Getting into the Dirt in April
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.
4/17/2021 04:35:15 pm
Sorry about your accident. My wife has stage 4 metastized breast cancer. I'm praying for both of you
4/17/2021 05:15:00 pm
Dear Jamie, I am so glad that you are healing well. Also, grateful for the friends, family, and strangers who gave you help when it was needed. Some of them are still providing help and support as needed. This is such a wonderful thing. It will be great when you can get your hands in the dirt again. In the meantime I will enjoy your musings and advice. Much affection, you very special lady.
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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.