Tips for Spring Gardening in New England
Once again winter fades into spring and you’re probably itching to get your hands in the soil. By now, you’ve placed your seed order and drawn out your map for this year’s garden, so let’s get started.
If you used season extension techniques when you put your garden to bed last year, you may have lettuce, carrots, or kale stirring under plastic or glass. Take a look, but be sure to keep the plants firmly covered until after the last frost. If you haven’t tried extending your season yet, now’s the time. You can build a raised bed (or invite a handy friend to show you how), fill it with soil, and cover it with glass or plastic to warm the soil, planting cold-hardy seeds or seedlings as early as late March. It even works to use a five-gallon rubber tote or a sturdy box. Experiment!
If raised beds won’t work in your yard or simply are more than you need to get started, consider a cold frame, which is a four-sided frame of boards with a removable plastic or glass top (think storm windows) that you place on the ground to house, protect, and harden off seedlings and small plants using the heat of the sun. It’s an efficient and popular method for starting seeds and if you make the sides of your cold frame at least 12 inches high, you can plant and grow some early veggies, like lettuce, spinach, and radishes, right in the cold frame. As summer wears on, you can disassemble the frame and store it until fall, when you can use it to extend the season once more.
Don’t have a garden plan? Draw one now. It doesn’t have to be fancy or technical; it’s simply a guide for you to use as you plant, tend, and harvest your garden. As seeds sprout, it can be difficult to remember what you planted where, even if you’re an expert, so sketch a rough outline of your garden and jot down where everything is planted.
Garden Clean Up
As the ground begins to warm, take the time to rake up any debris that you may have missed from last year’s garden and dispose of it, as pests and disease can overwinter (or survive through the winter) on the ground. Apply a few inches of aged compost to give your garden a kick-start.
Consult your garden plan and lay your soaker hoses before you begin planting, covering them with a couple of inches of soil. Soaker hoses efficiently deliver water directly to the roots of your plants and prevent water loss through evaporation.
Tools of the Trade
Hopefully, you took the time last fall to properly clean and store your tools. Sharp edges and oiled surfaces create less drag on a plant when you prune or rake, and if you haven’t done the maintenance, now’s the time. Even your shovel benefits from being sharpened and oiled, which lets the tool do the work for you.
Many people use a trowel for vegetable gardening, but consider a Japanese Weeder. Its angled blade creates a chopping motion that lets you break up the soil effectively and its sharp edge can cut through matted weeds.
What other tools will you need? You’ll use a garden rake, spade (shovel), dandelion weeder (which can double as a “dibble” for planting seeds), pruners, wheelbarrow, and garden gloves, along with your garden and soaker hoses. Garden gloves with a rubber coating on the palm for gripping and mesh on the back for air circulation are inexpensive favorites. Again, be sure that all tools are clean, oiled where necessary, and sharp.
If you’re just getting started and are unsure of how to select new garden tools, don’t be afraid to ask a neighborhood gardener. Gardeners generally love to talk about their gardens and how they grow.
If you’ve dipped your toe in the waters of seed-saving, you may have some seeds of your own to start with from last year’s garden. Otherwise, you may have ordered from Fedco Seeds in Clinton, The Maine Potato Lady in Guilford, Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester, or Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow.
If not, there’s still time. Educate yourself about the different kinds of seeds that are available, from heirloom and hybrid to organic and GMO-free. After all, these seeds become the food that you and your family will eat throughout the year.
An Early Start
Many vegetables benefit from an early start. Review your seed catalog and pull out packets for those that call for planting in March or April. Some, like lettuce, spinach, snap peas, kale, and radishes, can be planted just as soon as the soil can be worked. Others, including bell peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant, should be planted in containers and placed on a sunny windowsill according to the instructions on the packet.
As the final frost approaches, you’ll need to “harden off” your indoor seedlings gradually, which allows them to become accustomed to strong sunlight, cool nights, and less-frequent watering. Wait for a mild day and place your seedlings in a sheltered spot, giving them two to three hours of outdoor sun. Be sure to protect them from strong wind, sun, and hard rain, and bring them in for the night. After following this routine for seven to 10 days, your plants will be ready to go into the ground.
What It’s All About
When you first get your hands in the soil, take a few moments to breathe deeply and envision your garden. Feel the energy of the earth and really pause to appreciate what you’re about to do. Gardening has proven health benefits, from increased exposure to vitamin D from the sun to important weight-bearing exercise, along with the satisfaction of producing healthy fruits and vegetables with your own hands.
Look up and down your street and you may see neighbors plunging their hands into their own gardens, like you, eager to get started. Be sure to smile and wave.
Springtime Garden Checklist
When it comes to your garden tools, it pays off in the long run to buy quality tools that will last. Resist the temptation to buy the least expensive tools; they break more easily and cost more as you continually replace them.
Buy seeds in Maine from Maine companies:
· Fedco Seeds, P.O. Box 520, Waterville, Maine 04903; (207) 426-9900
· Johnny's Selected Seeds, 955 Benton Ave., Winslow, Maine 04901; (877)-564-6697
· Pinetree Garden Seeds, P.O. Box 300, New Gloucester, Maine 04260; (207) 926-3400
· Wood Prairie Family Farm, 49 Kinney Rd., Bridgewater, Maine 04735; (800) 829-9765
· The Maine Potato Lady, P.O. Box 65 Guilford, Maine 04443, (207) 717-5451
Check out Fedco Trees for dozens of varieties of fruit trees that will do well in your garden. For example, the peach variety “Reliance” will produce after just a couple of years and requires little maintenance.
For help building a seedling stand, visit the University of Maine Cooperative Extension website.
Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) published a fabulous seed-starting calendar, which you’ll find by going to their website; click on Publications, then Articles for Reprinting, and look for “Huge Growth Potential, Pounds of Dividends: It’s Time to Order Seeds” by Jean English.
Ready to try soil testing and find out what amendments your garden needs? The Analytical Lab and Maine Soil Testing Service are your first stop. Give them a call at (207) 581-3591 and request a soil testing kit.