Is Patience A Virtue?


07_17_40_prev Spring is here, and yahoo!  Yesterday, I gave each asparagus plant a nice shovelful of compost.  One of them was already sending up a purple spear.  I planted a pear and two weeping willows, a tree I have been obsessed with for 20 years and never found a spot for until now.  

Plus, I found another blueberry plant in the brush and put it into the vegetable garden.  The blueberry was the remains of my husband's experiment with exo-garden planting last spring. I warned him that it is extremely hard to take care of anything outside of an established garden, but he swore he'd weedwhack regularly around his blueberry planting and water his fruit trees throughout the summer, none of which happened even once.  In other words, he refused the benefit of my experience.

Of course, the fact that I was even in the vegetable garden yesterday is a sign that I've refused the benefit of my own experience. In my part of the world, it's just counter-productive to step into a garden bed in April.  The best vegetable gardener I know, my friend Gerald, simply doesn't get into the garden until the soil dries out in May.

In the flower garden, the outlines of the problem are stark: If you
do anything in April in my part of the world, you are likely
to crush something really lovely just sticking its nose above the
ground–a peony, hosta, or, worse, a lily that will never recover. 
That doesn't mean that I didn't just nail trellising to my fence last week in
order to tie up a 'New Dawn' rose that threatens to ensnare both me and
the neighbors and turn us into compost.  But I fully understood the
risks: It was likely that I'd crush an emerging perennial or ten.

the vegetable garden, it's a more complex question, because there are
some vegetables that hate the heat
and have to be planted early if you have a prayer of harvesting them
before swimming season.

However, it is not only unpleasant to be digging in the soil on a frigid day–as I was on Easter, when it was bitter cold–but positively self-destructive. 
While many vegetable gardening how-to's are full of unnecessary
scolding, this is one example of a place where they speak the honest
truth: Working or walking on wet spring soil alters its texture in a cement-like

Yet I'm stomping around there wreaking havoc every spring, because I can't live without spinach or peas.  I consider chard superior to spinach in every way: the flavor, the handsome appearance of the plant, the fact that it will stand in the garden for four or five months without bolting while you steal leaves from the edges.  But my six year-old daughter, who doesn't like many vegetables, loves spinach sauteed in lots of butter.  And my 11 year-old son loves snow peas. 

Since I know I'm doing no good for my garden as a whole by planting in April, I tend to stick the seeds in the ground, get in and get out, and avert my eyes when I notice an emerging weed.  Last year, however, I was unusually ambitious and for the first time, followed the books and planted beets, radishes, turnips, and broccoli early. 

What a disappointing return for such dutifulness!  The broccoli went to seed as soon the summer heat arrived without ever forming a head, and the roots crops were all woody and distasteful. 

I planted them again at my more usual times–broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage seedlings on Memorial Day, and most of the brassica and beet seeds in mid-July for the fall.  Everything was gorgeous, tender, and delicious.  If you haven't tried baby white turnips, glazed with scallions and parsley, as in the big yellow Gourmet Cookbook, it's a good question whether you've really lived at all.

The contrast between the quality of food yielded by early and late plantings was so exaggerated, in fact, that I did a little research and learned that brassicas and beets are sensitive to day length.  Their impulse, if they mature as the days are waxing, is to go right to seed.  If the days are waning, they relax, spread out and make beautiful food.  I learned this after 18 years of vegetable gardening, having read approximately 150 how-to's, all of which told me to plant broccoli and turnips early.

Maybe this lack of success with early broccoli and turnips reflects conditions in my shot-out-of-a-cannon neighborhood, where we have still have snow on the ground in April, but 90-degree heat in June.  Maybe it reflects nothing more than last year's weather. Or maybe it reflects the lousy quality of most vegetable gardening advice.

How do you decide when to get into the garden?

(Photo courtesy of


  1. Rain that prevented a certain couple who shall remain nameless from browsing in the nursery for vegetable starts was all that stopped the month to soon planting of the tomato, cucumber, squash, peppers and what ever else may have struck their fancy. The thinking was if it doesn’t freeze we will be ahead of the game. If it does freeze we’ll just replant and it is an expense worth risking. The weather diagnosis calls for lows at 33 and 34 mid week. “Oh, good thing it was raining then.”

    Interesting about the beets, broccoli et all and very early sowing, which I did with beets and radish. We stay cool way up here all summer, so results may vary.

  2. I have strong inclination my early started Broc will not produce as wanted. I started seeds in Feb, planted in mid-march and they’re just now taking off, so much the closer to May NYC heat. I see bolting if they don’t get growing fast!

    I will plant again on Aug. 1. I think the plant early is good for coastal cool summer places, moderate winter places like California.

  3. I started my spinach too late (early march) and my beets and turnips too late (mid march).

    I’m trying again with chard (mid april) First year veggie gardening in coastal NC, and still trying to figure out the seasons. It’s pretty funky down here!

  4. Ugh. I wish I could show this post to a client of mine. They want me to plant trees that look like they’re really old. I keep telling them that impatience a punished harshly in the garden. They keep on telling me to find a tree with a trunk as big as my leg.

  5. I have to say, this is one of the best posts I’ve read here in a while! Nicely done!

    I go back and forth (and back and forth) on early planting all the time. I still don’t have a good schedule worked out (Houston area).

    Part of it is genuine ignorance as I continue to learn what works and what doesn’t; this is especially apparent with my succession/staggered planting efforts.

    But part of it is overflowing enthusiasm of working the garden again. I jump the gun because I am just so excited to be back at it.

  6. Maybe that is why I have such problems with brassicas in spring! Norfolk isn’t known for it’s balmy late spring, more of a sprint from winter to broiling summer here.

    I’ll give a good college try to the brassicas again for the fall.

  7. I refuse to be cold while working in the garden. If it’s not warm enough for me, then it’s not warm enough for my vegetable garden yet either. Of course, I’ve given up on peas, just not enough crop yield to justify freezing my ass off on St. Patrick’s Day (named as planting day for peas in my area by conventional wisdom). I should be more economical and grow everything from seed, but with such inexpensive starts readily available, getting the timing right on seeds in a small apartment with exactly 1 southern facing window seems like an exercise in futility. So when it warms up enough for me to get out and clean up the garden, the soil’s usually dry enough to be worked and it’s about time to get veggie starts from my local nursery or plant seeds directly in the ground.

  8. I don’t till, so I get into the soil as soon as I can tolerate the cold, and stuff will live! I have permanent stone paths, so I’m never stepping on soil that will be used. As soon as the soil’s not frozen, I plant peas, and as soon and the frosts go to “light” at night, I put out lettuces and broccoli under row covers. I just can’t wait!

  9. Michele, I think your post speaks to the value of a garden journal, noting what was planted when from year to year and noting daily temps and weather events. …I say that as a complete and total hypocrite, though. Every year, I think about keeping a garden journal, and every year, I don’t make the effort.

    I want a longsleeved t-shirt from Fern @ Life on the Balcony – natural cotton with beautiful black calligraphic lettering: Impatience is punished harshly in the garden.

  10. I read once that gardening naked is a good thing: it keeps you knowing if the soil is warm enough for your plants. (I think I got that from the Bolands’ Old Wives’ Lore for Gardeners, which is a treasure.)

    That said, we always try to get around pesky problems like “it’s too cold,” don’t we? Raised beds are my solution to soil compaction, and the greenhouse/hoophouses we have are the seedling nursery. With the latter I transfer mini-seedlings of cold stuff first (lettuces, broccoli) then hot stuff now (tomatoes, etc.) even though we’re a good month from the last frost.

    My only experience with bolting brassicas is if they get extremely chilled. My November-sown seeds in the greenhouse will feebly throw flowers in Feb. only because it freezes nightly in there until then.

  11. I agree with invisiblebees about a garden journal. But I don’t have one.

    I get into the garden when I can. If it’s a weekend in April and not raining and I don’t have to wear a parka, I’m in the garden doing something. The closer it is to the end of the month, the closer I’ll be to messing with the dirt or putting something in the dirt.

  12. Half of my veggie allotment patch was squishy and half was workable this past weekend. I was in shorts and a t-shirt happily working in compost and planting radishes and parsnips in the drier half. So I guess my answer to your question – if I feel comfortable not wearing big boy pants it’s the right time.

  13. OK, so can I ask where you are? I am in the Minneapolis area and I tend to think it’s too early until the precise moment when it’s too late. 🙂

  14. Christie, I’m in Washington County in New York State. And I know what you mean. Gardening season hasn’t really started and I’m already behind.

  15. For those north of the Mason-Dixon line try growing the Romanesco variety of broccoli. Planted in the spring it will grump around all summer and then towards fall will grow like crazy, setting its unique head. Once you have tasted this type of broccoli you will become addicted. Superior flavor! It freezes well, too.

  16. One year we had a very fickle spring. Volunteer tomato plants produced more and better fruit than the carefully and early installed purchased ones. Sometimes, though, you’ve just got to get your fingers in the dirt, nourishing your soul is as important as nourishing your body.

  17. I am so happy for this blog post – its great to be talking gardening.
    I know some things should probably wait – but after the long winter i just have such a hard time waiting to get going! It seems to be forever between when the snow starts melting and the leaves come onto the trees….

  18. Instant gratification takes too long — Carrie Fisher.

    Well, my early-season advice is to get out as early as you can. But wear shoes that you really don’t want to get muddy. That way, you’ll chose carefully where you put your feet.

    The exception to this rule is in the veggie garden. But there I’ve got paths between beds that I don’t mind mucking up. I seldom am forced to step on a bed where the plants are actually expected to grow.

  19. living with about 1/2″ of soil over a bed of deep shale, I finally stopped pounding on the stuff and adopted raised beds, 5feet square for veg. Never have to step in them…which is a good thing since i’m the least patient person i know.

  20. Every spring is wildly variable in my garden (in the Southeast). Whether we have mild temperatures and overcast skies in April and May, or blastingly hot days with no rain interact with the day-length issues you mention to determined the success of cool-season vegetables.

    I love the voice of experience countering the so-called ‘experts’ — there’s certainly a lot of ill-informed advice out there. I hope your experts weren’t from your local Cooperative Extension publications?

    Tthis year, I have wonderful spring lettuce, greens, spinach, etc. because of the cool, rainy spring so far. Clearly, it’s dicey for you with lengthening day light for spring cole crops, but our daylength increases more slowly.

    Because of our colder than usual winter, though, I have no overwintered kale or collards at all, which normally would be growing prolifically now.

    That’s the fun (and reality) of gardening, to be sure.

  21. Brassicas don’t bolt in cold weather. They bolt from heat and being root bound.
    Better late than now for curcurbits and solanums.

  22. A lot of people from the rest of the continent like to deride California…

    My favorite one is that people on the east coast took their bolts off, tipped the country up on its edge and let all the loose nuts fall to california.

    For all that, the good news is that with a good row cover, I can grow veggies year around. Right now, the last of the years lettuce is going fast (it topped out at 87 degrees today) and the little hakurei turnips and cherry belle radishes I love are almost done. At the moment its all about transition and timing. I have some great tomato and pepper seedlings from Baker Creek Seeds in pots waiting for their days in the sun. And the squash and beans still in seed packs…

    The worst part about California springs are the two months after the fruit and nuts bloom that may still turn ugly at any moment. (last year we had no fruit at all)

    for the best hierloom seed catalog I have ever seen (its free) go to:


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