Starting the vegetable garden; spring lawn care

No photos yet–my vegetable plot is just bare soil (dark and well-drained, enriched with homemade compost at least twice a year)–but yesterday I dug out some grass that was encroaching on my plot in the Glen Rock Community Garden and weeded a small area, and today I scattered seeds of a mesclun mix in that area. The gentle rain means I didn’t even have to water them in.

Speaking of seeds, I notice in my walks around towns that many lawn services have scattered lawn seed for their clients. It’s too early to seed a lawn, because the nights are still chilly, but if you are one of those clients, make sure you water the seeds at least twice a day until they have germinated and the new grass is at least an inch tall. Otherwise, you’re wasting both money and seed. Better yet, in future tell the lawn service not to seed unless they do it properly, preferably in early fall And make sure they use a seed mix that’s right for the specific site. Seeding a lawn is quite simple, but it does involve more than scattering seed.

Another thing that homeowners and lawn services like to scatter is lawn fertilizer or a combination product (fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides). Again, it’s too early to fertilize, so you’re paying for something you don’t need. According to the most recent research on lawn care, lawns need no more than one feeding per year of slow-release organic fertilizer, not petroleum-based chemical fertilizer, and the best time to apply it is around Labor Day. Better yet, stop feeding altogether and rely on lawn clippings and fallen leaves to recycle nutrients back into the soil. The 4- or 5-step lawn care plan that many homeowners follow primarily benefits the chemical companies that manufacture the products and the lawn services that apply them.

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3/13/15: In the garden this week

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Not yet, but soon. By this time last year, the first crocuses had opened.

No, the crocuses aren’t up yet, even in the warmest spots in my garden, but they should be very soon–I can see the first shoots right now out the window. (This picture was taken on March 11 last year.) But even though spring is a bit late, its arrival is unmistakeable. The sun is so strong that snow was melting in sunny spots even when the temperature was still below freezing. Robins are back. At this moment, I am watching a blue jay in the holly tree perform a little dance, a repeated hop accompanied each time by a soft call, a descending minor third. A mating dance perhaps? Within the next week the snow should be gone and we should be seeing a great deal of bird activity. And although it’s too early to plant, there are lots of chores you could be getting out of way to prepare for the rush of spring gardening activity:

order your perennials and woody plants now to get the best selection. (Most local nurseries sell only a very few native species, so I rely on mail order and on specialty nurseries that are up to four hours away.) If you wait until it’s time to plant, nurseries will be sold out of many species.

— buy your vegetable seeds and start them indoors according to this schedule so the seedlings will be ready for spring planting. It’s time to start tomatoes!

— as soon as the ground is bare of snow and not too wet, direct sow seeds of early greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mesclun mix. Peas and radishes can be sown outdoors as well. They’ll germinate and grow slowly at first, but with any luck you’ll have fresh salad greens in about 6 weeks. Sow a new crop every two weeks to ensure a continuous supply of spring greens until the weather really heats up.

— once you can explore your entire property, evaluate the winter’s damage. Don’t remove dead wood or broken branches unless they pose hazards to people or property, because they might be supplying food or shelter to winter-weary creatures, but see what will need doing. How much mulch will you need? Will your evergreens need spring pruning to remove winter damage?

— it’s not too late to extend a garden bed or start a new one, and it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn: spread a 3-4 inch layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area now to kill the grass. You’ll be able to plant in April or May.

— finally, and most important, monitor your garden for bird activity. You should be seeing lots of it, as spring migrants arrive and winter residents continue to forage and begin to build nests. If you’re not seeing this, maybe your garden lacks winter food. Does your garden feed birds year-round? I’ve still got seeds of ironweed and Rudbeckia as well as leaf litter and dead wood for the birds to search for insects. If you’re not seeing birds, consider what steps you can take this season: for example, plant native perennials, stop pruning dead wood quite so aggressively, stop using pesticides on your lawn.

Enjoy the signs of early spring!

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Within the next two weeks, we should see the tiny red female hazelnut flowers open and the male catkins expand to release pollen.

Growing spring greens: Got your seeds yet?

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It’s hard to believe, but in most years, March 1 (nine days from now) is a good time to start planting spring greens around here. The pictures above were taken on May 3 and 5 of last year. They show arugula almost ready for harvest and pea plants growing up a simple trellis. I had planted both crops on March 31 (later than usual, because last spring was particularly cold). Usually, I plant in early March. I expect to harvest early spring greens in mid-May and peas in June.

Yes, I know there’s still a foot of snow on the ground. But it is starting to melt, and eventually it will melt entirely. So start ordering your seeds if you haven’t already done so. I’m almost ashamed to say that because the weather has been so wintry, I haven’t placed my order yet!

Nothing could be easier than growing cold-weather crops like lettuce, arugula, spinach, mustard greens, or mesclun mixes of greens. I like to harvest a mix of greens leaf by  leaf, rather than cut or pull whole plants, so I broadcast the seeds. Mark off a section of ground, and make sure the soil is smooth and weedfree. Generally a packet of seeds (around 2 grams) will sow about 8 to 10 square feet.

Sprinkle the seeds as evenly as possible over the plot and water gently. Keep the plot damp until the seedlings are a good size. If the weather is warm, you may begin to harvest in three weeks; if cool, it may take 6 weeks. Sow a new crop every 2 weeks or so to extend your harvest (although most of these crops must be pulled up as soon as the weather gets hot–they go to seed and taste bitter). Generally, unless the weather is very hot, we will eat our own greens from mid-May until the end of June, when the CSA takes over.

Greens and fresh herbs are almost ridiculously easy to grow as soon as you have a sunny spot, no matter how small. Try it this year. Start a small garden with your children. Don’t let the season pass you by.