Get out in the dirt: Don’t wait to start your garden preparations
BY MARCY STAMPER
Despite the recent snow squalls, it really is time to get your garden ready for the growing season.
To prepare your soil for a new year’s worth of vegetables, berries or flowers, you need to feed it, said Tess Hoke, owner of Local 98856 in Twisp. “Last year the garden ate up all its food,” she said.
The rule of thumb is to put fertilizer on your garden every year, said Hoke. Many people opt for manure – it can come from any critter, as long as it’s aged for six months to a year – because that is easy to come by in this area. You can also buy bags of fertilizer and add compost, said Hoke. Hoke adds a couple of inches of manure and blends it with the soil.
“If you want to get carried away, you can get a soil test and make everything perfect,” said Annie Utigard, owner of the King’s Garden near Carlton. The tests are easy to do and will give you a good sense of how much nitrogen you have, assess the pH, and even tell you how much sun and moisture your soil gets. “But you don’t need to be that scientific,” said Hoke.
Even without a soil test, there are certain amendments Utigard relies on. She uses composted chicken manure in her vegetable and flower gardens, and adds bone meal to increase the blooms of potted plants. Potash is good for the root systems, and kelp meal will help make plants more frost-hardy, she said.
If your soil is very alkali, which is fairly common in this area (plants tend to be yellow and don’t grow well) Utigard adds sulfur to acidify the soil.
You can let the fertilizer sit and turn it over just before planting, or you can till it in right away. Still, you should avoid tilling the soil too much, because tilling can destroy important micro-organisms, said Utigard. Utigard tills her soil just before planting vegetables. If you are lucky enough to have well-worked soil with a lot of organic matter and no weeds, you can get away with just lightening the soil with a fork, she said.
People anxious to get started with planting have both indoor and outdoor options.
Outdoors, you can plant crops that thrive in cool weather, such as peas; hardy greens like kale, chard and lettuce; and onions, said Hoke. You can even plant potatoes and carrots, although it will be some time before they germinate.
Because carrots take at least three weeks to sprout, Utigard likes to plant them along with radishes. The radishes are ready for harvest in 28 days and will let you know where the carrots are. “And be meticulous when you plant the carrots – carefully place each seed” to save time on thinning (as well as seeds), said Utigard.
Indoors, you can plant warm-weather vegetables like tomatoes, eggplant and peppers that need a head start to have enough time to mature, said Hoke. Utigard recommends starting peppers indoors eight weeks before the last frost; tomatoes, six weeks before; and squash and melons, three to four weeks before transplanting.
With the last frost date generally considered the last week of May or first week of June, Utigard considers it a bit late to start peppers and tomatoes indoors, but many people still plant them in April and find they catch up.
When you plant vegetable seeds, use seeding or potting soil, because the soil from outdoors will compact and turn into cement, which won’t allow the delicate seeds to sprout, said Hoke.
As the plants mature and grow their second or third set of leaves, you can move them to bigger pots, although some people prefer to start with larger pots so they don’t have to transfer the plants, said Hoke. Feed the starts every two weeks.
Be sure you have adequate light to help your starts flourish – eight to 10 hours in a sunny window – or add a supplemental grow light that is balanced for the proper growth spectrum, said Hoke. One of the biggest failures with starts is not having enough indoor light. “Without adequate light, the plants will be long and straggly and won’t grow strong,” she said.
If you buy vegetable starts to plant directly in the garden, don’t necessarily be tempted by the largest plants. Because the roots grow in proportion to the plant, you want to give them a chance to establish themselves once you transplant them, said Utigard.
Protect plants outside
This time of year, it’s particularly important to have frost covers available. On warm days, things will start coming up – Utigard already has asparagus shoots – but plants can get zapped and shrivel quickly in a cold snap. Rhubarb and garlic should also have pushed up from the soil.
Hoke uses Reemay, a sheer white fabric that lets sunlight and rain penetrate but protects tender plants from cold. Some people prefer plastic or create hoops, which function as a mini-greenhouse on your rows. Depending on the material you use, you can get five to 10 degrees of added protection. You can pull back the coverings on sunny days.
Tackle weeds now
In the flower garden, Utigard recommends cutting back the dead growth from last year. She also makes a point of getting out with a hoe when weeds are still tiny. “It takes a few seconds, every few weeks, and saves you a lot of weeding,” she said. “The most important thing about weeding is, don’t let them go to seed – when they’re tiny, it’s really quick.” In fact, weeds are actually good mulch unless they go to seed, she said.
The one caveat is to avoid chopping up quack grass which, since it spreads by rhizomatous roots, will only multiply if you cut the roots. To tackle this persistent weed, you need to dig up the roots with a garden fork, said Utigard.
“Mulch is the best thing in the world – it keeps the weeds from coming up and then it decomposes and helps your garden,” said Utigard. If you use bark mulch, add some more nitrogen because the bark will soak up a lot of nitrogen as it decomposes.
Straw and alfalfa hay make great mulch, but be sure you get it from a good source so you don’t introduce weed seeds, said Utigard. She favors alfalfa hay because it has so much nitrogen and because straw takes longer to break down. Hay that makes poor-quality animal feed because it’s been rained on makes good, inexpensive mulch.
If you have strawberry plants from past years, pull off the dead growth and fertilize them with a little chicken manure. Also cut back the dead raspberry canes if you didn’t do so in the fall, and prune any fruit trees that need a trimming.
There are a few things to put on your calendar for next year. Putting dead leaves on your garden to overwinter will enhance the organic matter in your garden in the spring, said Utigard.
Keep this in mind throughout the cycle: “If you don’t feed the garden, it won’t feed you,” said Hoke.
Photo by Marcy Stamper: Kale is a hardy green that will flourish in the cool weather. You can plant it directly from seeds or use starts.
Seeds, and how to get them
By Mary Schilling and Laura Jones-Edwards, Okanogan County Master Gardeners
Many plants can be grown from seeds and it is a relatively easy and rewarding process. Although most plants produce seeds, this is not always the best or easiest method to start a new plant – for instance, an apple tree. That said, many of the things home gardeners want to grow in their gardens are successfully grown from seed.
To grow high-quality plants, you need to start with high-quality seeds. Many gardeners are rediscovering seed saving. Additionally, here is much discussion about heirloom seeds, hybrids, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and organically grown produce. You should investigate these topics and decide for yourself what is important. Above all, choose varieties that your family will enjoy eating, that will grow well in your area, and will fit in the space you have available.
Most seed packets give very useful planting instructions including when to plant your seeds and whether it is best to start them indoors or sow them directly in the garden. It is very easy to get excited about the whole proposition of starting seeds and begin planting seeds in little pots in February. However, this usually leads to plants that are too big for their pots and in need of being transplanted when it is still dangerously cold outside.
As well, some seeds do best if you sow them directly into the garden; your seed packet should tell you the best time to do so. There are some plants that require or perform better at cooler temperatures, such as peas, spinach, and kale, allowing you to start them outside before your last frost date. Others require warmer soil and do not like to have their roots disturbed, for example, beans, corn, and cucumbers.
There is a ton of information out there in the form of books, websites, your county Master Gardeners, and your neighbors. One great resource for further information is available at www.pubs.wsu.edu. Search for “Propagating Plants from Seed,” available as a free PDF download or purchase a copy to be mailed to you.
Garden companies, seeds and catalogs
• Gurney Seed and Nursery Company (Glendale, Ind.) identifies hybrids, sells neither genetically modified nor organic seed, and does not use scientific names. www.gurneys.com
• Heart of the Highlands is near Tonasket. Some of the seed from Heart of the Highlands has been grown in Eastern Washington since 1972. Think how well adjusted those seeds and the plants they produce will be. Heart of the Highlands seed is both open-pollinated and uncertified organic. Seed will be available at the Methow Valley Farmer’s Market, and ask at Glover Street Market in Twisp. E-mail seed list requests to email@example.com.
• Irish Eyes Garden Seeds specializes in seed potatoes. This year they’re offering 42 varieties, all of them organic. Irish Eyes also carries a good selection of short-season vegetables including four kinds of Chinese cabbage and “Kabuli Black” garbanzo beans. Nearly all of Irish Eyes’ offerings are open-pollinated, organic, and produced at their Ellensburg nursery. www.irisheyesgardenseeds.com
• Territorial Seed Company (Cottage Grove, Ore.) has a generous seed collection. Territorial carries open-pollinated and organic seed and provides good cultural information. They trial and evaluate all the seed varieties in their catalog. www.territorial.com
• Pinetree Garden Seeds and Accessories (New Gloucester, Maine) carries a good selection of seed. They sell seeds in small amounts; this is nice for gardeners who like to experiment. Pinetree includes the Latin names for herbs and flowers, identifies open-pollinated seed, and provides cultural information. www.superseeds.com
• Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Winslow, Maine) is a large company that supplies seed to both home gardeners and commercial growers. Johnny’s is the place to go if you want five pounds of arugula seed and would like to know what vegetable varieties are currently appreciated at farmer’s markets. They carry a selection of open-pollinated seed and some of their seed is organic. www.Johnnyseeds.com
• Fedco Seeds (Waterville, Maine) publishes a unique catalog –rowdy, political, and funny. Like Johnny’s, Fedco is a good source of seed for both home gardeners and commercial growers. Most Fedco seed comes from families and small companies. Fedco provides hardiness information when necessary, identifies open-pollinated seed, and offers organic options. www.fedcoseeds.com
Genetically modified or transgenic seed is seed that has genes from other plants or animals inserted into its DNA. Proponents say that genetically modified crops provide cheaper and sometimes more nutritious food. Opponents argue that serious health and environmental risks outweigh the possible benefits of transgenic crops and that only biotech companies will benefit. None of the catalogs reviewed in this article knowingly carry genetically modified plants or seeds.
There is no generally accepted definition of organic agriculture. However, products can’t be sold as “certified organic” unless they meet regulations and standards set by the National Organic Program. Generally, the term “organic” means avoiding synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and growth hormones. Equally important are alternative practices that include fertilizing with compost, crop rotation, and integrated pest management.
Open-pollinated seeds are those which produce plants that are essentially like their parents. Alternatively, hybrid seed is a cross between distinct varieties. Seed saved from hybrid plants is unpredictable and usually not desirable; for this reason seed savers need to start with open-pollinated seed. Catalogs may not identify open-pollinated seed, but it is safe to assume that if hybrids are identified the remainder of the seed is open-pollinated.
Master Gardeners offer answers, encouragement
By Mary Schilling and Laura Jones-Edwards, Okanogan County Master Gardeners