Late Fall To Do: Season Review
Updated: Jan 16, 2021
There's been hard frost for a while now, and you've got everything pulled from the garden and either in the cold cellar, refrigerator, freezer, or in the pantry. Plus you have all your raised beds, mixed borders and lawns put to bed for the winter. Congratulations! It's finally time to rest … except for one last task. Don't forget to take a look back at your growing season!
You have been taking notes throughout the year haven't you? No? It's a great habit to get into. I constantly scribble notes on my gardening calendar as it is usually the closest piece of paper to my garden. Having a record of things allows you to plan better in the following years and is a good history of what worked (or not) and what you liked (or didn't). Let's take a look at some of the things you should be taking note of throughout the year.
In The Vegetable Garden
Actual Timing vs. Planned Schedule
If you are a huge garden geek like me, you may have your garden planned at the beginning of the year with exactly when you need to seed, transplant, and harvest each and every vegetable and annual flower. I also have the precise amount of each to plant and where exactly they will go. (See the series of articles on Crop Planning starting with the Intro for details on putting your own planting schedule together.) Call me wacky if you will, but this habit allows me to adjust my gardening to reflect my very specific growing conditions in my zone 3 chinook garden. By noting any changes I needed to make to my plan throughout the year (from my predetermined dates to locations), I can make adjustments to my future plans. For example, when I first invested in grow lights and heat mats for seed starting, I noted that germination rates and growing times significantly decreased. I then adjusted when to start my transplants the following year. This example is fairly straightforward, as there is not a ton of variation in the weather inside my home.
Outside can be very different. Good notes are even more important here. I mark down exact dates that I actually direct seeded, when I transplanted, when seeds germinated and when they were at a harvestable size. Many times, these dates differ from what was in my original plan and what was on the seed package. That is okay! Our plans are meant to be flexible; no two years are exactly the same after all. These differences are most often due to weather. Temperature, amount of moisture, and amount of sunshine varies each year. Not to mention hail, chinooks and other weather events. Mother Nature does like to keep us on our toes!
What the Weather Was Actually Like
It is super important that we also make notes on the weather we experience each year. It will often explain why we made the changes we did to our original plan. It is also important to know when that weather is not typical. Knowing what is typical for your location, and then if your weather varied from that for a particular year, will help you determine whether or not to permanently adjust your calendar and schedule for the following years. This means we either need to have lived in our location for a really long time (and have a fantastic memory to boot) or we need to get that information from elsewhere. See the section "Further Information" below for good climate information sources.
For example, a late snowfall on May long weekend will almost definitely have an affect on when we transplant our warm season plants outside and how quickly the seeds we have already planted germinate. That May long weekend snow event is actually quite typical here in Calgary and area, so the changes in my plan as a result of this should most likely be permanent changes I make to my plans in the following years. In contrast, this year, we had a particularly cold, long spring and that resulted in delayed transplanting of my warm season vegetables like tomatoes and peppers. I know that this was not typical for Calgary so I won't adjust when I plan to transplant these guys outside the following year. This can be quite subjective and involve some trial and error. It's a good thing we have the notes from past years for comparison purposes!
Specifics For Each Vegetable
This is something I usually do all at once at the end of the season, like right about now (early November). At this time I still have the taste and growing details for each fresh in my mind. I go through each vegetable and make notes on which varieties grew well and which didn't. I also note which varieties tasted especially yummy and which were just ho hum. Some particular areas to think about include:
how productive it was (was it worth the amount of space used in terms harvest amount)
if my family also enjoyed eating it
if I planted too much or not enough of a particular variety or vegetable
if there were gaps during the harvest season that a different variety or different vegetable might be able to fill
if a particular variety didn't ripen in time (days to maturity too long) and whether that was a result of weather, poor variety choice or some other factor
any specific plant companions that worked particularly well
any varieties that were extra cold hardy or extra pest resistant
I am also still eating a good portion of my harvest and therefore have strong opinions on what I am finding tasty and what had large harvests. I also try to note the size of each harvest (although I must admit that this often falls to the wayside as it occurs during the busiest time of the year for me).
Pests or Diseases
This is also a good time to think about any pest or disease issues that may have popped up during the season. Did you take photos or notes to record what the damage looked like, or better yet, did you catch the culprit in the act? Winter is a good time for research, allowing you to figure out exactly what that pest or disease was and what steps you can take next season to prevent that issue again. For example, this year my beans got chewed down to the ground when they reached about 3" tall. Careful observation put the blame squarely on the birds (sparrows especially). Grrr! Next year I will make sure I put row covers over my beans after I plant them until they are more mature. We'll see how effective that is and make a note of it next year. Maybe you tried a new strategy this season for dealing with pests or diseases that appeared in previous years. How well did these work for you? Is it something you should continue again next year, or should you move on to trying something different? Did a specific companion planting help? Maybe a new variety you tried is more pest resistant. Or maybe the weather this past year was not conducive to a specific pest that bothered you in the past. Say what you will about particularly dry years, at least we don't have a ton of slugs! Taking lots of notes allows you to assess what has worked in the past and what will be a good strategy for the future.
New veggies or varieties you would like to try
I am a big proponent of always trying something new in the garden each year. The fun part is deciding what those new somethings will be. I get ideas from vegetables I see at the grocery store or farmers markets, watching cooking or gardening shows, browsing other people's gardens or chatting with other gardeners. And don't forget seed catalogs! I jot down anything that is intriguing to me and winter gives me time to do a bit of research and see if any of these new veggies are doable in my garden. Then, when it comes time to plan my garden, I have a list of potentially new veggies to try out. I have found a number things that ended up growing and tasting so great, that I now plant on a regular basis: ground cherries, celtuce and Hungarian banana peppers to name a few. Don't forget to include the rest of your family in this! My youngest son picks out a new colourful variety of carrots that we try out every year, which he then plants, nurtures, and eats with great enthusiasm.
Perennials, Shrubs, Trees and Lawn
So far, we have mostly concentrated on our annual veggie garden, but don't forget the rest of your yard too! You should also be taking notes on your perennials, trees, shrubs and lawn. Take note when you see any plants that are not doing so well. Is it their location? Would they do better in a sunnier, shadier, moister or drier area of your yard? Do they need dividing? Maybe they need an extra shot of nutrition in the form of compost or fertilizer. Most plants have an ideal time to transplant so make a note of what needs to be moved or divided and when is best to do it. Also take note of any combinations that seem to look really good to you and see if you can repeat those in other areas of your yard. If you see any great plant combos in magazines or other gardens, take note of them so you can try them in your own garden. Last, but not least, I have an ever-changing wish list of dream plants (usually on my phone so it is at hand whenever I need it). They are often rare or slightly out of zone plants that I absolutely must snatch up if I come across them in them either at a greenhouse or in a fellow gardener's yard (with permission for a cutting or division first, of course).
I hope all this note taking doesn't sound like a lot of work; it shouldn't be! It can be as simple as a quick scribble on your garden plan when you come in from an afternoon in the garden. It can be a quick jot in a notepad app whenever you think of something you would like to do in the garden next year. It can also be a photo on your phone of a stunning perennial you saw on a walk. The point is that you have a reference for when you go to do your garden planning this winter. You will know exactly what needs to be done and what you want to do, because you have a record of what has been done in the past and all of your ideas for the future in one spot. It will allow you to plan a garden that is more successful each and every year.
All this planning is going to come in handy when we start building our planting plan for next season (see Crop Planning: An Introduction to start with). We will use our notes to decide which veggies to plant and what varieties, how much of each to plant, where to plant them and what they should be planted with. And don't forget the most wonderful time of the year: seed catalog season!! While you are sitting by your crackling fire with a mug of mulled wine under a cozy blanket and perusing those seed catalogs, remember to jot down all the veggies and annual flowers that just might be worth a try next year.
Yummy gardening everyone!
Further Information and Reading
Eldorado Weather (https://eldoradoweather.com/canada/climate2/Calgary.html) for in depth Calgary climate information and averages.
Veseys (https://www.veseys.com/ca/canada-hardiness-zones-frost-dates) for last frost dates for your specific locale.
Government of Canada Environment and Natural Resources (https://climate.weather.gc.ca/historical_data/search_historic_data_e.html) for daily historical weather information for anywhere in Canada, including precipitation, temperature highs and lows, wind direction and speed.
Here is a listing of seed companies and their websites to get you started. Many of them will mail you catalogs, some are even free. Note that you may need to ensure certain seeds or plants will do well in our climate, especially those from the American seed companies. Do your research (in front of that cozy winter fire). And please let me know which seed companies I am missing!
Local to Calgary and Area:
Prairie Garden Seeds - https://prseeds.ca/
Casey's Heirloom Tomatoes - http://www.caseysheirloomtomatoes.ca/index.html
Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes - https://www.seedpotatoes.ca/
Harmonic Herbs - http://www.harmonicherbs.com/index.php
Wildrose Heritage Seed Company - https://www.wildroseheritageseed.com/
Heirloom Seed Vault - https://heirloomseedvault.com/
West Coast Seeds - https://www.westcoastseeds.com/
T&T Seeds - https://ttseeds.com/
Veseys - https://www.veseys.com/ca/
Richters Herbs - https://www.richters.com/
Whiffletree Farm & Nursery - https://www.whiffletreefarmandnursery.ca/
Lindenberg Seeds - https://www.lindenbergseeds.ca/home
Mumm's Sprouting Seeds - http://sprouting.com/
Blazing Star Wildflower Seed Company - https://www.growwildflowers.ca/
Prairie Originals Wildflower and Native Grass - https://www.prairieoriginals.com/
Johnny's Selected Seeds - https://www.johnnyseeds.com/
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (the biggest and most beautiful catalog ever! you can often find this in bookstores as well) - https://www.rareseeds.com/
Seed Savers Exchange - https://www.seedsavers.org/