MARCH 30, 2020 BY MELISSA HILL
If you’re looking to start your garden now is the perfect time. Below I’ve laid out some tips and methods to make sure your garden is a success and to maximize your garden’s output.
I think people forget about spring gardening because we’re all obsessed with solanaceous crops. That’s tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and potatoes. The idea of the epitome of gardening is a vine-ripened Brandywine tomato with basil, and that is indeed amazeballs. However, there is also nothing like a spring salad of pea sprouts, radishes, and arugula with goat cheese and walnuts. Or the taste of early spring chives on soup, potatoes, and well… everything you can put them on. Here in Zone 5, we all wait patiently for May to come around to get our gardens in. But what if I told you there are ways to know exactly when you can plant as soon as the snow melts, and even when it’s still snowing?
You can. Here’s the trick. Grab a wad of garden earth with your hand. Just dig into the ground. If it’s still frozen, it’s too early. Make your lump into a little ball. Don’t work too hard at it. Then, press your thumb into the ball. If it smooshes in like a clay version of a jam thumbprint cookie and keeps it shape, it’s too wet to plant. If it breaks apart into little pieces, the soil is perfectly damp, you can plant, or turn up the soil or weed as you need. If it breaks apart into a powdery mass or if you can’t form a ball at all, it’s too dry and you should water or wait for rain. That’s right. For the Earth to be fertile, She needs to be wet. You’re welcome.
The reason that wetness is important is because of thawing snow. If you dig around in the soil while the soil is still waterlogged from rain or snow, you will damage the tilth of the soil. What that means is that dirt is not just dirt. Good dirt has little lumpy bits that stick together and make a ground that is like a sponge with a lot of little holes in it. The water and roots can easily move through the soil and happily grow. If the soil tilth is bad, it will be what is called hardpan. It’s like it’s been made into a clay pot. It’s hard and inhospitable. Only sturdy and powerful plants like dandelion and plantain can survive such conditions. It’s not something you want to encourage in your garden, so check the wet before you plant.
If you don’t have a garden already, you will either have to remove sod or build a garden bed on top of the soil. This largely depends on your time, energy, and resources. If you’ve got the money, building raised beds and filling them with dirt is the easiest method. It takes a whole lot of dirt. If you have the strength, get a D handled, welded gardening fork and a shovel. I recommend using the gardening fork to lift out the sod and then putting the sods in a pile somewhere to decompose, and then adding lots of compost. If you’re not building a box for your garden, leave a little ditch between the garden and the grass. That ditch will help keep the grass out. If the grass roots sense air, they won’t grow. The ditch is like a little air moat that the grass cannot pass. You can do John Jeavon’s double dig method if you have a bunch of time and energy, but just digging up the topsoil in one layer and mixing in a bunch of compost will help. I recommend getting enough compost so that the bags of compost would cover more than half of the land you’re turning into garden.
All the seeds I recommend below can be planted directly in the ground. The temptation to plant them in the house is strong, and if you do, you will need to do a process called “hardening off” (Insert Vanic Sex Joke Here) Surprisingly it has nothing to do with reproduction and everything to do with toughening up your little sprouts. If they’ve been used to inside temps, they’re going to be real unhappy with the cold and bright sun, even if they’re plants that are usually happy. Imagine them as being raised in Florida and then being expected to deal with snow. You have to gently introduce them to the big wide world, start with a shady warmish day, and move them out for a few hours. Each day, increase their time outside until they’re living there full time. It should take about a week. Or you can just plant these seeds directly in the ground. That’s my preference, but you do have to be on top of watering them, which means you may well be playing with water outside while it’s still chilly. Trust me, it’s good for you.
You can’t always trust what the package on the seeds says. Sometimes it’s wrong. I recommend double-checking in a good gardening book that has a list of species-specific instructions. I’ve got a list of garden books here. Most seeds will either be planted in a little ditch you make or scattered on top of the soil. If it’s a big seed like a pea or a chard seed, plant them in a little ditch and then use the side of the ditch to cover it more deeply. If it’s a smaller seed like a spinach or lettuce seed, especially something that you will be growing a lot of for leaves, just scatter them gently on the top of the soil and then cover them with dirt like you’re topping a cake with powdered sugar, just enough to cover the seeds. In both cases use your hand to gently press the soil into the seeds. If you have a hard time bending over, you can use a hoe to do the pressing part. I don’t recommend using your foot, it’s too easy to press too hard.
Seeds are babies, and they need care daily. That’s both the downside and the upside of planting outside. It makes you go… Outside. Water your seeds every day unless it rains and the soil is real soggy. Once they emerge, keep watering them daily for a couple of days, and then start to taper off. One of the nice things about spring gardening is that it’s often raining and you will find there are many days when you don’t have to water at all.
After the seedlings emerge you’ll see how many seeds you planted. You will likely have more seedlings than you need. You will need to thin them out. This is okay. Plants really don’t mind. Plus most of them are tasty. I recommend using your thumbnail or scissors to pinch or cut the stem rather than pulling them out by the roots. This is for two reasons. One, you will disturb the roots of the plants that aren’t getting pulled. Two, they’re dirtier that way, and if you’re going to eat them, you should avoid the dirt. Anything that you eat the leaf of you can eat the thinnings of including lettuce, arugula, spinach and cabbage, and kale. You can also eat pea sprouts and they’re delicious. I deliberately sow them thickly so both the squirrels and I can eat pea seedlings.
You’re also going to need to weed. This can be daunting at first because you don’t know what’s a weed and what’s a seedling. You will learn what the sprouts look like. One trick is that if the seedlings are coming up all over in an even pattern, it’s probably something you planted. If it looks random and doesn’t match it’s probably a weed and you should pull it. Pulling weeds is a fiddly task perfect for meditating after a frustrating day. Think of it like a game or a puzzle and it can be quite fun.