The traditional first plantings of spring are spinach, peas, lettuce, and greens. What gardeners love about them is that they grow very fast in spring, are ready to eat in just over a month, and taste wonderful.
In the past, these crops were often the first taste of something fresh after a winter of dried and salted foods. They are still a spring treat and a health boost today. Their juicy crispness is the outward sign of the vitamins, fiber, hydrating gels, anti-oxidants, and myriad other compounds that make us feel better.
All of these plants need to grow quickly before heat sets in, so they need adequate moisture and fertility. However, they also need enough warmth to fuel growth, and good drainage. Oak trees leaf out when the soil and air temperatures are right for peas and greens, so watch the trees in addition to the calendar.
Peas, spinach, and lettuce enjoy a less acid soil(pH 6.5 to 7.) Traditional practice has been to dig the bed over and incorporate manure, compost,or other sources of organic matter, along with some wood ash or lime. No-dig methods instead use a layer of compost on top of the soil, into which the seeds or transplants are planted. (If the soil is very acid, ash or limestone can be spread as well.) If soil is unseasonably soggy, and too wet to dig or to plant into, I suggest either making your first plantings in containers, or dumping compost/potting mix, on top of the ground and planting into that.
The fastest-growing salad of all is a little California native called Miner's Lettuce. It grows wild in my garden under a big black walnut tree. It's rare to find an edible plant that is both shade-tolerant and tolerant of the poisons secreted into the soil by walnut trees. Amazingly, it has a very mild flavor and juicy texture that has made it a favorite of chefs. It is always my first harvest of the year.
Spinach loves cool weather and and needs quite a bit of moisture to start. Indeed, if your soil is dry, I suggest soaking the seeds for an hour or two. It should be planted now for a spring crop, and again in the fall, as it is adapted not only to cool weather, but to short days. The longer days of summer will make it bolt and taste strong.
Lettuce is the simplest of all to plant and use. A fast-growing, cold-tolerant variety like Emerald Fan, Bronze Arrow, or Hungarian Pink Winter gives you salads very quickly, with the tender texture that is the hallmark of spring. Like most greens, it needs to have space to develop without check. If you will not be able or willing to get down and thin your lettuce, consider transplants. It's easier to thin little pots or trays at table height, and they can go into the ground with room to grow.
Peas are the only one of the bunch that takes two months to crop instead of one. But the new practice of harvesting pea shoots means that even peas can be giving you a harvest quickly. Whether for shoots or pods, peas are easy but not terribly vigorous, so it's good to know their quirks. In cool spring weather, they should be planted more shallowly than other legumes, about 1/2 inch deep. (Late summer plantings should be deeper to take advantage of moisture further down.) They can be transplanted with care when very young, if conditions outside are too wet, windy, cold, or unready, And they need support.
Peas are climbing vines, and don't do well sprawling on the ground. Even very short "bush" varieties are vines, and will not stand up on their own. Short varieties can do well in tomato cages, while taller sorts need a trellis or fence. You should view the heights in seed listings as possibilities, not facts. Cooler weather means the vines will keep growing, while hot or very cold weather will stunt them. Last year's cool spring meant that my Cascadias, normally 4' tall, grew to 8 feet.
Further, they climb in a special way, which needs the right support. Beans, morning glories, and some other vines grow by twining; they'll go round and round a pole in a spiral. Peas will not. Vertical supports are almost useless to them--they need a ladder. They make hand-like twigs called tendrils that grab onto supports as they go. For peas, you need to provide support with horizontal wires, woven branches, bushy twigs, or other horizontal or diagonal handholds a foot or less apart. Pig wire or concrete reinforcing wire works well. Posts with sisal or hemp twine are great; you can cut the twine and compost the entire mass, twine and all.
The turnip/mustard tribe, and has flavors that range from mild to fiery. I like Mizuna and Mizpoona Salad Select for early salads. The fiery mustards like Green Wave, and Dragon Tongue are tamed with cooking, gaining rich complex flavors that are traditional complements to cheese or pork. Carol Deppe once made a quick, dense planting of Green Wave Mustard in a layer of compost spread on her concrete driveway. The planting was cut & processed all at once for freezing. (Detailed in The Tao of Vegetable Gardening.) It would not be an option for long-term or repeated harvest, and needs cool, damp weather. But it put the compost to work until she was able to use it in the garden, and gave a huge crop that stocked the freezer. It shows that given moisture and fertility, these fast growers can make a lot of food in a small amount of time and space.
See the possibilities here.
Think Like a Seed
What do seeds need to sprout and thrive? The ancient elements of air, water, earth, and fire (heat and light), in the right balance and at the right time. If you understand plants’ needs, you can intuitively feel what to do.
Here’s what happens when you plant a seed: Each seed has a living plant inside, called the germ. It’s alive, but asleep. The germ is protected by a hard seed coat, and provided with food in the form of hard nuggets of starch. This embryonic plant is dormant (French for “sleeping”) until water, warmth, and light wake it up. The seed absorbs water from the soil, swells, bursts the seed coat, and starts to grow.
As soon as the germ wakes up, it makes a root. It senses which way is up, and extends the root downwards. Only after the root is established does it make a stem and start to grow upward. The starchy part of the seed, the fuel, sits on top of the new stem and turns green when it reaches the light. This is the cotyledon. It looks like a leaf, but it’s actually the starchy part of the seed. It feeds the plant until the true leaves emerge.
Seeds need water to break dormancy, soften the seed coat, and hydrate the inside of the seed. The water in moist soil is enough for vegetable seeds. Too much water is a problem, so go easy. Soil should be moist, not soggy, for both seeds and plants.
Instead of a hard seed coat, some vegetable seeds have natural chemicals on the outside that prevent sprouting. These germination inhibitors are nature’s way of making sure the seed doesn’t sprout too soon, when there isn’t enough water for a plant to grow. The umbel family–carrots, parsnips, parsley, cilantro, fennel, and dill–all have inhibitors. Beets, chard, and spinach have milder inhibitors. These seeds will all sprout much faster if you soak them for 2 to 4 hours, rinse them well under the tap (in a strainer!) and plant them while still wet.
Plants need air, like we do. Seeds that sit more than a few hours in water will rot and die. That’s why a good potting mix is fluffy, to let in air. Organic matter, mulch, and no-till techniques all build soil structure with lots of air spaces from worms and other soil life. If the soil is soggy, water fills all the spaces between soil particles and the roots die from suffocation. Root rot, wilting, and damping off (plants fall over at soil level) can all be symptoms of too much water. After seeds have sprouted, it’s best to let the surface dry a bit between waterings. Moving air is best–plants, like us, get weak if they don’t move.. If plants will be in pots long, put a fan near (not directly on) them.
You may need to ensure more heat for your seedlings than the surrounding air. Starting in the house ensures reasonably warm temperatures, although moist soil will be about 10 degrees colder than the air, so heat mats speed things up. In a greenhouse, heat mats help a lot and are more fuel-efficient than heating the entire space. You can also add heat by using a hot frame, which is a compost pile (or wet wood chips) covered with soil and enclosed to hold in heat. Plant into soil on top of the pile, or place flats of seedlings directly on the pile.
Each seed has a minimum sprouting temperature. Asian greens, mache, and miners lettuce sprout just above freezing. Carrots, spinach, lettuce, mustard, beets, turnips and radishes sprout at about 55 degrees. Kale, broccoli, and cabbage withstand a lot of cold as plants, but the seeds sprout best in warm (70-80 degree) soil. In nature, the cabbage family stands through the winter and drops seeds in late summer, so start them warm, then put them outside a month before last frost. If your tomatoes do fine, but your peppers are stunted or sluggish, that’s because peppers need more heat. Eggplants, okra, and melons, which hail from India and Africa, need even more.
The rhythm of light and dark is a powerful force on plants. It dictates how to plant: Many seeds cannot sprout unless they sense some light–these need planting near the surface, or even on it. Others that need dark we bury deep. The effect of light on a plant’s life cycle can dictate when to plant, too. Onions are very day-length-sensitive. They are planted in late winter or very early spring so that when the long days of midsummer trigger bulbing, the plant is big enough to make a good bulb. Many plants flower or bear fruit when days lengthen or shorten to a certain point. Planting greens when days are short and cold in spring and fall keeps them in vegetative growth, so we get lots of leaves rather than tough stems.
Vegetables and flowers need bright light–more than normal home lighting provides. (House plants are usually jungle or forest plants used to very dim light.) The most protected and controlled environment is indoors with lights. You don’t need special grow lights. A cheap plug-in “shop light” with fluorescent or LED tubes is great. With regular home shop lights, the plants should be 6-8” from the light. Stretched-out plants are too far away. Bleached or shriveled leaves are too close. The proverbial sunny windowsill can work, but it can also dry out seed trays and bake tiny plants before you know it. If using a south window, use larger pots that can stay moist longer, and monitor conditions carefully. Most plants need darkness at night. The outdoor light of a greenhouse or cold frame is most natural., but then you will need to ensure enough heat.
While plants need air, they also need the firm embrace of the soil around them. Firming the soil after planting ensures that water can get to the seeds from below by capillary action. It holds the seeds in place so they can orient themselves and send roots downward. A major cause of seed failure is when seeds shift position each time they’re watered, so they exhaust their food supply before they can root.
Seeds and plants do best in living soil. In nature, beneficial fungi and bacteria form symbiotic relationships with plants as the seeds start to sprout. They help the roots find water, make more nutrients available, and prevent diseases while the seedlings are still small. I use potting soil that has compost and worm castings mixed in. A handful of forest soil or some fungal inoculant helps as well. Sterile seed-starting mix is often suggested in books, but in my experience, diseases and problems proliferate in sterile mix, because it is a vacuum waiting to be filled, and pathogens fill it quickly. Instead, give your seeds a healthy living soil from the start.
I hear gardeners fretting all the time about planting too late, but planting too soon is a problem too. If you like to gamble on early planting for fun, fine. But the biggest, most reliable yields come from planting when the time is right. So learn to read the clues and not just the calendar. Wait for the oaks to leaf out before planting your peas and lettuce. Listen for the frogs in spring and the crickets in summer. They live right on the soil, and feel its warmth–or not.
The size of the seed, the quality of the soil, and the temperature dictate the timing for fertilization and transplant. Since the food stored in the cotyledon feeds the seedling at first, you don’t need to feed your seedlings during germination and establishment. After the seedling has 2 pairs of true leaves, you can water it with a mild fertilizer like compost tea. A quality potting mix should have nutrients for about 3 weeks to a month of growth.
What type of containers to use for seed-starting depends on space available, but even more on your time. If you putter in the greenhouse every day, you can save space and soil by starting seeds in trays and lifting the tiny seedlings into their own pots when they get a true leaf. You can maximize your space by using trays with many small modules. Or use egg cartons and yogurt pots, because you’re watching them carefully. But for busy people who may not be able to check during the day, it’s safer to use larger pots of consistent size. I use 3” pots and rectangular trays that fit a heat mat and allow watering from below. Larger pots give you more time before the seedlings get rootbound, allowing latitude for delays.
There’s an interplay between water, air, soil, heat, and light. Each is important, but not at the expense of the others. Disaster happens when one factor is allowed to eclipse the others, like when over-enthusiastic watering drives all the air from the soil. Or when the need for light leads plants to dry out in a hot window or languish in a cold greenhouse.
If you understand these needs, you will develop a feel for what they are getting too little of, or too much. This is a green thumb--the human mind and hand in sympathy with the growing plant.
Trees in the Garden: Leaves of Life
It's heartbreaking to see people throw away or burn their best source of nutrients and fertility in the name of tidiness.
If you have leaves, lucky you.
If you can get your neighbor's leaves, do it.
How to use them? If they fall on perennial beds, bulbs, shrubs orchards, or beneath trees, you don't have to do anything except feel smug about the fertility they are adding.
If they are on grass or pavement or other places where they are not convenient, rake them up and put them
Traditional English gardeners kept leaves in their own compost area, and used the crumbly dark humus from under the pile for seed starting mix. You can mix 3 parts leaf mold with 2 parts garden soil and one part coarse sand, perlite, vermiculite, rice hulls, or other drainage-promoting ingredient.
Want to make a new vegetable bed out of lawn or a weedy area? I do this:
1)Mark out your new bed. Find and wet some pieces of cardboard (any cardboard box is good, as long as it is not shiny and doesn't have colored inks--brown cardboard and black ink are fine.) Remove the plastic tape, if any. Overlap the edges and any holes, so weeds can't grow through. Let the cardboard extend a foot outside the edge of the future bed, to prevent weeds from coming in.
2)Pile on leaves, straw, grass clippings, and other garden "waste"
3) Keep moist and protected from wind. A tarp or sheet can be used if necessary. Or another layer of cardboard and a rock.
4) uncover in spring and plant squash, tomatoes, or potatoes. None of those object to a few lumps and leaves. Keep mulched all season with more leaves, straw, etc.
5) By the next year, you have good garden soil and can plant anything.
Leaves to avoid
Most deciduous tree leaves are great for your garden. Pine and especially spruce needles are not so good for vegetables and should be left under their mother tree or used on forest plants that can deal with the oils in them. I am not so worried about acidity, but spruce and cedar do have natural herbicides to prevent the germination of other plants, so leave them in place where they will prevent weeds.
Oak, elm, cottonwood, fruit trees, maple, and other broadleaf trees are all good. Avoid black walnut and eucalyptus. They have poisons in that not only prevent germination, but can kill adult plants of sensitive species.
If you, like me, have a black walnut, you can find lists online of common landscape plants sensitive to juglone, the chemical that walnuts produce. Under my black walnut, a few adapted plants thrive--grass, miner's lettuce, currants, crampbark, filberts, & elder. Vegetables that tolerate juglone include corn, squash, beans, peas, carrots, parsnips, and onions. (NOT brassicas, spinach, chard, or tomatoes.) Since the roots exude juglone as well as the leaves and nuts, don't site sensitive plants near a walnut. Half my garden is in the "walnut zone" and I grow only tolerant plants in that part.
If you rake up walnut leaves, they can still be composted and make fertile soil, but if there are a lot of them, keep them in their own pile. You can use it on the many plants that don't have sensitivity.
Another great tree-based resource is ramial wood chip. More on that in another post.
(The photo at the top is looking toward our garden from the river. Boats are drawn up for the winter. For scale, the greenhouse in the photo is 15 feet tall. The giant oaks are matriarchs that nourish all forms of life here.)
Celebrating Our Native Harvest
What is a farm? What is a garden? The European settlers on this and other continents thought they knew, and so missed out on learning techniques we are just now rediscovering. I invite you to discover some of them with me in this space over the next year.
October is a beautiful time of harvest and celebration. Each ear of corn is like a wrapped present, with different glowing colors within. Each squash will be a sweet treat in the depths of winter. A bag of dry beans is heavy with real wealth. As we lay them by safe for the winter, let's offer our thanks to those who did the real work of creating these crops from unpromising weeds, too small or bitter to be worthwhile food. With a digging stick, an observant eye, and a sharp mind, they created our crops. Happy Indigenous Peoples Day, 2022.
September: A Breathing Space
During our heat waves this year, the nighttime has felt like a refuge of coolness and peace after the daily onslaught of heat.
Most plants feel the same way. During the day, they use sunlight and water to make sugars by photosynthesis. During their nighttime rest, they are able to use those sugars to make new cells. If it sometimes seems to you that your plants get larger overnight, you’re right-- they do.
September’s combination of warm soil, sunshine, and longer nights gives seedlings perfect conditions for fast growth, as long as they have access to water. Starting seedlings in trays is one way to give them the conditions they need when the open garden is still too hot, too dry, too windy, too crowded, or too weedy for good seed germination. Or start seeds in the garden and water them often. But start them now, before frosty nights and shorter days slow down or stop growth.
In the last decade, research on plants and soils has created a quiet revolution in how we understand growth and fertility. Most gardeners have not heard about it yet, but it turns out that fertile soils get that way not primarily from minerals or from additions like manure, but from plants themselves.
Plants use the energy of the sun to make sugars and other carbon-based nutrients. Some of those carbs become part of the plant’s tissues–that’s the story we always knew. But up to 2/3 of these sugars and other compounds ooze from the plant roots into the soil. The carbs in these root exudates, as well as the carbon from decaying plant roots in the ground, are the fuel that feeds soil life–fungi, bacteria, and zillions more. These soil microorganisms make nitrogen for plants to eat. They also convert minerals in the soil to a form plants can absorb.
The reason that forests grow so lush without fertilizer or amendments is that the soil is full of undisturbed roots–living and dead. The surface has a constant mulch of dead leaves and other organic matter. No plow or tiller disrupts the web of underground life.
Where to start on a garden scale? Leave plant roots (except perennial weeds) in the ground rather than pulling them out. Use mulch. And plant cover crops this month. Don’t wait for your summer crops to be over–scratch in some seed around your tomatoes and squash, then mulch over it. If you want something that will overwinter, feed the soil, and be easy to cut down next spring, try vetch, crimson clover, bell beans, or Austrian Winter peas.
With winter peas and fava beans, you can have both a food crop and a cover crop in zones 7-10. Don’t wait for pods–just clip the shoots for salads and light cooking. They taste like peas, and are ready in less than a month. You can even grow them on a window sill. Get them started now, and you will have fresh new flavors when the tomatoes and zucchini are just a memory.
Another thing to consider this month is how to use any space you have under cover. A greenhouse, cold frame, or tunnel doesn’t just keep the plants warmer, it also keeps them from getting beat up by wind, muddy, and slug-gnawed. Peas, broccoli, and lettuce respond particularly well to protection; they are fairly fragile plants that like cool conditions but can’t take a lot of punishment from wind and wet.
Easy crops that tolerate some cold and wet are turnips, miner’s lettuce, erba stella, nappa cabbage, tatsoi, mustard, mizuna, fava beans, endive, and cilantro. All of these do well for me outdoors. Depending on how cold your winters get, they may need protection, but they are not fussy and are very fast-growing. Miner's Lettuce, Erba Stella, Mizuna, Tatsoi, and Yukina are all hardy enough to grow in tunnels in New England. Even a few plants can make fresh salad material if you harvest the outer leaves every week or so.
Sunflowers: Which, How & When
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.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range of Northern California. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin, commercial fishing, and working with seeds. She is the proprietor of Quail Seeds.