Gardening 101—Spring Will Be Springing!
Well, we’ve weathered some really nasty weather in the last month, which either forced you back into hibernation mode or had you out building that much-longed-for snowman that didn’t happen earlier in the season.
Or, if you are an avid gardener, you were thrilled, knowing those inches of snow mean nice soaking moisture for the ground, an excellent beginning for your vegetable garden and a nicely insulating cover and life-giving drink for your perennial flowers, shrubs, bushes and young trees.
Yes, we gardeners have to leave a lot up to Mother Nature, but where there’s a will, there’s a way, and when it comes to growing your own, today’s economy (especially the rising gas prices), has made the “will” ever more important.
February 24 through March 2
First, if you have not been following our series of articles, in our last one, in the January 25 issue, we recommended starting celery, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage seeds indoors. You should be doing this NOW if you haven’t done so already! You can also start tomatoes in larger seed-starting containers, enabling them to develop the healthiest root system possible before transplanting, critical to better-than-average tomato-growing success.
In addition, if you have not been actively conserving water in preparation for the growing season, you should keep the possibility of drought in mind. Spreading to cover larger and larger areas of the U.S., those dry conditions mean now is the time to put your roof and downspouts to work. Look for sales on large trash cans, a great alternative to a more expensive, commercially made rain barrel, though a little bit more work. A store-bought rain barrel will normally have a fine screen on the top to keep debris out, some being fitted with a special lid. Most will have a spigot near the bottom you can attach a hose to, making it unnecessary to scoop water out in order to water your garden.
You can, however, do the same with a large garbage can if you have even just a little bit of know-how. You can shorten your downspout to pour right into your rain barrel, where even a dewy or frosty morn can produce quite a bit of moisture; or position your rain barrel where you know there is good run-off and where you don’t have a downspout. (Don’t forget to set it on an elevated surface, like cinder-blocks, if you are fitting it with a spigot.) We recommend having more than one, though the size of your garden will also determine your need. This is even an exceptionally good practice if you have a well, water being one of our most valuable natural resources and one most easily depleted by climatic conditions.
Another good rule to remember right now is that “Darker Soil equals Warmer Soil equals Water-Retentive Soil.” Just as darker fabrics and paints absorb more heat, so does darker soil. It also tends to stay warmer longer, which, besides aiding the nutritional requirements for your garden, is an excellent reason to add manure or compost to your garden. If you have not “signed on” to the no-till method of gardening, whereby you would already have a really thick layer of mulch to plant through, then now is a good time to just lay on inches of compost or cover your garden plot in a pile of nicely aged manure. If the soil isn’t workable yet, just let it sit there until it is. It will absorb heat, also heating the soil beneath it and the nutrients will begin soaking into the soil with any little bit of winter moisture.
Manure and compost will also improve the structure of your soil, therefore improving water retention. This one little step can mean the difference of a week or two when it comes to being able to direct-sow your seeds or transplant your seedlings and will definitely equate to earlier bearing and healthier crops, a benefit for your family and your wallet, even if you don’t take your produce to the local Farmers’ Market.
If you’ve already started your seedlings indoors, you should be watching for signs of damping off as they sprout. It is the scourge of seedlings, a general term for any disease that attacks seedlings during the early stages of their development. Seedlings may suddenly wither; constriction or color-changes of the stem near the soil line may also occur. The usual culprit will be a fungus, and once the damage is done, it is irreparable. To prevent damping off, you can take these steps:
• Before getting started, wash all containers you’ve used before or that you’ve picked up at yard sales or that have not been commercially pre-packaged, as seed-starting trays are. Use soap and water and then spray the surface lightly with hydrogen peroxide or a 10% bleach and water solution, allowing it to dry well before filling with soil.
• Use a sterile soil mixture or seed-starting mix. The best practice is to throw out any used seedling mix and start fresh with new each year. Damping off, and the fungus or bacteria causing it, can remain in the soil and on the containers.
• Grow seedlings in an area that is well ventilated and well lit. Here’s a suggestion for freeing up your kitchen or dining room table: use a couple of saw horses with 3/4-inch plywood. If adequate sunlight is not readily available, which usually means a south or southwestern exposure, either use lights you can clamp to the plywood or hang lights 3 to 4 inches above the seedlings. Fluorescent shop lights will put off less heat, which is a good thing, and will save on electric costs, while providing more than adequate lighting. If growing where circulation is not that great, like in a basement or large closet, put a fan nearby in order to gently move the air.
• Don’t overcrowd seedlings when sowing. Depending on the vegetable, no more than 3 seeds should be sown in each seedling container. If they are too close together as they start to sprout, carefully remove the offenders. Also, do not handle seedlings by the stems when transplanting, but by the leaves, reducing injury to the stems, which are more susceptible to damping off.
• Avoid overwatering by using containers with drain-holes or with a drain tray, not allowing the containers to sit in standing water for any length of time. Before watering, the surface of the soil should be visibly dry or dry to the touch and once the first seeds have started to sprout, remove the humidity dome, plastic or glass that you’ve been using to maintain the humidity level. Diseases thrive in warm, humid environments!
• And finally, if you notice signs of damping off, immediately throw out any seedlings and soil that have been infected, and wash and disinfect those containers if you plan to use them again. (Don’t throw the seedlings or soil in your compost pile, either.) Damping off can quickly spread to infect your other seedlings.
March 3 through 9
Now is the time to be thinking about insect garden pests, as well as the larger varieties, like rabbits and deer. Think about what kind of barrier you will want to put up, and then do it. Some people construct a permanent enclosure for their garden so they don’t have that task each year, something we consider a wise investment in terms of both time and money. The fencing material should be closely woven enough to prevent rabbits, or free-ranging chickens, if you keep them, from scooting through. There are a lot of vegetables chickens don’t care for, but they LOVE tomatoes and have the ability to poke the dickens out of the bottom of any reachable fruit, even if they have to hop to do it.
We’ve also seen them take a particular liking to watermelons, cantaloupes and cucumbers; however, if you are not planting what chickens like to eat, they can be a great natural pest controller. Guinea hens are not as prone to munching on your veggies and will do a great job of keeping the bugs and snakes at bay, although they have absolutely no affect on the deer or rabbits. There are organic and other humane solutions to control deer and rabbits, if fencing is not a part of your garden plan.
If you fence, be sure to make the gated entrance to your garden large enough to accommodate whatever will need access, such as your tiller, wheel barrow, wagon or even pick-up truck. And leave maneuvering room between the actual garden rows and the fence.
For the 6- or 8-legged pests, consider putting up some birdhouses. Many birds are insect eaters, and two of the most voracious feeders are bluebirds and martins. Providing housing to fit their nesting needs will ensure an annual return of planet-friendly insect-eaters and entertaining aerialists, as well as add beauty to your garden.
You can also choose plants that attract beneficial insects to take care of the pests you don’t want. For example, whiteflies are an ever-growing, incredibly damaging pest, one which has become largely immune to any chemical means of control due to its overuse. Natural enemies of the whitefly include green lacewings, ladybugs, big-eyed bugs, damsel bugs and minute pirate bugs. You can plant fern-leaf or common yarrow (Achillea), fennel, dill or cilantro/coriander to attract them.
March 10 through 16
If you haven’t already started them, now is the time to start collards, kale and lettuce indoors for transplanting outdoors as soon as your garden soil is workable. You can also wait until the soil is workable and direct-sow these seeds if you prefer.
Your soil should be relatively dry before you start working it; wet soil breaks down in structure and becomes compact, making it difficult for young root systems to take hold. To determine if your soil is workable, simply pick up a handful and squeeze it into a ball. Soil that is too wet will drip or will remain in a firm, molded clump when you open your hand. If it readily falls apart when you open your hand or falls apart when gently prodded with a finger, you can begin working it with a pitchfork or spade, turning it and loosening it, getting it ready for planting.
Now is also the time to consider buying or building a cold-frame for your seedlings. A cold-frame can be used to ensure your seedlings are hardened off to perfection before being planted in the garden plot, though a cold-frame is not absolutely necessary for the hardening-off process. A cold frame will also enable you to free up the growing space in your kitchen, dining room or basement and allows you a lazy week or two when it comes to garden plot prep. It can also be a lifesaver if the unexpected big storm descends, leaving our seedlings and us in the dark, while it is cold yet sunny outdoors. At the end of the season, as nighttime temperatures drop, it can prolong the life of your containerized vegetables and flowers.
March 17 through 23
This is the last week to start your cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi and cabbage indoors, giving them plenty of time to develop healthy roots before setting them outdoors to harden off. When starting seedlings indoors, it is best to acclimate them to the outdoors before transplanting them into the garden. Hardening off is simply the process for doing this. Cold-season and warm-season crops will be hardened off at different times, the cool season crops being the first into your garden, though you can also start hardening off tomatoes at the same time as your other cool-weather crops, like lettuce.
To harden off your seedlings, just start moving them outdoors for a longer and longer period of time when the daytime temperatures are consistently above 55 to 60°F. As the nighttime temperatures increase to above 40 or 45°F, you can eventually leave them out overnight. Use the temperature recommendations on the seed packets to determine what temps you can start moving your seedlings outdoors. When they are showing no signs of stress and your garden soil temperatures are above 50°F, you can plant your cool weather crops into the garden, transplanting your warm weather crops as daytime and soil temperatures are consistently above 65°F.
If you have been putting off the tune-up on those power gardening tools, you better get busy! A tiller that doesn’t start and has to be repaired, even if you do it yourself, can significantly delay your gardening plans.
March 24 through 30
If you haven’t already done so, now is the “drop dead” latest date for sowing eggplant, hot and sweet peppers, fennel, summer savory and parsley indoors for transplant outdoors. The reason for starting seedlings indoors, and on schedule, is to establish a good and healthy root system and to get an early start on the growing season.
Seedlings not given the time to develop that healthy root system may be stressed and die during the transplanting process. As always, most of these can also be directly sown into the garden or into outdoor containers when the air and soil temperatures are conducive to planting. This information is readily accessible online, on the seed packets, or in gardening books.
This is also the time to be mapping out your garden, which is also an excellent use for the garden journal we’ve mentioned before. We can’t say it enough…ROTATE your crops! This not only aids in the nutritional health of your garden, but it can also do a lot to control pests, especially those pests endemic to a particular type of veggie.
And then it is just a simple matter of keeping track of where you planted what, when—and ensuring you rotate the different families in and out of specific garden spots, ideally every 4 to 5 years, which conveniently, is the number of families of vegetables there are!
So, there you have it. Spring will be here before you know it. Don’t let it sneak up on you. Our next helpful article will appear on March 29, the last Friday of the month. Watch for it!
This series of articles is sponsored by Garden Harvest Supply. You can find them online here: www.gardenharvestsupply.com.
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