May in the garden: The earth is warming
May 8, 2013
The last two weeks I have been sowing seeds for greens and a few herbs. My cold frame allows me to get a jump on the season. Several degrees warmer during the day and protected from low night temperatures, seeds germinate quickly and seedlings thrive.
Dill was at the top of my list, but I should have checked the vegetable garden first. Volunteer plants from last year's seeds germinated when I wasn't watching and already have their first true leaves.
Although the ground in my garden is still cold, seedlings of dill, cilantro and leeks have appeared.
I garden at an elevation of 2,650 feet on the east side of Sonntag Hill. The exposure is complex, both open and sunny, and also affected by the lay of the land, as all gardens are. It is one of the coldest microclimates on my property. One year in the early 1980s, I had a frost as late as June 13.
Most years, the soil in my garden does not get warm enough for the heat-loving summer crops (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and squash) until June. Spring weather varies each year, but clay soil is slow to warm.
Some of the most essential nutrients are not available until the soil reaches a temperature of 50 degrees.
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I purchase starts for tomatoes, peppers and eggplant when they become available, locally grown. Tomatoes are grown in 2-gallon containers in the cold frame. Eggplants and peppers are in 1-gallon containers.
Although I know the risks, May 20 is my usual planting target. A row cover (Agribon) is placed over the plants until early June.
Last week, I spoke with a gardener who has grown vegetables for many years at an elevation above 3,600 feet. He says the advice he got from a wise gardener is to plant June 10. The soil is then warm, and all crops grow quickly. And you thought you were already "late?" No. For many foothill dwellers, spring planting is only just beginning.
My soilless mix begins with the compost base of Carolyn's Mix Plus (Rare Earth), containing mushroom compost, rice hulls, chicken manure, rock phosphate and oyster shell. Into this I add more of the two-rock powders, plus alfalfa meal and New Era biodynamic compost.
To 5 gallons of this concoction, I add 4 quarts of vermiculite and two of perlite. The plants thrive, developing strong root systems and sturdy, healthy plants.
This same mix may be used for starting seeds. The finest seeds are barely covered. Larger seeds are easily pressed into the mix.
Consistent irrigation is critical for success with all seeds.
I am certain that the volunteer leeks in my garden right now, since they are now more than 4 inches tall, must have germinated during the rains we had several weeks ago.
If you are directly seeding into the ground, shade cloth may be placed over the area to lessen evapotranspiration. However, this also cools the soil a bit, so I would not use it for the heat-loving crops.
Remember that you can use row covers to warm the soil either before you plant or while you are waiting for seeds to germinate.
It may be left in place to protect the young seedlings in early stages of growth. This also prevents birds from feasting on tender young plants.
Take time in spring to absorb and enjoy the amazing rebirth. This morning before writing, I took a leisurely walk into the garden.
I paused for a photo of the Choisya arizonica Aztec Pearl in full bloom. Its flower heads are much larger than the more common Choisya ternata.
I picked a small bouquet of cottage pinks (Dianthus), purple European columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) and California poppy.
It was hard to go back inside to work. Spring fever? I know it is!
Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of "The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom," now available locally. For more information, visit http://www.carolynsingergardens.com.