Gardening 101—Are You Ready for Spring?
Spring is sure getting a slow start this year.
You can grumble and growl…or you can get planting! It can be springtime inside, even if it is still winter outside. And count your blessings now for every bit of moisture we are getting, even if it’s in the form of snow. There are many areas of the country praying for rain, and not getting nearly enough, if any.
Our last article, in the February 22nd issue, suggests you should have spent last week sowing eggplant, fennel, parsley, summer savory and peppers. Most herbs are best sown in individual peat pots for transplant later, as they will tolerate transplant better if their roots are not subjected to trauma; or plant them directly into the pots they’ll be growing in, and then acclimate them later to move outside. Also water somewhat sparingly, as the roots of most herbs don’t appreciate prolonged exposure to moisture. A little bit of sand mixed with high-peat seeding mixes will help with better drainage when planting herbs. One more note: resist the urge to start hardening off the seedlings mentioned above too early. Until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 55°F, it is best to err on the side of caution, these crops being more sensitive to temperature changes than many.
March 31 through April 6
Many of the seedlings you’ve planted up until now will be growing well. You have probably thinned your flats or peat pots to only the strongest plants and the first true leaves should be making their appearance.
For novice gardeners: the first leaves, which actually don’t resemble the real leaves at all, are the “seed” leaves or cotyledons (cot-uh-LEE-dens). They will be fleshy, kind of succulent looking, and usually oval or round with no real identifying characteristics as the true leaves will have.
If using flats, and/or depending upon the size peat pots you used to begin with, now is the time to consider transplanting the seedlings to larger pots. This will ensure the healthiest root systems possible, as well as a more bountiful harvest. If using peat pots, you can, of course, just transplant the whole pot into a larger pot. The roots, if not already doing so, will grow right through the peat pot. If transplanting from flats, carefully loosen the soil, if necessary, in order to allow the roots to let loose easily. If you’ve used a quality planting medium, you may not even have to loosen the soil for the seedlings to pull free without difficulty. When handling the seedlings, it is highly recommended you do not grasp the seedling by the stem, but by the leaves. The stem is actually the most fragile part of the plant and the fungus that causes damping-off can be spread by touching the stems of your seedlings. If the seedling does not come out of the soil by gently pulling upward on the leaves, or if the leaves pull off before the roots clear the soil, the soil is not loose enough. Again, the goal is to cause as little trauma to the roots as possible, so allow plenty of space for the roots when preparing the new planting hole and then fill soil over the roots, tamping gently to remove air pockets, and water well.
Outdoors, if you have garlic or strawberry beds, start watching for signs of growth. These plants may start sprouting due to the extended day length, even though it’s still quite cold out. At this point it’s okay to remove about half the mulch covering; you’ll still be providing protection, but allowing more sunlight and sun warmth, as well as moisture, to more readily reach the new growth. You can also plant asparagus crowns and horseradish roots or crowns in the garden, provided you can work the soil; and fertilize the plants you already have there. Parsnip seeds can also be sown if the soil is workable. Parsnips have a very long growing season, being harvested in mid to late fall. By the way, if you CAN work the soil, you should be doing a happy dance. True Spring (NOT by-the-calendar spring), will be here before you know it!
April 7 through April 13
If the soil is workable, there is now a lot you can do. In our last article, Gardening 101-Spring Will be Springing!, we talked about “dark” soil and its benefits. Here is where you can really increase the health of your soil. Now is the ideal time to take a look at your compost pile or bin and determine if you have some usable material there. With the late winter season and warmer temperatures early on, that compost has been breaking down more than you think. This is also the time to add fertilizer. We highly recommend organic or all-natural fertilizers as opposed to chemical fertilizers, for eco-friendly reasons. In areas where beets, carrots, radishes and turnips will be grown, avoid the use of high-nitrogen content fertilizers, as they promote leaf growth, often at the expense of healthy root growth. (Nitrogen is the first of the three numbers on the package.)
If you are planning on planting raised beds, now is the time to construct them, order your soil and make decisions as to what type of soil amendments you may need. Some companies will have garden mixes already prepared; though you will pay a little more for them, it may be well worth the additional cost when it comes to saving you time and sore muscles…so shop and compare. You might also ask one or two people you know who have successful gardens where they got their soil or what they add to it.
So, IF the soil is workable, you can sow peas, spinach, carrots, beets, leaf lettuce, spinach and green onion seeds (as well as other veggies in the same families). If you’ve started lettuce, onions and leeks indoors, now is the time to move them to your cold frame, if you have one, to harden-off before transplanting to your garden. It is still too early to start hardening-off most vegetables without the use of a cold frame (leeks, chives, garlic, scallions and shallots being the exceptions). You may find that you’ll need to cover the glass top or unprotected pots on particularly frosty nights and mornings and if not using a cold frame, harden-off these seedlings gradually. If the soil is not workable, if it is too wet or still frozen, you can sow the seeds of any of these cold-hardy vegetables in patio pots for transplant to the garden when things dry out or warm up enough.
And, if your onions, wherever they happen to be planted, are starting to look leggy—shear the tops back to 4 inches. You may actually have to do this more than once.
April 14 through April 20
If you haven’t already, take a walk out to your garden plot, not ON your garden plot. The reason we say this: walking on too-wet soil will compact it, as will trying to till soil that is too wet. It destroys the natural structure and increases the density, making it harder for new roots to penetrate and grow.
Now that we’ve got you out to the garden, lean down and take up a handful of soil. (If it’s not prepared yet, you may have to take a small spade or shovel with you in order to dig past the grass or weeds to the soil.) Squeeze the soil in your hand. If it wrings out like a wet sponge or remains in a solid clump when you open your hand, it’s too wet, and you will need to wait until it dries some. If it doesn’t hold together at all, but just runs through your fingers, your soil is too dry. In this case, you may find that without taking the time to properly amend your soil, you will be pouring a lot of water into your garden with not a lot to show for it. Heavy mulching will help to retain moisture, and over time will aid in building your soil, so that may be your best first option. However, if your soil holds together lightly and falls apart when gently prodded, as Goldilocks said, “It’s just right.” Get your tiller out! Dust off the spade! Get your hands dirty! Yay!
Now you can get the soil prepared and start planting. Once that’s done, you can get your onion sets in the ground, plant the hardened-off seedlings or sow the seed. You can also sow lettuce, chard, turnips, endive, radishes, beets, kale, parsnips, carrots and kohlrabi seeds. If you have an established rhubarb patch, divide the crowded crowns and replant or pass them along to the neighbor you suspect is harvesting your rhubarb on the sly. (Just kidding.) You also might want to consider “interplanting,” which is a great way to maximize the use of limited garden space. Interplanting simply means you plant fast growing vegetables in between or within the rows of slower growers; the fast-growers will be ready to harvest before the slow-growers start to compete with them for nutrients, garden space and water. For example, at this time you can plant radishes in and among carrots or beets. These cold-hardy veggies are compatible and the radishes will grow and mature much quicker than the carrots or beets. An example of warm-season interplanting would be squash interplanted with pumpkins, or leaf lettuce interplanted with tomatoes.
April 21 through April 27
And this week…plant some more. You can get early-season potatoes in the ground if you’ve got the space. Early season potatoes include Irish Cobbler, Dark Red Noland and Yukon Gold. You can also transplant your hardened-off leek, garlic, shallot, scallion and chive seedlings to the garden.
Back indoors—sow your tomato seeds. We recommend you use the larger peat pots, “tomato” pots and trays often marketed as such, the larger pots allowing for better and healthier root growth. Many studies have shown that tomato seedlings transplanted at 6 to 8 weeks of age will grow the best and produce the highest yields. And, if there is any question at all of a late frost occurring, the larger pots will also enable you to delay putting your tomatoes in the ground with no stress to the plant. As far as what type of tomatoes to plant, we recommend a variety. You’ll want some large beefsteak-type tomatoes for slicing, an heirloom or two for interest, color and unique flavor, a cherry or grape-tomato plant, or more, for snacking and quick salad add-ins, and some meatier roma-types for roasting or if you want to put up sauces. Roma tomatoes also make fantastic salsa. We further recommend you plant determinate plants (most fruit coming on at one time) for canning and preserving purposes and indeterminate plants (producing fruit throughout the season) to supply your family’s fresh tomato cravings throughout the summer.
Oh…did we mention weeding? Yes, weed is a four-letter word and your hoe will be your very best friend, next to the mulch we’ve mentioned, of course. Keeping your garden heavily mulched is the best weed prevention there is, not to mention aiding its ability to retain moisture. However, if you don’t care for mulch, and there are many who don’t, keep your hoe close by and sharp at all times. Letting the weeds and grass get out of control will be your worst mistake. Just a few minutes of your time each morning, hoeing between a row or two will keep the weeds from taking hold while giving you a great reason to be getting some exercise and keeping a close eye on how your garden grows!
Look for our next article on April 26.
This series of articles is sponsored by Garden Harvest Supply. You can find them online at www.gardenharvestsupply.com.
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