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Plant and seed catalogs will be jamming the mailbox any day now. I always feel like January ushers in a clean slate for the garden: optimism abounds among fresh ideas and promises never to repeat a crop busting mistake are sharp in my memory. Sometimes the slate stays clean; sometimes it doesn’t. Either way the next couple of months can be used to plan and prepare for the next growing season. Don’t get overwhelmed by (or over indulge in) all the catalogs until you actually decide on what you want to accomplish for the year.
If your goal is more plants in the yard then figure out what kind of soil and drainage you have. Select plant material based on your particular environment. Over the next couple of months, for example, monitor how well a potential planting sight drains. If it is slow to drain after considerable precipitation then you are likely working with compacted or clayey soils. Since the recommendation for woody plants is not to over-amend the soil (we do not want a false environment) then the selection process will be critical for long term health and enjoyment. These clayey compacted situations call for trees and shrubs that have adaptable reputations. On the other hand, if you have soil that drains well than you have a broader range of options; your local nursery can advise.
If your goal is less work in the yard buying more plants may be the answer, believe it or not. Have you considered turning lawn into a mixed border of shrubs and perennials? Yes, there is some work involved, but not of the lawn mowing type. Once beds are established they may need some pruning, dead-heading or weeding but if you follow good gardening practices these will only present themselves seasonally. Good mulching practices go far when it comes to weed control.
For now you can map out the shape of the beds and add compost to smother out turf. All of this can be tilled together in the spring. For a mixed border or perennial garden soil amendments are recommended, their roots don’t go as far and wide as their woody relatives so a controlled environment is acceptable.
If you really want a carefree garden then consider the native grass approach. Kill out all the fescue and plant native grasses and prairie plants. Once established the mini prairie only needs one mowing each spring. The native grasses and prairie plants are adaptable to extreme conditions so clayey soil and droughty weather is no obstacle. You can mix in other flowering plants; and you don’t have to be a purist and limit yourself to just native plants. Use the native grasses for the foundation of the yard and then mix in whatever every else has a self-reliant reputation.
If you want to grow your own food then you can start building your beds now. I highly recommend growing your own food for a multitude of reasons. Healthy soil is elemental to a healthy vegetable garden (which is elemental to a healthy you!) Use copious amounts of composted manure; turn it all into the soil in spring and you will have a rich, well-drained canvas from which to work. If you are burdened by heavy clayey soils then build yourself a series of raised beds to ensure healthy soil. The results are healthier plants that resist pest problems more effectively; grow at an appropriate rate (do not over fertilize to stimulate more growth then the plant can handle); set flower and fruit once the plant has the energy to do so; and produce a satisfactory yield. It truly does start with the soil so if nothing else try to get as much compost down now so you can turn it into the soil on a warm and dry early spring day.