Spring, at long last

Getting the garden ready.

Photo by Susan Safford

Welcome spring! The vernal equinox occurs Friday. It means the center of the Sun spends a roughly equal amount of time above and below the horizon at every location on Earth; night and day are about the same length. It marks the official start of spring. Yay!

Many will be scrambling to take care of matters that were made impossible by heavy snow cover just a short while back. Remove trunk guards from fruit trees, advises Fedco’s John Bunker, and let the trunks breathe. Pruning of fruit trees and dormant oil spraying may commence, as well as pruning of roses. Attend to the unwelcome damage that ice, snow, deer, and gnawing rodents may have delivered to plantings with sharpened loppers, pruning saws, and clippers.

The practice of “hat-racking,” of hollies or other trees, to tighten and improve structure, would be done at this time. My hybrid hollies have been so browsed by deer this winter that hat-racking is the only way to restore the appearance of some of them.

I have begun to be repetitious on the importance of letting soils thoroughly thaw and dry out before attempting anything in beds and the vegetable garden, despite the understandable eagerness to get going. It depends on how fast the weather warms and how much sun we receive; but it is important to refrain from walking upon or stirring the soil when it is sodden, or it will be all clods. Fine mulches may remain in place, but protective pine boughs should be lifted to accelerate warming.

Many gardeners have become wildlife-aware, practicing the habit of leaving perennials standing over winter to provide for birds. The snow will have smashed these remnants down, but they should be fairly easy to rake or break off. Watch for their newly emerging green tips.

“The poor man’s fertilizer”

Snow and rain carry many elements and contaminants, scoured from the air they travel through, on their way to earth. Nitrogen is among the material picked up, formed from the action of lightning on the nitrogen gases present in the atmosphere, and from fossil-fuel pollution.

This is why we hear snow, especially snow falling upon unfrozen soil, called “the poor man’s fertilizer”. This could also be “the poor woman’s fertilizer,” as it falls equally everywhere, without prejudice, unlike wealth. Estimates put the amounts of nitrogen at between five to ten pounds per acre, depending upon how much was able to sink into the soil versus how much was lost through runoff.

In a winter such as this, where the ground was not deeply frosted, it is likely that the haul of nitrogen from snow was a good one. (In addition to nitrogen, beneficial trace amounts of phosphorus and sulfur occur in snow and rain.) The insulating snow cover was also fortunate considering the bitter cold we experienced during February and early March; gardeners would be looking at far more damage to plants and hardscapes had it been otherwise.

Grafting and fruit growing

Kevin Brennan, with Jamie O’Gorman, is giving a class in grafting and fruit growing on Saturday, March 21, from 10 to 11:30 am at Thimble Farm. The topics will be growing and propagating fruits, nuts, and berries best suited to the Vineyard. Donation is $20. Please sign up by calling 201-478-1925 or emailing kevinbrennan15@gmail.com.

Garden prep: Raised beds

Interest in raised beds has increased over the past 20 or so years. Many ascribe this to an aging baby boomer generation’s need for handicap-accessible garden facilities. A raised section of garden warms up faster than surrounding soil, and enjoys better drainage, usually the best conditions for aromatic herbs. Structures filled with superlative, fertile growing medium may produce more crops in a smaller amount of space.

However, according to Wikipedia, introduction to the ideas of French intensive gardening occurred originally “in the 1890s on two acres of land just outside of Paris. The crops were planted in 18 inches of horse manure, a readily available fertilizer, and planted so close together that the mature plants’ leaves touched their neighbors. [It was] introduced to the United States by Alan Chadwick in California in the late ’60s, early ’70s.”

Hilling up earth with a hoe, or a wheel hoe with moldboard plow attachment, makes raised beds that are more modest in height. Those with a supply of logs may find log-supported beds an economical means of achieving the same end. For food gardens, avoid wood preservatives. The logs will eventually rot into the soil, but that is not necessarily a bad thing: the breakdown feeds the micro life of the soil.

Gardening in raised beds does not require purchasing or building custom structures, unless you have those yards of superlative, fertile growing medium to fill them.

What’s new?

Territorial Seed Co. is offering “Ketchup ’n’ Fries,” the TomTato, a tomato/potato graft. “Tomatoes are members of the potato family and are therefore naturally compatible with potatoes … There is no genetic modification,” according to the catalogue. For gardeners with limited space, this sounds like an exciting introduction.

Seed starting

Early and cold-hardy crops to sow: arugula, parsley, lettuce, spinach, beets, and cole crops such as mustard and broccoli. If you sow too early without a cold frame to move seedlings out into, the seedlings just get leggy. Celery and peppers (not cold-hardy) take a long time to reach size; start them now.

There is no reason to start peas indoors if you can protect them in the garden. However, since the tender plants appeal to all sorts of tastes, not just human ones, I find it safer and preferable to start them inside. Plant lots, more than you think you will need, as you cannot have too many pea plants, or peas!