These will be ready for transplant into the garden in late May. Start seeds of herbs, such as dill, parsley and basil, inside through the end of the month, as well as flowers like zinnias and marigolds.

Save Your Soil. Prepare your garden soil once it has dried out and crumbles easily in your hand. Till in green manure crops that have wintered over.

Seed Savvy. Direct seed into the garden cool season vegetables and flowers including carrots, beets, peas, parsnips, foxgloves, and hollyhocks. Set out hardy seedlings such as onions, cabbage, leafy greens, pansies and snapdragons. Harden them off for a day or two by leaving them out in a protected area.

Potato Preparation. Pre-sprout potatoes two weeks in advance of setting them out in the garden to give them a head start.

Dig In. Dig, divide and transplant perennials, like asters, that bloom in summer or fall.

A fellow garden tourist struck up a conversation recently, as we admired tropical plants in a glasshouse in Chicago. He boasted that he had some of the same X, Y, and Z in his own backyard near Seattle. What could I say, as a Zone Fiver with a garden near the Borscht Belt of New York where such things are not possible. One hundred and twenty frost-free gardening days can still allow me to grow the makings for my winter staple,?borscht; as well as melon soup for summer.

Seeding Time. All the makings of borscht can be planted in the garden now: direct seed beets, plant potatoes, and cabbage seedlings. Warm-season vegetables, like the melon for melon soup, cucumbers and squash, need a jump-start inside three weeks before planting out around Memorial Day.

Tender Annuals Tip. Memorial Day is also the safe planting out date for tender annuals, dahlias, and tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.

Spring Cleaning. Finish the spring cleanup, topdress garden beds with compost, and take bird feeders down.

Projects For Your Garden. Begin garden construction projects like pergolas and retaining walls or erect fencing and trellises.

Reminders of Winter. Assess the deer and frost damage, and replace affected trees and shrubs with hardier stock.

Flower Power. Enjoy spring flowers like peonies and early roses. Lilacs always signal Mother's Day in my garden, and make a fragrant bouquet for Mom.

Asparagus Action. Pick those long-awaited first asparagus spears.

The best compliment I ever got came from my instructor, Ted Moores, on an alumni Outward Bound expedition to the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories of Canada, 25 years ago. Portaging around what's known as "The Dangerous River", with a canoe on my shoulders and a Duluth pack on my back — weighing as much as me —he said in his gruff voice I was "Strong like moose". That still holds true today, although my venue has changed. The garden is my element now, my connection to the natural world. It's where I quietly flex my muscles, exhilarated by the effort of sowing and reaping.

Summer Reading. If life is too tame in your garden, read R.M. Patterson's classic outdoor adventure story, The Dangerous River (Stoddart Publishing Co., 1989).

Finish What You Started In May. Keep busy planting annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees.

Keep Your Garden In Shape. Do routine maintenance: water, weed, feed, thin, and cultivate.

Don't Forget To Deadhead. Deadhead spent flowers, and pinch back eggplants and chrysanthemums to encourage branching.

Vine Borer Battle. Keep vine borers away from vining crops by wrapping aluminum foil around the base of the stems, at soil level.

Harvest Time. Harvest peas, strawberries, leafy vegetables, and radishes.

My garden never looks as good as it does now, at the height of summer. I want to freeze the frame, and just take a moment out to admire the tidy rows, the weed-free zones, the flaming colors, and the lushness of it all. Visitors and small groups are welcome to check out the territory too. The favorite stop on the tour is always the Isolation Garden, the place where heirloom vegetables are grown for seed alone. By simply isolating varieties by distance from others with which they might cross, even a novice seed saver can preserve our vanishing vegetable heritage.

Keep The Work Up. Keep up with what I call the Big Five: watering, weeding, feeding, thinning, and cultivating.

Pest Prevention. Be vigilant about pests and intervene early. Handpick or use organic sprays, as needed.

Daffodil Cutting. Now is the time to cut down unsightly daffodil foliage.

Plant One More Round. Plant another round of fast-maturing string beans and lettuces, and sow seeds for fall harvests such as cole crops, peas and carrots.

Harvest A Bonanza of Berries. Pick gooseberries, blueberries and raspberries. Make jam or freeze for winter use.

Pull 'Em Up. By month's end, pull mature onions, garlic, and potatoes. I cure mine a few weeks on screens in a well ventilated garage.

Seed Saving. To learn more about seed saving techniques, contact the Seed Savers Exchange at (563) 382-5990 or visit their website: Come to their annual Camp Out Convention in Decorah, IA, the third weekend in July.

I live for August. That's when all the hard work pays off and the harvest comes in. And by the looks of it, this year there's going to be a bumper crop.

Enjoy the fruits of your labor. What could be better than eating cherry tomatoes off the vine, or Charentais Melon au Porto? For melon recipes see my book, Melons for the Passionate Grower, (Artisan, 2002).

Stop Pushing Zucchini. DON'T visit zucchini and summer squash on your friends and neighbors — it's worse than giving away ice in winter. Far better to pull the plants out and compost them if you've had your fill.

Harvest Time. Harvest frequently to keep plants productive.

Preserve, pickle, can, or freeze the surplus. Two of my most well-thumbed guides for the perplexed:
Preserving Summer's Bounty edited by Susan McClure, Rodale, 1995.
Fancy Pantry by Helen Witty, Workman Publishing, 1986.

Pop Quiz. What do you do with the spawn of 500 tomato, 100 melon, 50 gourd, and 150 squash plants? Good question. I'll start by converting my garage into a curing shed: setting up screens on sawhorses and fans to move the air. My pride and joy is a new industrial-strength refrigerator that can hold the perishable goods—until I can give most of them away.

Order Up. Order bulbs and trees for fall planting.

Go Green. There's still time to sow a green manure crop of buckwheat and till it in before frost.

Support local agriculture. Patronize a farmers' market near you for items that you don't grow yourself, or for value-added products such as cheeses, wine, honey, jams and jellies.

I know my gardening days are numbered. Frost usually comes around mid-month. That's when I cash in my chips and bring the harvest in. There's literally tons of produce out there: garden behemoths like 'Atlantic Giant pumpkins', pink and blue banana squashes, and juicy 'Georgia Rattlesnake' watermelons. They will be flavorful reminders in the months ahead of the garden that was. I'll gamble on the hard-shell gourds and let them linger a while longer on the vine, but I won't bet the farm.

Make haste and bring in the goods. Pick warm-season vegetables such as squash, melons, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers before frost. Handle them gingerly to avoid damage and subsequent spoilage.

Herb Preserving. To preserve the volatile oils in herbs, harvest them on cool mornings after the dew has dried. Put them in a dehydrator or spread them out on a screen to dry until they're brittle. Store them in moisture-proof containers.

Squashes and Pumpkins and Gourds—Oh My! Clean and cure pumpkins, gourds, and winter squashes in a cool, airy place sheltered from the sun for a month or so. Bathe them with a weak bleach solution to prevent molds from forming, and take care not to damage stems or they may rot.

Compost Tip. Remove spent plants from garden beds and compost them. Do not compost weeds gone to seed or any diseased plants.

Go Green. Plant a green manure crop in your vegetable beds to replenish the soil. I use winter rye and hairy vetch, but you can choose from many different kinds of legumes and/or grasses.

Herb Tip. Pot up herbs (such as dill, thyme and basil) to grow on a sunny windowsill and eat during the winter.

Happy Houseplants. Bring in any houseplants that have been outside during the summer and give them a good bath to remove any pests that may have hitched a ride in with them.

Bulb Storage. Dig up tender bulbs such as cannas and dahlias and store them in a box full of peat moss or sand in a cool, dry place.

Spring Flowers. Plant spring-flowering bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, snowdrops, crocus, and hyacinths.

Planting Plans. Plant roses, trees and shrubs.

Now's the time when the highways and byways of my peaceful valley become clogged with city folk. These are the leaf watchers, and they've come to witness the annual display of fall foliage. I don't mind— I used to be one of those city types myself — and there's more than enough brilliant orange and crimson red to go around. My own backyard is suffused with color. My daughter Sara and I don't like to just sit and look. We make a game of catching falling leaves and whistling raucously on acorn caps.

Leaf Peeping! Get your camera out and capture the fall foliage for posterity. This time of year inspires amateur photographer. Or, try paint and easel if you're so inclined.

Tree Talk. To learn more about trees, especially those with fabulous fall color, read Kim E. Tripp and J.C. Raulston's excellent book, The Year in Trees: Superb Woody Plants for Four-Season Gardens (Timber Press, 1997).

Soil Savvy. Leaf mold is a cheap source of organic matter for your SOIL. Gather up leaves and stockpile them for future use. I just let the piles sit a few years until the leaves turn into rich brown humus.

Frost Buster. Extend your season and protect tender plants against frost with cold frames, hot caps, cloches and floating row covers. Here's a link to durable row covers you can use season after season.

Tasty Tip. Process and can any remaining crops. You can make an unbeatable tomato or applesauce with my favorite food mill: the Velox Passatutto press, available from the Williams Sonoma catalog.

Veggie Delight. Enjoy cool-season vegetables such as cress, sorrel, collards, kale and swiss chard.

Planting and Transplanting. Plant garlic and shallots before the ground freezes. Transplant or divide perennials such as daylilies and hostas.

Thanksgiving is a gardener's holiday. It's the time to strut your homegrown stuff on the groaning board. If you planned it right, everything from soup to nuts was grown organically by you and not store-bought. My menu includes Hubbard squash soup followed by turkey and all the trimmings: ratatouille, mashed potato pie, Amy's Famous Ida Red apple sauce, pickled beets, candied sweet potatoes, corn relish, gooseberry chutney, pickled watermelon rind — and more. I admit I don't raise my own turkeys, but luckily my neighbor Bruce produces the finest fowl in the Hudson Valley, and there's always a turkey set aside for me. There's so much to be thankful for.

Thanksgiving Flavor. Marian Morash's book, The Victory Garden Cookbook, (Knopf, 1993) is my bible for Thanksgiving. Try the celeriac remoulade.

Operation Bulb Rescue. Get the last bulbs and garlic in before the ground freezes.

Mucho Mulch. Mulch perennial beds and new plantings after the ground freezes to prevent frost heaves that might damage crowns and rootstocks.

Harvest Time. Harvest all those fallen leaves and shred or compost them. Leaf mold makes a great soil amendment.

Time to Mow On. Mow the lawn one last time.

Prepare Tools. Clean, sharpen, and oil garden tools and implements before storing them for the winter.

Hunting Season Is Here. Take care if you venture out into the woods.

It's the happy end of the growing season, and I gladly come inside for the winter. My plants won' t need me until spring, and I have other things to attend to now. The shortest day of the year — also the longest night — approaches. I remember the winter solstice two years ago, a cold still night with a frost-rimed moon. I lit my living room with candle lanterns and a warm fire, put champagne on ice, and awaited the company of a special friend to celebrate the darkness and the light. I think I'd like to make that an annual ritual.

Prep For Cold Weather. Fill wood boxes with firewood; make sure your chimneys have been swept. Take care with the use of candles and lanterns.

Stake' Em Up. Stake your driveway to guide the snowplow in the event of snow. Dust off the skis, skates, and sleds.

Fine-Feathered Friends. Install a bird feeder and keep it stocked with suet and seed.

Bring Breakables Inside. Bring in clay pots and other fragile garden ornaments to prevent cracking.

Water Away. Keep watering fall-planted trees and shrubs.

Make holiday gifts from nature. Everyone loves fruit cordials, honey, jams and chutneys.

Check It Out. Here we go again — the first seed catalogues arrive and need to be perused.

Next Up From Rodale's Organic Life

Where Backyard Birds Go During Winter
Fix up your yard to be hospitable to year-round avian visitors.
What The Heck Does Well-Drained Soil Actually Mean?
We get to the bottom of this common gardening term.
STOP: Before You Toss That Cracked Garden Hose—Fix It
Even large holes can be repaired without a lot of expense.