Spring is always too short. The wildflowers, the longer days, the pleasant temperatures for working outside—it never lasts long enough. For gardeners, putting seeds or plants into fresh soil is the very image of hope. April's combination of warming temperatures and more daylight stimulates growth.
But spring isn't summer. Those plants that need warm soil for their seeds and warm air for their tender leaves don't belong in the garden until night temperatures are in the 50's and frost is over. Zinnias, marigolds, and other summer flowers are usually planted indoors, or direct-sown after the last frost.
Sunflowers are summer flowers that like spring planting. They are native to North America, not to the tropics like other summer flowers. They do best with April to May planting. They are bushier and more vigorous when the seeds can sprout and root in cold soil, about a month before the last frost date. Strangely enough, sunflower seedlings lose their frost-hardiness when they are about a foot high. After that, frost will kill them—and usually does at the end of the summer.
Quinoa is another summer crop that likes to start in cool spring soil and should be planted during April. Others are echinacea, calendula, mache, love-in-a-mist, milkweed, poppies, and cilantro. Calendula and mache, may not sprout at all in warm soil. If you plant too late, the seeds will just sit there until fall, and sprout when the fall rains come. Sunflowers are more forgiving; they will still give you flowers from a July planting—just not so many.
Sunflowers are fun and easy to plant. You can start them indoors or out, direct-sown or transplanted. (The main reason for transplants is to evade birds and slugs that can decimate outdoor plantings.) They are big plants with a big appetite, so work in a lot of compost or manure before planting. Rake to an even surface and texture. Then plant your seeds about an inch deep and water well. Or plant 1/2" deep and put down an inch of mulch. (not more, yet.) When the little plants are a foot high, you can put more mulch if needed to control weeds and keep the soil moist.
If sunflower seeds are your goal, plant your entire crop early, so they can mature seeds before fall. If what you really want in flowers, you should succession-sow for a longer season of bloom. Even though the earliest plants may be bushier, those later plants will still give you flowers after the others have stopped or slowed down. The sunflowers in my pictures were planted July 1, because that's when I had time and space to do it. So don't feel that spring planting is an absolute necessity. I recommend you start planting in April, and then make a few more plantings until mid-summer so you always have blooms, and you learn what works best in your garden.
Some varieties, bred for the cut-flower trade, have no pollen, and are useless to bees and butterflies. Stick with heirloom pollen-bearing types to feed garden pollinators and make seeds for you or the birds (That's what we carry.)
The biggest decision is whether you want primarily flowers or primarily seeds for food. Most purely ornamental types have many small-to-medium flowers on long stems, and very small seeds.
Oilseed types have medium-sized black seeds and bear a large flower on top, followed by 1-2 dozen smaller (but still substantial) flowers. They are prized for birdseed and for making high-quality oil. This type is also used for microgreens. Birds (including chickens) love the seeds, which are featured in the more expensive birdseed mixes. Thousands of acres of these are grown in Ukraine.
The largest flowers and seeds come from the confectionery type. These make the seeds used for snacks. The biggest seeds come from a variety called Humongous. It is easy to grow and the seeds are easy to shell with just your fingers. To ripen those big seeds, confectionery varieties stop blooming after making a handful of truly immense flowers.
Hopi Black Dye is one of the parents of oilseed sunflowers, and its black seeds are similar in size and can be used for oil or food. However, they have an additional use.
The hulls of the seeds make a beautiful purple-black dye, used traditionally by the Hopi for dyeing basketry materials to make woven patterns. It can be used as a food coloring as well as a general-purpose dye. When we do germination tests, it dyes the lab papers! If your hair is dark, you might want to try boiling up a tea of the seeds for a hair rinse. It will add deep color and luster to dark hair in the same way that chamomile adds gold highlights to blonde hair.
These beautiful plants bear many large flowers and have a strong constitution.
If you just want lots of flowers all season, we offer the China Cat Ornamental Sunflower Mix. It features lots of bright golden blooms, as well as some with russet, rose, orange, maroon or yellow tones.
The China Cat Mix also plays a part in a fun new seed collection where each variety is named for a Grateful Dead tune. The others are Sugar Magnolia Pea, Stella Blue Squash, and Dark Star Zucchini, bred by organic farmers (and music fans) Bill Reynolds and Alan Kapular.
One of the great things about gardens is that they are at once silly and serious, personal and universal. So whether it is sunflowers, salad, strawberries or musical zucchini, go plant yourself some joy. After all, it's spring.
The sun is coming back and perennials or biennials that have been static all winter are putting on new growth. Kale, collards, and turnip greens are sending up flower shoots--one of the delicacies of the season. Harvest them while they are green and succulent like broccolini. (Shown above: Seven Top Turnip greens.) Once the flowers open, the stems get too tough to eat. But the yellow flowers attract bees and all the zillions of beneficial insects that need nectar and pollen as fuel so they can hunt for aphids.
There are several things that should be sown right now. But most important of all, take time to give your garden a good start, so it can meet the challenges of summer.
For those who like to eat dessert first, here's what to plant now. Some things need February/March planting: onion seeds, bare-root trees, and spring grains like barley, wheat, or oats have to be planted soon. Many herbs and flowers—like echinacea, milkweed, skullcap, lemon balm, burnet, lovage, lavender, and valerian—need their seeds to sit a month in cold soil before they'll sprout. Sow them now. And for sheer glory in May and June, sow poppies.
Miner's Lettuce, Asian Greens, Peas, Spinach, Radishes, and Lettuce are the best bets for early plantings. Parsnips, carrots, and beets can go in early, and should. Once the soil is hot and dry they will be hard to get to sprout. For best germination of carrot, parsley, and parsnip seed, soak it overnight, then rinse and sow. To make it easier to handle, and absorb some of the water that makes the seeds stick to your fingers, you can mix the seed with sand, fine soil, or coir before sowing as evenly as you can.
A surprising early sprouter is Sunflower. The plants like to grow in warm weather, but they sprout well in cool soil. Don't plant so early that the plants get frosted--they lose their frost-hardiness after they have 6 pairs of leaves. But do plant the seeds a couple of weeks before last frost, so they can sprout and root while the soil is moist and they will have a long season to grow, bloom, and mature their seeds. For bloom all summer, plant some every 2 weeks until July.
This time of year, we have two important resources available that we have the choice to either use or squander.
First is water. To hold on to the water in your soil, keep it covered. Shelter growing areas from wind. Consider no-till techniques; every time you turn the soil, you lose moisture. Add organic matter to the soil. Lasagna-layers of mulch, weeds, and some kind of cover build fertility and retain water.
Be aware of how water moves across your land. When rain comes down, where does it go? A carpenter’s level–or just a child's ball–can show you where the slopes and dips are. Even water from a drip system will flow downhill as much as it can. Wherever it flows, either stop it or plant something there! Last year, I reconfigured my garden so the paths are on ridges between the growing beds. Instead of raised beds, mine are slightly sunken. My plants stayed much greener, healthier, and more productive than the year before, even with the drought.
Another asset we have this time of year is carbon, AKA “organic matter.” Anything that was once a plant is organic matter, but some things are better than others. The best kind is leaves, old fallen leaves. That’s what nourishes the forest. This time of year, it’s great to get outside and stand around a bonfire, but feed your fire with wood, not leaves!
Those fallen leaves that are still lying around are the best food for your garden beds or the compost pile. They break down quickly, making a special type of compost that has been treasured for generations. It has a balance of nitrogen and carbon, and it’s full of micronutrients that are hard to get from either organic or artificial fertilizer. It has the same mycorrhizal fungi that people buy at the grow store. And maybe best of all, leaf compost is a natural source of gibberellic acid, which prompts seeds to germinate and grow.
When I first came back to Northern California, I raked up the leaves in my tiny yard, and to keep the wind from scattering them again, threw a sheet of cardboard on top. Next spring when I remembered about them, the leaves were mostly crumbled and rotted down. I stuck in some squash seeds. Those were the best squash I ever grew. Without thinking about it, I had hitched my garden to the natural cycle of things. What could be simpler than that?
This is a good time to address that old saying about a weed being just a plant in the wrong place. Nope. Very few plants behave like true weeds; you won't see corn or zinnias or even wildflowers taking over your garden!
What is a weed then? Garden weeds are plants that fill a specific niche--areas disturbed by humans--with a specific kind of behavior--fast growth and wildly prolific self-seeding. (Or in the case of perennial weeds, fast-spreading by other means.) Aggressiveness is the hallmark of true weeds, even when they have other traits we love and encourage. Most of the weeds that spring up in our gardens are not wild plants that live in the forest or prairie. They are imports, just like our crop plants, and in most cases they evolved alongside crop plants, perfecting over the centuries their ability to thrive where humans have plowed and planted.
Some other invasive weeds are wild plants from other parts of the world with a similar climate but different pests and diseases. They become aggressive when no longer controlled by those elements of their native habitat.
It's not just your imagination; weeds really are super-plants. Many of our common weeds are tetraploids—mutant plants with extra chromosomes that make them bigger, faster, deeper-rooted, and more aggressive than normal. Certainly more aggressive than our vegetables, which have lost many of their natural defenses in order to be more succulent, more sweet, more tender, and more easily harvested for our tables. If cultivated plants are like our pets, weeds are coyotes.
With that in mind, I just treated myself to a good sharp precision hoe. Skimming a sharp hoe across the beds to cut off tiny weeds takes just a few minutes, and this year I started early.
Then, I put down a lot of mulch to keep them from coming back. Minimizing tillage, using mulches of compost and organic matter instead, is an effective way to decrease weeds over time--the seeds in the soil need light to germinate.
Straw is a classic standby for mulching—readily available, cheap, easy to handle, and quickly breaking down into nutrients for next year. You don't need to get your straw from a bale, either. If you're cutting grass and weeds on your property, the easiest, cheapest, and safest thing to do with it is use it as mulch. (Don't pile it up and leave it—the center of a big pile can get so hot it catches fire. Spread in a thin layer, it's safe.)
Another problem-solving mulch is ramial chips. I'll write about them in more detail in another post, but here's the gist: The branches of hardwood trees and shrubs (less than 3” diameter) have more nutrients than wood from the trunk. When chipped, this branch wood (called ramial) makes a good, soil-building mulch.
All over the country, downed trees, dying shrubs, and too-dense saplings are presenting a fire danger. Turned into chips and spread under garden plants (CalFire suggests a layer less than 4” thick) the problem can become a solution, keeping moisture in the soil and plants better hydrated, besides smothering weeds. When you can turn a problem into a solution, you're doing something right.
Just after my last blog post, my life changed quickly. Driving over our dirt road in the rain, my car slid in deep mud and went over the bank into the stream, ending upside-down in the water. In escaping out the window, I cut a couple of tendons.
Over the past days and now weeks, friends and family have kept things going while I recovered. Spring is always such a busy time, for gardeners and even more for a seed company. This has been an opportunity to mull things over, set priorities, and enjoy the season. (We have an amazing show of wildflowers this year.)
I have been learning to use my left hand. I've also been learning just how compassionate people can be--from the strangers who picked me up on the road and took me to the hospital, to the friends who typed, cooked, drove, mulched and sowed for me. Customers too have sent so much goodwill.
Thanks to everyone.
This post is nothing new and earthshaking, but it does reflect my thoughts on what is bottom-line important in the garden this time of year: Do the basics. Don't rush. Adapt for adverse conditions. Enjoy life unfolding.
People often ask me “Is it too late to plant …?” Studies and experience have shown that planting too early reduces yields as much as planting too late does; the poor seedling uses all its strength just surviving. When the time is right, growth is fast and sure. Don't procrastinate when the moment is ripe, but don't rush it.
A garden needs the same elements you do: air, water, soil (food), heat, and a living community. Watch the plants native to your area. The new-leafing trees tell us when the soil temperature and day length are right for peas, spinach, lettuce, cilantro, beets, chard, Asian greens, mustard and other hardy spring crops. As the bees start to fly and birds to nest, you can be sure that its time to plant.
Plant growth is fueled by sunlight and warmth, or by calories stored the previous year. That’s why perennials like rhubarb, comfrey, peonies, and asparagus are able to make growth while it’s still cold. It is also why fall-planted turnips will produce lots of growth in winter and early spring, while kale be later--the calories stored in the large root provide the fuel.
Bees are waking up and looking for food. Allowing your winter kale, cilantro and other fall-planted greens to bloom before pulling them out provides much-needed nectar for beneficial insects at a time when food is scarce.
If you plant spring flowers like bachelor’s buttons, nepeta, milkweed, cynoglossum, catchfly, poppies, johnny-jump-up, phacelia, love-in-a-mist, calendula, sweet peas, and alyssum now, they will feed bees and butterflies for months before summer flowers take over the job. Monarchs in particular need dependable nectar sources all season, as well as milkweed for their young.
Many herbs and perennials also prefer to start in cold soil, including butterfly favorites like echinacea, valerian, yarrow, bee balm, anise hyssop, lemon balm and lavender.
In my experience (and in experiments by Sunset Magazine) smaller transplants suffer less transplant shock and take hold faster than great big starts. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil and other long-season, hot weather crops will be at optimum size for transplant about 6 weeks from sowing indoors. Squashes, melons, cucumbers, okra, sunflowers and zinnias can be sown in pots 3-4 weeks before last frost. Or direct sow into warm garden soil after the last frost date, with beans and corn. (If you don’t know your last frost date you can find it here.)
If you really want to give your garden its best chance for success, concentrate your efforts now on good soil preparation! Cover crops and even weeds can be a source of fertility if turned under or smothered. I like to leave soil moisture and fungal networks in place, so I use cardboard or mulch to smother weeds. Not only do I not have to pull them, but they will turn into compost for worms to carry into the soil. If you chose to till your weeds under, allow 2 weeks for them to decompose underground before planting.
Increasingly, gardeners are having to deal with extreme weather conditions. If flooding is part of your new normal, remember that mounded beds drain better, warm up faster and provide an oxygen-rich environment for plant roots. For fast--warming beds in spring, mound soil into rows about a foot high and no more than 24" wide. In moist conditions diseases spread easily, so maintain plenty of air circulation with wide spacing.
Where I live, rainfall has been far below normal, so I'm planning now for a dry summer. For drought, a good strategy is to space your plants further apart. You can further reduce competition for available moisture by hoeing out weeds as soon as they sprout. Two to three hours of afternoon shade, whether from trees, taller crops or shade cloth, conserve water and may even improve yields because plants are less stressed. Adding a top layer of mulch will retain water both by preventing evaporation and by shielding the soil from the sun’s heat.
Whether your soil tends to be too wet or too dry, organic matter will provide the right balance of air, water and nutrients in the root zone. When all three are present and in balance, soil micro-organisms create fertility. Adding humus in the form of compost, earthworm castings, aged manure, etc., is the best way to retain water and provide slow-release nutrients to your plants. There is still time now to get a big compost pile going for May-June planting and mulching.
No matter what your conditions, it’s important to be at home in your garden. What people call a “green thumb” is the result of familiarity and love. The more you enjoy and observe it, the more of an oasis your garden will become.
February marks a new season in the garden. Instead of shutting down more and more, the world is moving toward new growth. This is the time to plant or prune trees and shrubs before they come out of dormancy and start to grow.
What's growing outdoors now is mostly perennials, bulbs, or biennials—established plants that have stored-up energy from last year. Kale, carrots, daffodils, onions, beets, turnips, foxgloves, mullein, and asparagus are all getting ready to make a flower stalk and set seed before summer. You can harvest leaves and flower shoots from kale, collards, turnips, and Asian greens that have overwintered in they garden. The trick is to get some new seeds started and producing by the time they all quit.
In our gardens, climates from around the globe collide. The gardener works with several very different kinds of seeds this time of year, with very different life cycles.
Most of the seed-starting information out there lists plants one by one. All that detail quickly blurs into a mountain of confusing instructions and fussy details. Instead, let's look at the patterns, so you can go beyond those you already know and get more use from the land available to you.
Our beloved tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants (tropical perennials grown as summer annuals) need a long, warm season. Frost will kill them. We start these indoors from February through April, for transplant 6-8 weeks later. We make artificial tropics with grow lights, heat mats, and indoor sowing. We water them to reproduce the summer rain of their homelands. Warm-season annuals like beans, squash, melons, sunflowers, okra, zinnias, and marigolds grow so fast they can be direct-sown in warm soil, (or started indoors 3-4 weeks early.) We won't plant them yet, but dry-summer gardeners will need to make provision for irrigating them.
Our traditional spring and fall crops--cultivated for centuries in Europe and the Middle East--are the opposite. Biennials like cabbage, Brussels sprouts, carrots, parsnips, beets, chard, kale, and so on, make leaves and roots in late summer, live over the winter, and set seed in spring. Their main seasons of growth are spring and fall, and they are adapted to survive European winters. Many are mainstays of the spring garden.
Italy, Spain, and the Middle East--as well as much of the Pacific Coast--have a winter rain/summer dry pattern. Mediterranean annual crops--like lettuce, spinach, peas, broccoli, chick peas, favas, mustard, barley, and wheat--are hardwired for growing fall through late spring. They like spring planting and mature quickly, so we often plant several times for successive harvests.
Spinach, California Wildflowers, Poppies and Wheat are all examples of adaptation to this climate type. They will sprout with the first rains and snatch at chances to make some growth whenever the soil is 40 degrees or more. Once the weather starts to warm, they race to mature while there is still moisture in the soil. To them, warmth is a signal of impending death. We artificially prolong their life with irrigation and selective breeding, but none of these are really summer plants.
Those of us who live in areas without summer rain and want to be prepared for a future with less electricity, less water, and less plastic would do well to learn how to grow and store wheat, peas, barley, favas, mustards, scallions, endives, and other traditional fall/winter/spring crops.
All four types of vegetable are familiar to anyone who gardens. After centuries as farm crops, they sprout and grow quickly when planted. To grow more kinds of things, and use more niches on your land, you need different seed-starting skills. You need to work with wilder seeds.
A shady corner under fruit trees is no place for annual vegetables, but it could host many temperate perennials that are beautiful and useful: lemon balm for tea; wild strawberries; Good King Henry (a perennial vegetable); self-heal and skullcap (flowering medicinal herbs) currant bushes or berries. All of them are from temperate climates with freezing winters, and all of them need cold-conditioning before they will sprout.
Just like trees and perennials, seeds can go dormant, (which means “sleep.”) Besides tropical seeds and annual seeds, there is another kind—seeds that need to sleep in cold, moist soil before spring wakes them. They sprout when the soil warms up, but if you plant them in warm soil, they won't sprout. Where they come from, a seed that sprouts as soon as it ripens in summer will be doomed—the young plant wouldn't survive winter. So they have developed coatings that keep them from sprouting until they have experienced winter and then spring. Sitting out the winter in a seed packet doesn't count—they have to be in moist soil. See the seeds you stratify here.
I encourage you to explore the world of perennial flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and even trees that you can grow from seed once you know about cold-conditioning (AKA stratification). You can plant them now in pots outdoors, or you can give them an artificial winter in a bag of soil in the fridge. Herbs like Lavender, Valerian, Nettle, Meadowsweet, and Catnip; popular flowers like Milkweed, Gloriosa Daisy, and Bee Balm; perennial vegetables like Lovage, Alexanders and Hablitzia--all need a period of moist cold before sprouting.
Many people have asked about us and the fires--whether they are close, whether we are safe, what is happening. So we are posting our story, not because it was harrowing or unusual--we are much luckier than most--but to answer all of those queries.
To read a truly dramatic story, with photos and some big-picture information on the fires, check this article about our neighbor to the northeast.
Our place is on a dirt road, 15 miles from town and about 3 miles from Mendocino National Forest. There is just the one road in and out. The August Complex Fire started in the National Forest to the east of us. Those are hundred-foot trees the fire is towering over. (US Forest Service photo)
As winds drove the fire nearer, ash fell for days, and one day was so dark that crickets sang thinking it was night. The photo at right was taken at 3pm.
You can see why the terrain made the fire hard to fight in these USFS photos--steep canyons, super-dry vegetation, hot weather, and hardly any roads. When there is wind, fires can jump from ridge to ridge.
When Cal Fire took over the fire line near us, they added jumbo jets to the helicopters and planes that had been dropping water on the fire. So far, over a million gallons have been dropped on this section, to give firefighters a chance to build firebreaks. But many canyons and cliffs make it hard to reach problem areas, even when the smoke clears. The intense heat and smoke made a mushroom cloud visible from our garden.
The immediate concern was that, since we didn't have an automatic irrigation system, our seed crops would die from lack of water if we evacuated, whether the fire came or not. Luckily, the thick smoke brought temperatures down from the 90's to the 70's, making less stress on the plants. Bob and Will worked to get the automatic system hooked up while Jamie sorted all the seeds for transport, and Julie ran loads of tools and garden supplies to town. We thought we'd have a few days more to prepare & pack.
In mid-project, the sheriff's deputies came to tell us the fire was moving fast and we needed to evacuate now. (Another section of the same fire advanced more than 20 miles in one night.) That was my cue to pack up the seed packets we had kept out for fulfilling orders. We hurriedly finished the irrigation, caught the cat, and started down the road with virtually our entire seed inventory, as well as the shipping scale, laptop, and supplies. (Also the cat, family photos, and a few books, but I took out the bedding and most of the clothes, to fit more seeds.) The car was so loaded it barely cleared the ground. A friend called and offered a place to stay. Amazingly, they also had a vacant office we could use. The next morning we started to unpack the seeds and find everything. You can see our makeshift packet storage in the center.
The firefighters made a stand on a ridgetop four miles from us, and westerly winds from the ocean helped them turn it back. The fireline is holding, and is under much more control now, but the danger will not be entirely over until we get a serious rain. We are keeping the seeds in their place of safety until the rain comes, and operating Quail from there.
Out at the land, planes and helicopters still are passing overhead all day to make water drops, and things are beginning to look like they did before the fires, when this photo was taken. We look with hope toward next year; in the natural cycle that prevailed in California for thousands of years, ash from forest fires provided essential nutrients and helped prevent disease.
We are so very lucky. The only damage to seed crops while we were gone was from gophers, uneven watering, and falling ash. By and large, they are fine. Thank you to all who have asked after us, prayed, helped, housed, ordered, and supported Quail in a myriad of ways. We are happy to be home.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin and commercial fishing. She wrote the Bountiful Gardens catalog from 2009 to 2017, and now is proprietor of Quail Seeds.