Getting Ready for Spring Planting: Digging into A New Gardening Season
February Second is often referred to as “Groundhog Day” or the day that if a certain furry rodent sees his shadow, we will have six more weeks of winter. Like many legends, whether February 2nd is sunny or cloudy, winter in temperate regions of the United States and similar equatorial zones will last until around mid-March.
As the ground warms, the prudent gardener will be out prepping beds before being beset by April showers – which can make working the ground near impossible for weeks on end. In some areas, gardens need to be “in” no later than the last days of May to give garden vegetables enough time to mature before the first frosts. Spring planting is often a balancing act between the time when the soil can be worked, the last frosts, spring rain, and dry, summer heat. Different areas are likely to have different weather constraints. Even a distance as short as one hundred miles can make a difference in the best time to plant. For brevity’s sake, this article will focus on backyard gardening, using hand tools, in a temperate zone.
A few simple tools and moderate planning can improve the length of your growing season and help maximize yield from your plants.
The standard tools for spring planting include a rake, spade, and spading fork. Optional tools might include a tape measure, cold frame, cloches, litmus paper, a tiny seed planter (they look like a hypodermic needle) and a soil thermometer.
Seeds for your early spring garden should focus on vegetables that enjoy cooler weather and that will withstand a light frost. These might be leafy vegetables such as deer’s tongue lettuce, curly kale, or Bibb lettuce. Peas are also a good choice, although they might require some protection from frost. Some root crops, such as carrots, radishes and turnips can be planted almost as early as the ground can be worked.
Location is everything with gardening. Early beds can take advantage of south-facing slopes or an area on the south side of a house, or even areas that later on will be heavily shaded by deciduous trees. Salad beds will stay cool and productive longer if they are lightly shaded during the warmer days of summer. Reserve beds that are more exposed to chill winds, and that will have less shade, for sun-loving vegetables that will not withstand early frosts.
Test the soil in your garden beds, especially if you are planting in a new area. You can use a variety of methods, including mixing it with a little water and touching a piece of litmus paper to it to determine if your soil is acid or base. Most garden vegetables prefer a neutral soil, so if your soil is too acetic or too alkaline, it will need amendments added as the bed is prepared.
Beds can be prepared in several different ways. A completely new bed that has never been planted before will benefit from the French intensive double-digging method. This method is also sometimes referred to as the square-foot gardening method, or even the raised bed method – although those are variations on the theme. The basic activity requires digging out a section about two-foot wide, and at least two-foot long. Shake the dirt out of sod or weeds, and toss the vegetation on the compost heap. Reserve the dirt by piling it on a tarp or in a container. In the trench that you have dug, first place some coarse material that will encourage drainage. This can be gravel, limbs and twigs, or even woody weed stems – just try not to get any weed seeds in there. Next, add a layer of well-rotted compost. If you don’t have any on hand, you can purchase some at most garden supply houses. Alternatively, you can add composted barn sweepings or similar material at this level. Avoid adding raw manure of any kind because it will tie up the nitrogen content of your soil while it is decaying. This deprives your plants of a vital nutrient source. Next, add a layer of good garden dirt – this can be “store dirt”, the garden soil that is available in bags from your local supplier. Finally, add your topsoil back over all the layers of soil that your plants will enjoy. Other methods include the lasagna method, which is similar to this method – minus the digging, or using a powered tiller to turn the compost and other layers into the existing top soil.
When a meat or soil thermometer stuck into the ground consistently registers 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the early morning, the soil is warm enough to start planting. You can hurry this process up by placing a layer of black plastic over the bed or area. Or you can set a cold frame over it, or even use cloches. A cloche is a light-permeable cover for your seeds or young plants. They can be created in a variety of ways. One elderly woman turned quart glass canning jars over the seeds to shelter them and hasten their growth. Another method is to use small stakes or popsicle sticks to support plastic sandwich bags – but be sure to weigh them down well. Seed companies often provide premade seed and plant covers in a variety of sizes. Another excellent cover can be made by cutting the bottom out of a gallon milk jug and seating it in the soil over the seeds. The downside to most of these is that when the weather begins to warm, they will need to be removed from the young plants, at least during the warmest part of the day. They have the potential to warm up too much and cook the plants they are supposed to be protecting.
Planting seeds under cloches will also protect them from birds, who often regard a garden bed as a personal feast spread just for them. If plastic or glass is too warm for this purpose, little tents can be made from window screen material.
Use plastic markers with the name of the plant written on it to help identify the plants that should be in a bed. Strips cut from white plastic detergent bottles can be made to work for this purpose. Save the seed packets, especially if trying out a new sort of vegetable, and refer to the illustrations of what the seedlings should look like to help distinguish your young plants from weeds. Keep a close eye on your young plantings because weeds love to take advantage of those early beds.
Take advantage of those intermittent warm days to get out of doors and get started in your garden. Or use the days when the damp winds cuts through the warmest clothing to prepare those plant stakes. One of my favorite February activities is pouring over seed catalogs, sorting last year’s seed and checking it for viability, and planning out my seed beds so that I will be ready – just as soon as the ground can be worked.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief over-view of spring planting. While the winter fuel bills raise their yearly challenge, it is hard to believe that spring is nearly here. If you have enjoyed this article please comment below, or share it on your favorite social media. Hang in there, gardeners! Sunny days are just around the corner.