Is It Time Yet? Getting a Jump-Start on the Vegetable Growing Season………. {Plus a Special Anniversary Give-Away}

April 7th, 2010 § 18

Herbs and vegetables acclimating to conditions in the great outdoors before planting. A process known as “hardening off”…

Well here we are in early April, and it’s finally almost-but not-quite-growing-season. What, you say, is she talking about? Why, haven’t you heard of almost-but-not-quite-growing-season? You see, this is the time of year when people start to go a little crazy in cold climate gardens. They load up the back of the car with six packs of warm-weather plants from the local greenhouse, and when they bring them home, sometimes they take unnecessary risks. If frost isn’t an issue in your area, then you have little to worry about. However in the Northern regions of the country, new gardeners can be easily seduced by a week of warm weather in early April; tempted to plant out their tender crops too soon. Just the other day, while talking with my friend Daisy at Walker Farm, I mentioned that I’d overheard some folks planning to till their soil and plant the vegetable garden. Daisy, who is an amazing horticulturalist specializing in greenhouse growing and plant propagation, noted the same thing: it seems that the unseasonably warm weather in New England is tempting some gardeners to plant out the sunflowers. Whoa there partner! Check on your last frost-date before turning those little seedlings out into the cold world! Over the years, I have learned to bite my tongue when it comes to handing out unsolicited advice to strangers. But there are no strangers here! And I must be direct with new gardeners, coming to The Gardener’s Eden for a bit of advice. Perhaps you live in a warmer climate, south of zone 7, and if so, you can probably afford ignore my worry-warting, (somewhat anyway). But if not, given the gardening frenzy developing out there, I feel I should issue a warning: please be patient and don’t plant warm weather crops too soon!

Getting a jump-start on the growing season is smart gardening practice in cold climates. However, it’s important to be prepared and protect both your plants and your soil. If you have mulched your vegetable beds, and/or covered them with black plastic, your soil will likely be warm and dry by now and you may begin adding compost and other amendments, and perhaps planting cool-weather crops like spinach. But first, scoop up a handful of soil and check on its moisture content. When you squeeze it, does it form a wet, mushy ball? If so, wait until the dirt just holds its shape when pressed, but then breaks apart into a texture resembling crumbly chocolate cake when you let go. If you till and turn your garden while the earth is still wet and mushy, you will risk compacting your soil. It’s best to wait till things dry out a bit more. Covering your soil with IRT, (infra-red transmitting), plastic will help warm and dry your soil and keep down weeds – so if you are impatient, this is a product worth investing in for quicker results. It’s also important for the soil to warm up enough for seed to germinate. For cool crops, like peas, spinach and radishes, this date is quite early, (as soon as soil is workable), but for other crops, such as cucumbers and squash, it’s important to wait until the last frost date. A soil thermometer is an inexpensive tool, and a worthwhile addition to your garden tote. Use it to match soil temps to the guidelines on the back of seed packets, or charts available online, (see below for more)…

Turning green sand, leaves and compost into recently uncovered raised beds. To the right, wire mesh for snow peas is embedded into the mounded soil…

It’s always important to test your soil’s pH and nutrient levels in spring, and again in fall. If you need some information about testing your soil, click back here to my post on the subject from last year. The best time to amend garden soil is in the fall, but if you need to adjust your pH, get on that right away, as it takes awhile for the soil’s natural chemistry to adjust! Adding compost, and perhaps green sand, (a natural soil conditioner), is the first thing you will want to do when your soil is friable. Deep, loose soil is key to growing good produce – particularly root crops. Using a garden fork, work compost into the top layer of soil, loosening the layers with a rocking motion as you go. When your soil is thoroughly dry, turn it again  – ideally with both a shovel and a fork-  removing any rocks and/or weeds. When you have prepared the soil to your satisfaction, rake it over smoothly and let it rest and warm….

Turning in compost and edging the raised mounds…

If your have been gardening for awhile, you likely have some activity going on in the garden already. In my own garden, some perennial herbs, garlic greens and cold-crop seeds are already emerging. After pulling back mulch this weekend, I was pleased to see that the sorrel, (Rumex acetosa) , is looking -and tasting- fine! New green growth is showing on the chives, mesclun greens are popping up everywhere I look, and the ‘Spanish Roja’, ‘Music’, ‘German Red’ and ‘Continental’ garlic -planted last fall- are all off to a good start. Crops in the hoop-houses are about to be re-sown, and I am just now planting my spring snow peas, (hoop-houses and row-covers are two excellent choices for protecting early season crops). Some gardeners start peas very early, but I have discovered that seed started in early April catches up very quickly with peas started in March, with no delay in harvest. Earlier sowing wasn’t possible this year due to the wet weather, but peas are a fast-growing and reliable crop to plant throughout spring. I like to sow a few rows in succession, insuring a steady supply of peas throughout the spring and early summer.

I will be writing much more about vegetable gardening as the growing season progresses. But for now, my best advice is to start slowly. Test and amend your soil as soon as it is friable. Check your seed packets for optimum soil temperature, and sow when the soil consistently reaches this level. Be sure to harden off seedlings, (in a protected outdoor place during the daytime), of all kinds before transplanting. Need help with last frost dates? Seed Planting Dates? Check with the Old Farmer’s Almanac online. The Almanac is a great resource for all growing region…

Uncovering sorrel, protected by leaf mulch, in the herb garden

Emerging Mesclun Mix…

Spanish Roja Garlic emerging in the raised beds, with a new layer of compost added…

Beautiful emerging mesclun mix on a rainy day…

Presenting The Gardener’s Eden Anniversary Give-Away # 1

The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible (10th Anniversary Edition)

I’m a professional gardener, so I need to have an extensive library of horticultural titles on hand, from the simple to the complex. And, as the result of my workshops and coaching work, I recommend many books to gardeners throughout the year. But there is one vegetable gardening book I recommend above all others: Edward C. Smith’s The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible is simply written, scientifically sound, and beautifully organized. This is the perfect book for vegetable gardeners of all levels. If you don’t own one, I suggest you flip through a copy at your local bookstore – it’s a gem. And at the end of this month, one lucky reader will receive a complimentary copy of the new, 10th Anniversary edition of this vegetable gardening classic from The Gardener’s Eden! Today and every Wednesday though out the month of April, in honor of our first anniversary, The Gardener’s Eden will be giving away a special gift to one reader. In order to enter, correctly answer the question below in the comment section of this article. Be sure to post your answer prior to the 12:00 pm Eastern Time cut-off. Only one entry per reader, per give-away please. The winner will be chosen at random from all of the correct entries received, and will be notified by email. Gift recipients will also be announced both here on the blog and on our Facebook Page. So now…

The first question is, (this is an easy one): What is the name of Michaela’s garden? In order to enter the contest, please post your answer in comments here on the blog, (not on the Facebook page). All email addresses will remain unpublished and kept in complete confidence. Your email will only be used to notify you if you have won. Good Luck!

* In order to provide each reader with an equal chance to win, your comment/ entry will not appear until 4/8*

Entry Deadline is Midnight, Eastern Time, 4/7/10

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