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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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.

How to grow a salad

Each spring, I grow salad from seed. Nothing could be easier–all you need is some seed and some sun.

This year, because the spring weather was quite cold, I began on March 31. I used seeds of Provencal Mix and Cook’s Zesty Blend, plus arugula and mache, from The Cook’s Garden. I sowed the seeds directly onto the ground in a sunny spot (each 2-gram packet comfortably covers about 4 to 6 square feet).

Caring for the plants could not be simpler. Keep the ground damp until the seeds germinate. Water if there’s no rain. Start picking when the plants get crowded, or when the individual leaves are the size of the leaves in the very expensive mesclun mix you buy at the gourmet store. Pick enough for that day, wash well, dress with good wine vinegar and olive oil, and enjoy.

Last year the spring weather was much hotter, and I sowed the seeds much earlier. But in both years, I harvested the first salad around the middle of May. And here is a picture of that delicious salad, still in the colandar after being washed:

Mesclun salad, the first of the season.

I expect to keep harvesting these greens until the weather gets hot. Then the plants will bolt, or begin to form flower stalks and seedheads. At that point, the leaves will taste bitter, so we will pull up the plants, compost them, spread some compost on the ground, and plant warm weather crops such as eggplants and tomatoes in the same spot (remember that my whole vegetable garden is about 6 x 16 feet).

Delicious greens like these need the simplest possible dressing. If you’ve never made vinaigrette from scratch, you can’t believe how easy it is: for a salad for two people, put 1 1/2 tsps. of good-quality wine vinegar in a little bowl. Add salt and pepper. Add about three times as much fruity olive oil as vinegar and beat with a fork or small whisk. Taste the dressing–you might want more salt or more olive oil. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss well.

Enjoy the first greens of spring!