Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ready, Set, Garden!

I started the garden this weekend. What a great feeling. I planted eight rows of lettuce (which is crazy I know so make plans to stop by for salad in June), a row of hot purple radishes, 2 rows of spinach, 2 rows of carrots, one super long row of sugar snap peas, and one row of swiss chard (which I’ve never planted before and hardly ever eaten, but the picture in the catalog was too much to resist and swiss chard is supposed to be good for you so I’m going to learn to eat it.). The onion and broccoli plants have a few more days to adapt to real sunlight before they will be installed, but they’re moving in this week.

I haven’t been able to clip the wings on one of our roosters and yesterday I caught him in the garden digging up and eating the seeds I’d just planted! Hugely righteous anger. The kids got water cannons for Easter from their grandparents so I appropriated one to keep on the porch so that I can shoot the rooster whenever he makes his way to the garden (which is twice so far this morning). I’m not sure you can train a chicken, but I’m certainly going to try. All the chickens have been sentenced to living in the chicken pen once again since the garden has begun. It’s a tough adjustment after 7 months of free range life. Some are able to fly over the fence (yes, chickens really can fly- but only about 5-6 feet up and they do much better if there is a hill to give them a running start and a gravitational advantage.) To remedy this problem, we clip their wings which doesn’t hurt and isn’t even visible (their “flying feathers” are hidden behind their “standing around looking like a chicken feathers”). Only problem is none of us can seem to catch the big rooster. It doesn’t help that his spurs are huge and he just looks mean. He’s never hurt anyone and he has the wimpiest crow around, but still. I’m going to try to do it tonight when he’s sleeping.

How do you know when to start your garden? The weather’s been beautiful and it’s very tempting to start tucking in all your seeds. For sure there is still cold weather to come so I wouldn’t chance a tomato or a pepper yet and the soils not warm enough for cucumbers or squash. Seeds need the soil to be about 55 degrees to germinate, some need it warmer. Lettuce and peas like it cold. Tradition says you should plant your peas on St Patrick’s Day, but we were still under snow cover on St. Patty’s day this year.

Another good way to know when you can start planting is the texture of your soil. You want your soil to be like chocolate cake not chocolate fudge. So that’s basically it – chocolate cake that is about 55 degrees and you’re good to go with lettuce, carrots, radish, peas (all kinds), spinach, broccoli, onions and any other seed whose packet lists “as soon as the soil can be worked” or “early spring” as the planting time.

If we get a forecast for a serious frost and freezing temps overnight, I sometimes cover my rows with plastic. But sometimes I forget and they do just fine. Here’s a few other tips for planting that I’ve learned the hard way.

The distances between plants suggested on the seed packets are for real. Sometimes I read them and think they’re being overly cautious. I always live to regret this and end up stepping on plants as I try to weed and performing acrobatic feats just to water the veggies.

Mulch or cultivate the soil between rows on a regular basis. This is how you keep weeds from getting ahead of you. A great tool for keeping the weeds in check is a stirrup hoe (looks like a stirrup on the end of a stick). There is no shame in mulch. If you can save leaves in a pile each fall to use for this task you’ll save money. Straw works OK too, but things creep in. Newspapers are good if you can get them weighted down with water and maybe some stones until they start to disintegrate. (Check to be sure your paper uses vegetable based inks. For you locals – the York Daily Record does use vegetable based ink.)

Don’t plant too deep. I’ve committed this crime many times. It usually happens when I’m planting a lot of seeds in a hurry and use a hoe to fill the row back in. The general rule of thumb is to cover the seed with soil as deep as the seed is big. Most seeds are pretty small. You don’t need much soil over them. The best way to do this is by hand and carefully, patting down the earth over the seed as you go. If you plant too deep you’ll wait much longer to see any action and some seeds won’t make it at all.

Put up big signs. You think you will remember where your rows are. You think you will be able to see the little popsicle stick markers. You assume that digging the seed packet in to the soil at the end of the row will help you remember what’s planted there. Here’s what I know – my memory is fading (I don’t know how old you are, but odds are you are no longer a teenager, so yours is on the downward slope too). Popsicle sticks quickly become camouflaged by the dirt, upended by the trampling feet of children and pets, or blown away when the soil begins to dry. Seed packets disintegrate almost overnight and the wind tends to blow them away. You need big signs – I use scrap wood and paint stirrers (free at the hardware store!) and use paint pens to label them. My daughter and I like to write inspiring things on the backs of these signs too. (See my post April 15, 2009 “Planting Seeds and Inspiration”). If you don’t label your rows well, you may mistake newly sprouted lettuce for a weed (lettuce basically is a weed so this is understandable).

Stay on top of the weeds. Don’t wait for them to overwhelm you. Pull a few EVERYDAY and it won’t seem too bad. If you enlist your children’s help (and you should), supervise their weeding or you may lose more than the weeds. Personally, I haven’t had a whole lot of luck putting the kids to work. They are happy to pick, but weed only under duress for large sums of money. Wish I could tell you different, but I have to be honest.

Plan your walkways as carefully as you plan your planted rows. You need to have somewhere to walk – remember that tomatoes get very bushy and pushy, cucumbers and squash can sprawl all over, and carrots and onions will keep nicely to themselves (but don’t handle being stepped on very well). I’m hoping to make some homemade stepping stones this year with the kids using small pizza boxes and a bag of cement. We don’t order out pizzas, so we’d love some donations from those of you who do (hint, hint).

Put up posts on all the corners of your garden to keep the hose from being dragged over your plants. After all that hard work and diligent weeding, it would be a shame if a hose snapped your almost ripe red pepper plant in two. This is a MUST do. We put four foot tall metal fence posts on the corners (shorter stakes tend to do more damage to my shins).

I’m sure there is more to say, but I’m watching a rooster making his way towards my pea row, so I’ve got to fill my water cannon. Happy gardening!

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