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 FreeFoto.com.)