After a slow start, gardening on Martha’s Vineyard gets rolling

Upward facing stars, Scilla bifolia, are one of the earliest splashes of blue in the spring garden. — Photo by Susan Safford

Once again, spring happens. How can early daffs and heathers and the intensifying pinkletink chorus not gladden? It is past time to get busy outside, despite whatever weather April has in store for Island gardeners.

Early rock garden, grassland, and woodland bulbs charm with their daintiness and toughness in the face of cold winds and temperature changes. Snowdrops formed the vanguard, followed by Crocus ancyrensis and tommasianus, Iris histrioides ‘Katharine Hodgkin,’ Scilla bifolia, Narcissus ‘Small Talk,’ ‘Topolino,’ and ‘Little Gem,’ and now finally, Scilla sibirica ‘Spring Beauty.’ Long-planted Crocus vernus proliferate here, there, and everywhere, in a blend of colors.

Food gardening

The soil temperature in my vegetable garden has hovered in the forties, climbing slightly each day and regressing each night. While I have plenty of cool-weather plants ready to set out, I admit to having been spooked by those snows, and by the overall chill. I do not possess enough covering material to lay over all, so I am holding back.

A member of our Homegrown group suggests laying a trail of crushed eggshell in the planting drill when setting out early broccoli and other brassicas. Doing so adds calcium at the root level and foils soil-based insect pests.

Meanwhile, (hope I do not sound like a stuck record) send in your soil sample. The link is for downloading the order form, and for detailed instructions. Other good soil testing labs exist, but UMass is our land grant college. By utilizing its resources and asking for advice that we need for organic management — to nurture healthy soil and healthy food in the Commonwealth — we can direct them to improve to serve our needs.

Generally speaking, with a bucket and trowel or small shovel, dig up a dozen representative samples from around the garden plot, from six to eight inches deep. Thoroughly mix all representative samples together in the bucket, and then remove one cup and leave to dry out in a pie pan. When it is dry, label a baggie with your name and garden description if you are sending more than one sample, and place the soil in it. Follow the directions on the web site. Ask for organic management recommendations.

The stacks of catalogues you have been accumulating are sources of crop growing information and many helpful hints. Try to make time to read in them, apart from your seed ordering and typical interests: you will receive a short-form education. In his recent talk at Agricultural Hall, Derek Christianson of Brix Bounty Farm in Dartmouth mentioned seed inoculants for plants other than legumes, which are the ones we usually think of when inoculating seed. He mentioned that Fedco carries them, and recommends the catalogue as a storehouse of good information.

As an example, I found directions for activating EM-1 microbial inoculant through fermentation (p. 123). The product is used as a drench for transplants; as a foliar spray; as a soil treatment; and as a means for breaking down crop residues or adding to composts.

When growing your own seedlings it is important neither to over-water nor to allow them to dry out. While wilted seedlings may be revived, it is a setback and their quality is usually permanently compromised. Over-watering promotes algae on the soil surface, fungus gnats, and diseases such as damping off. As much light, at as moderate a temperature, as can be provided is the goal, to grow thrifty plants. Remember to harden off plants that have been started inside before planting out.

Planting of early potatoes commences in April. Choose an open, fertile spot, and prep the soil with a topdress of bloodmeal, fishmeal, and bonemeal prior to planting, unless you know it is fertile. Sprout the potatoes (chitting) by placing the seed tubers in good light out of direct sun. Many people stand the seed potatoes in egg cartons for this. You can choose about four strong sprouts and rub off the rest.

As I now use the grown-in-straw method popularized by Lynne Irons several years back, the next step is simply laying the potato pieces in rows on top of the soil, about one foot apart in the row, with the rows about two feet apart for early kinds. Instead of hilling up, cover deeply with straw.

Bloodmeal was found to be the most effective source of nitrogen for blueberry bushes, in a study that was reported in the MOFGA Journal several years ago. Apply it and scratch in as well as possible around the plants.

Horticultural oils are a good form of control for many problems of blueberries and orchard trees, such as aphids, mites, and scale, and they are consistent with good ecological practice. Exercise care when applying horticultural oils, keeping one eye on the weather forecast, because the temperature needs to be settled and above 40 degrees for a day or two after spraying.

I purchased a product called rootrainers, a sort of seed-starting kit that opens like a book to reduce root disturbance to plants that resent it. I plan to use the rootrainers for starting Florence fennel. I love fennel and have become enmeshed in the challenging pursuit of growing bulbs that resemble more closely what may be found in the store. Big bulbs.

Fennel is a fairly long season vegetable, about 80 days, so I would like to start fennel indoors along with other seedlings. The drawback is that fennel does not like root disturbance and is to be sown in place. As transplants one tends to get plants with long, skinny non-bulbs that bolt.

Summer’s containers

Have you thought about your containers for the coming season? I propagated pelargoniums over the winter to use, and I am sowing some ‘Profusion’ zinnias, nasturtiums, Nicotiana alata, and Swiss chard ‘Bright Lights.’