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March in the garden

Back in Virginia, March was a prime spring-planting month. Since moving to Ohio, it’s usually been an impatient-waiting month instead.

Not this year!

Early spring vegetable seedlings

A warm winter means my test beds of early lettuce and peas germinated well, so I soon seeded more.

Last year and this year's broccoli

Meanwhile, in proof of the winter’s extreme mildness, we’re starting to get tiny side heads on overwintering broccoli (protected by row-cover fabric over caterpillar tunnels).

To celebrate, rather than potting up this year’s broccoli seedlings (who are already slightly stunted from outgrowing their soil), I set out half on Monday. That’s a couple of weeks earlier than is recommended for our area, but the ten-day forecast looks good.

Arugula flower buds

Overwintering vegetables from last year (if any survive) are always the first edibles coming out of the garden, and this year we don’t just have the broccoli pictured earlier. Arugula started feeding us even earlier despite a total lack of winter protection for the plants. They started bolting (sending up flower heads) weeks ago. I quickly snipped the bounty, steamed it slightly, then sauteed the steamed flower heads in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Yum! Those have been good for a meal or two per week for most of March, although they’re starting to come to their end now.

Luckily, kale looks like it will fill the upcoming gap, even though a droughty summer last year meant my plants went into winter on the small side. Hopefully by the time the arugula gets away from me, we’ll have another dependable source of greens to carry us through until the spring lettuce comes in.

Kill mulching garden aisles

Of course, weeds start growing just as soon as vegetables do. The garden beds are usually pretty easy to manage at this time of year — half an hour of yanking fends off long-term problems in our entire plot.

Aisles can be more tricky, but I’ve saved up cardboard all winter to hit the problematic areas. Purple dead nettle and chickweed are easy to yank, while grasses or ground ivy are better off kill mulched. I tend to hit the areas right around the beds I’m using just before planting so weeds can’t encroach on my seedlings. (I’m bound to run out of cardboard before I solve all my problems, which is why they keep coming back.)

Nectarine flowers

March is also the time to count your tree fruits before they hatch. We’re finally back in that mind game, having set out a nectarine a year ago. My produce count for that tree is simple: zero. Not because it bloomed too early (although it likely did) but because I’ll be picking off any young fruits to ensure the tree puts more energy into establishing its roots.

And that’s it for our late March garden. How does yours look?

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Tips for early spring peas

Soaking pea seeds

Planting pea seeds thick

Peas don’t like heat, so it’s a good idea to plant them as early as possible. But if you plant too early, you’ll end up with only a couple of survivors spread across a large trellis, wasting precious garden space. What’s the solution?

Early-planted peas¬†can do well, but you need to stack the deck for success. First, soak your pea seeds inside for at least four hours, during which time they’ll plump up and wake up. You can actually keep them inside until they sprout, but you’ll want to pour off the water after twelve hours or so and cover the seeds with a humidity dome if you go that route. Sprouted peas also need to be handled more carefully to prevent the tender new roots from breaking, so I usually just do the four-hour-plumping-up soak.

Next, out in the garden, ignore the instructions that pea seeds should be spaced one to three inches apart. Instead, drop them into a furrow in dense clumps before covering them up.

Protecting pea seedlings from critters(Of course, it goes without saying that you waited until the soil was at least 35 degrees Fahrenheit, planned for rain to keep the seedlings growing fast, and didn’t plant just before an extended cold snap.)

Finally, find some way to protect your pea seedlings from critters. The same sprouts that are delicious on our table are also a favorite of rabbits and other garden invaders. We use caterpillar tunnels over our spring pea beds, keeping the enclosure in place until the plants are tall enough to need a trellis.

After all that, it’s time to wait and hope. Fingers crossed for a copious, early crop!

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Should I plant peas on Valentine’s Day?

(Short answer — probably not.)

But who wants a short answer when you can read an Appalachian anecdote?

Where I grew up, the rule of thumb was to plant lettuce on Groundhog’s Day and peas on Valentine’s Day. Which makes very little scientific sense (even if you ignore the fact that I now live in a different USDA hardiness zone).

After all, what early spring crops are looking for is moist soil that’s not too cold. And February weather is so variable that a date perfect on some years is bound to be terrible on others.

So, yes, I definitely recommend you pull out a soil thermometer rather than planting by the calendar. But there’s also a fun alternative (at least for lettuce).

Wintersowing lettuce

Last year, I meant to collect seeds from my lettuce bed, so I let the plants bolt and bloom. Unfortunately, it rained then stayed wet while the seeds were maturing. Rather than fighting the damp, I shrugged and figured I’d order my lettuce seeds next time around.

But when I went out to take a look at the spot at the end of January, there were already tiny lettuce seedlings poking up out of the earth! A soil thermometer would have given me data on whether the soil was warm enough right at that moment, but those overwintering seeds assure me that the average had been at least 35 degrees Fahrenheit for long enough to tempt overwintering lettuce to sprout.

Peas need about five more degrees of warmth than lettuce, so while I could plant some now I’m going to wait a little longer. (Pea seeds are also very tasty to critters, so unlike lettuce they’re not a good choice for wintersowing.) To soothe my itchy green thumb and commemorate Valentine’s Day, I’ll start a flat of broccoli inside instead.

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Garden experiment updates

I’m sure you’ve been waiting with baited breath to hear how various experiments panned out. Wait no longer! Results are in.

Quirk cucumbers

Quirk cucumber

Of the new vegetable varieties we’re trying this year, the Quirk cucumber, has already proven itself a winner. They’re sweet and tender and at least as productive as our other cucumber types. Just keep in mind that they mature quite small, so pick when you can still see the dried-up blossoms on the end.

Highly recommended! We’ll definitely be growing these again next year.

Overwintering a garden under a pool cover

Weed-free spring garden

Remember how my mothers-in-law laid down an old solar pool cover over their garden beds last fall? They didn’t plant until around the frost-free date this spring and left the pool cover on until just before planting.

By the time they took it off, nearly all of the maple leaves they’d topdressed the beds with had melted into the soil and the entire area was completely weed-free. Even weeks later, they’re only seeing very mild weed pressure, suggesting that seedlings sprouted under the pool cover then died. (My mind is blanking on which garden writer recommends a similar technique, but using black plastic. Maybe you can refresh my memory in the comments?)

 

Planting spring vegetables early vs. late

Planting spring broccoli early vs. late

This experiment involved planting some broccoli seedlings early enough that their tops got a little nipped then setting out seedlings started inside at the same time considerably later. The expected tradeoff was that the early planted broccoli would grow more roots at the expense of their tops while the later planted broccoli would grow more tops at the expense of their roots.

The results are a little more mixed on this one. The early planted broccoli gave me the results I always get (because I usually plant at the first possible moment). They headed up at various sizes — some huge, some tiny, many medium. In contrast, the late-planted broccoli were more regular in size — all on the small side of medium — and they headed up one to two weeks later than the early planted broccoli.

When thinking of this in terms of overall yield, it’s important to note that we keep picking side shoots for a long time from our spring broccoli. That’s a data point in favor of the early planting, even though some of the early broccoli made teensy little initial heads.

That said, it’s nice not to have all of my excess broccoli needing to be frozen at once. Which is an argument for hedging my bets by planting both ways in future.

 

How about you?

Any garden experiments you’d like to share results of with the with the world at large?

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Growing and cooking homegrown asparagus

It’s asparagus season and high time for an asparagus post! I’m not going to regurgitate the information you can find in any book or website about giving your plants a few years to get their feet under them before starting to harvest, keeping the weeds at bay, etc., though. Instead, I thought I’d share a few observations I’ve made over the last decade plus of growing our own asparagus then gorging on the harvest.

Handful of asparagus

Our favorite variety

Don’t buy purple asparagus expecting it to look pretty on your plate. As soon as you cook them, purple spears turn green.

But do plant Purple Passion! Mark’s mom gave us five plants the same year we planted our main patch and they’ve turned out to be the earliest producers and the heaviest producers in our garden.

 

Early harvests

For the earliest harvests, rake back the mulch and any top-dressed compost a couple of weeks before you expect to see spears. This will let the ground warm faster and will buy you perhaps a week over your non-raking neighbors’ plots.

Of course, that opens you up to freeze damage which will melt your delicious veggies into goo. So, when you expect a freeze, head out and pick every spear in sight. Well,¬†almost every spear. If an asparagus plant is less than three inches tall, I’ll instead take a leaf from my mom’s book and drop a handful of that raked-off mulch back over top for freeze protection. No need to remove it after freeze danger passes either. Pointy asparagus will push right on through.

 

Cutting up asparagus

Delectable roast asparagus

Unlike grocery-store asparagus, ours tends to come out of the garden with some tiny spears and some huge spears. If they go into the oven all different sizes, the smallest spears will burn before the bigger ones turn sweet. So if you’re like us and crave the caramelized sweetness of asparagus roasted in olive oil until the edges go brown, be sure to cut up your spears to make them evenly sized.

That’s all there is to years of delicious harvests. Enjoy what we consider one of the easiest and most dependable crops!

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Should you plant your spring garden early?

Water droplets on a pepper leaf

I don’t have a plant problem…yet.

Potting up spring seedlings

But I did pot up my indoor seedling shelf (left photo) into an outdoor seedling table (right photo) this afternoon. Which will be great…until the next low in the 30s, forecast to show up in six short days.

Broccoli seedlings

The reason for all this potting up is that I started some of my seedlings — peppers, tomatoes, and the first round of cucumbers — earlier than usual this year. That means they need to be potted up and/or put into the ground earlier than usual. I’m on the fence about how smart it is to really push the spring garden envelope this way, so I’m doing a side-by-side comparison in my broccoli beds.

The broccoli story began when I set out most of my broccoli seedlings on March 21, covered them up during a cold spell that dropped into the high 20s, and watched what always happens happen again. The broccoli plants got a little nipped but not so bad that they won’t produce.

Meanwhile, I had another eight plants that I wasn’t able to fit into the designated space, which I kept inside for an extra two weeks. The indoor plants quickly outpaced the outdoor plants in size and I thought to myself, “Why not rip out some of the outdoor plants and replace them with bigger indoor plants to see whether I would have been better off not jumping the gun?” On April 3, the second round of plants went into the ground.

In the photo above, one of the indoor-longer plants is on the left. On the right is the outdoor-longer plant I’d just pulled out. I’ll try to remember to make another post in a month or two once it becomes clear which set of plants is doing best.

First asparagus and garden cat

In other garden news, we picked our first three asparagus spears Sunday! Dandelion, our garden guardian, predicts many more will head into our bellies soon.

How’s your garden growing?

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Time to plant broccoli

 

 

If you have some broccoli seedlings maturing inside today is the day to set them free.

Broccoli is one of our biggest producers thanks to Anna’s careful planning and our new caterpillar protection method which blocks that seemingly harmless moth from making you nourish her young at the expense of beautiful broccoli plants.

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Jumping the gun on the garden year

Lettuce seedlings

I like to direct-seed leaf lettuce under a row-cover-coated caterpillar tunnel in early February, a holdover from gardening half a zone warmer than where we are now. Most years, those early lettuce either don’t sprout or sprout and perish. This year is the outlier that makes me keep jumping the gun. Lettuce planted on Valentine’s Day is well established now at the end of the month.

Starting vegetable seedlings inside

Meanwhile, the more dependable way to get a jumpstart on the garden year in our climate is by starting seedlings inside. I usually go for all-in-one flats, but Mark bought me a bunch of smaller containers that fit into a flat and I’m getting a lot out of the mix-and-match approach. This way, I can start a flat of veggies that germinate at different rates, leaving the slow germinaters (like parsley) behind under cover while pulling out the fast germinaters (like broccoli). Then I can start more seedlings to fill in gaps atop that all-important heat pad.

Transplanting peas into a porch planter box

I’ve even gotten into starting peas inside, but those I do in fifty-section flats because the seedlings have to be set out as soon as the tops are up. Here, I’m planting the first flat into Mark’s porch raised bed.

Overwintered arugula

Seedlings are fun, but what about goodies we can eat right now? Most years are so cold up here that, even under cover, leafy greens perish before spring. This winter, in contrast was mild by our standards. A few kale plants are hanging on under the row covers while uncovered arugula is already growing and putting up flower heads. Looks like we’re having sauteed arugula for dinner!

What’s going on in your garden?