March 2008

The days are dramatically lengthening now and the plants are putting out new growth. Ahhhh, springtime. We all know that plants get their energy from sunlight through photosynthesis and they also have all the water they need with our spring rains. However, they won’t get the warm temperatures yet. So let us consider the plants that enjoy longer days and cooler temperatures.

Starting in mid march we can transplant out into the garden many cold tolerant crops. These starter plants can be purchased at reliable nurseries or hopefully start some yourselves from seeds at home under grow lights. We especially enjoy broccoli, spinach, bok choy, romaine, kohlrabi and onions. Remember to harden off the transplants before you actually plant them in the garden, by leaving them in the pots outside during the day and bringing in at night for several days, then leaving outside full time for several days and then planting in the garden.

Begin direct seeding into your garden the radishes, lettuces, carrots, turnips, mustard and cilantro later this month, depending on soil temperatures. You may have a microclimate that can get these germinated and growing as the equinox approaches. There are several ways to warm your soil for earlier planting. Use raised beds. Build a plastic or glass tent over the bed making a mini-greenhouse (also called a cloche). Use a row cover (like Remay) and anchor it down with rocks, boards, or soil pins. The row cover will also act as a pest barrier for the root maggots that attack carrots, radishes, turnips and broccoli.

If you are starting a new garden or haven’t limed in the past couple of years, add some dolomite (horticultural) lime to the soil. Mix well and be generous. It breaks down very slowly, so won’t “burn” your plants. Lime raises the pH of soil and allows the plants to more readily take up nutrients. I now have a pH meter, because I had so much trouble with our acidic soil. Our plants were struggling, and I thought they needed more nutrients. Low and behold, it was the pH not the N-P-K. These are the primary nutritional needs of plants, Nitrogen (N)-Phosphorus (P)- Potassium (K).

All the spring time leafy green vegetables do appreciate a good source of nitrogen (N). Besides adding compost, you may use an organic fertilizer that lists a larger percentage of the first listed number, such as 5-1-1 in fish fertilizer or even blood meal 12-2-1. Do not over apply the nitrogen sources of fertilizer because they are so water soluble and will just be washed away in the rain/irrigation. Besides being a waste of money, this pollutes those downstream in our watershed. I prefer to wait and see if the plants are needing more nitrogen by watching their color. The leaves will show yellow tinge if they are lacking nitrogen. If the new growth is yellowing, that is a more serious nutrient deficiency. Soil testing is also an option, though somewhat costly. Accurate sampling is the key. Test kits are messy, less reliable and need to be replaced annually. Soil test labs are very effective if you can understand their results. UMass soil tests have been highly recommended. For ordering call 413-545-2311 or check the web

With these longer days, you may have more time after work or school to go out and visit your garden. Involve children with gardening activities as much as you can. Many people, young and old, think of their food coming from the store, and don’t actually know about growing food. Use children’s natural curiosity about growing plants to draw them to enjoy eating lots of fresh vegetables. I was surprised that my children would graze in the garden when they came home from school, chewing raw broccoli and pea vines, snow peas, sorrel and parsley. Later in life they will continue to eat these healthy greens. Children are more likely to have a diet of 5-9 serving of vegetables and fruits if they learn to love them early in life. And with your own food garden, you will too! Everyone knows you can’t beat the taste of a freshly picked pea or carrot or bean or tomatoes or anything from the garden. Your whole family will benefit from the easy access of homegrown fresh organic produce to improve their diets.

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