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?
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.