WHEN TO PLANT
It’s only February, but in much of the country it looks like Spring is bustin’ out all over! We recommend that you revisit your area’s exact last spring and first fall frost dates–they will be different for individual counties. Don’t go from memory. Check the Internet or contact your County Extension Agent and/or your local Master Gardener program.
The dates for our county are March 17 and November 15 – but what does that mean? If I were to set plants out on March 17, either as seed or six inch transplanted seedlings, I have a ten percent chance of a freeze, which would kill my plants. A ten percent risk is one I can live with. Frost dates DO NOT mean that it can’t or won’t freeze after that date. Regarding the first fall frost date, I have a ten percent chance that my crops will experience a freeze before November 16. The appendix in All New Square Foot Gardening is excellent as it illustrates when to start seeds in trays, when to transplant, how long it takes for the individual plants to mature and when you should harvest.
Obviously, frost dates are guidelines, and Mother Nature has a mind of her own. Thus far, this winter has been extremely mild in my area, so I’m willing to bump up my planting date by about thirty days. If we do experience a freeze, there will still be time to reseed or replant. I have plenty of reserve seed and know I’m only taking a slight risk.
But there is also a risk in waiting too long to plant. For example, tomatoes, and to a certain extent peppers, don’t set fruit well if the nights are hotter than 70 degrees F. The heat wave can come early in south Texas–sometimes in April. If my tomatoes are not 24 inches tall and in flower by mid-April, I could miss out on a lot of good tomato production. That would be bad! Therefore, now is the time to get a tray of juicy Romas started indoors.
BEFORE YOU PLANT, PLAN
If you had a garden last year, get out your 2012 garden plan and draw up a new plan. I like to see everything on one page. Use grid paper to make it easier. Plot your entire yard, front and back. A good example is found on page 13 of The Backyard Homestead, but you may want to get even more detailed. I do it the old-fashioned way (ruler and colored pencils), but you can also use software—just Google “Garden Planning Software” and several choices will pop up. There is also a practice grid in the All New Square Foot Gardening book, pages 264-265.
EASY CROP ROTATION
Those of you who had gardens last year should rotate your crops. There are many kinds of rotational strategies, each predicated on a slightly different theory. The easiest method is to put root crops in beds which previously held above-ground fruiting plants, and vice versa. A little more sophisticated method of agricultural recycling is to plant heavy feeders, then heavy givers, then light feeders. Examples of each type would include:
HEAVY FEEDERS – Corn, watermelons, melons
HEAVY GIVERS – Peas, peanuts, beans
LIGHT FEEDERS – Potatoes, tomatoes, squash, onions, garlic, herbs
Experienced gardeners should consider a more complex rotational program. A good description of this is found on pages 73-75 of The New Self-Sufficient Gardener: The Complete Illustrated Guide to Planning, Growing, Storing and Preserving Your Own Garden Produce. It operates on a four to five year model.
Year 1 – Manure the bed heavily. Sow potatoes, spring cabbage, leeks, turnips and rutabagas.
Year 2 – Sow peanuts to harvest in the fall (if you live in a southern growing zone). Plant peas and beans—since these are short crops, follow them with members of the cabbage family, which you transplant from trays started separately to save garden space.
Year 3 – Go to miscellaneous crops like tomatoes, greens and melons. Using an aged manure mulch, put in a cover crop after your harvest to fix nitrogen back in the soil. Austrian winter peas or soybeans (both found in your Liberty Seed Bank) are ideal crops for this purpose.
Year 4 – Plant root crops such as beets, turnips, rutabagas, carrots and sweet potatoes.
Year 5 – If you have the space, let the bed go fallow for a full year. Solarizing your soil (explained below) is also beneficial. Or plant a deep crop like comfrey or alfalfa, which will bring minerals up to the surface. At the end of the year, turn under the cover crop and you’ll have a ready supply of nitrogen. Start the cycle over again.
Okay, now for the rotational curve ball. You don’t want to plant members of the same “family” back-to-back in your rotations. Over the past few years we’ve reviewed at least 200 modern agriculture and gardening books with the goal of providing our customers the best information available to become food self-sufficient. We recently added a seventh book, How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine ($20 from http://www.TexasReady.net), which is great for experienced gardeners. It suggests a refinement to the rotational puzzle which you should consider. Pages 105-108 have a marvelous chart that covers this point in detail.
I’ll not bore you with the Latin names of the seed families, but avoid planting members of the categories listed below in the same beds in subsequent years. If you can stretch it to three or four years, so much the better.
Seed Family – Varieties
BEET – Beets, mangels, spinach, chard, orach, quinoa
GRASS – Corn, rice, barley, wheat, oats, rye, millet, sorghum
MINT – Mint, basil
MORNING GLORY – Sweet potatoes
NIGHTSHADE – Tomatoes, tobacco, eggplant, potatoes, peppers
ONION – Onions, garlic, leeks, chives
PARSLEY – Parsley, carrots, celery, parsnips, fennel, dill, cilantro
PEA – Peas, beans, cowpeas, lentils, garbanzos
SQUASH – Squash, cucumbers, gourds, melons, watermelons, pumpkins
SUNFLOWERS – Sunflowers, lettuce, endive, salsify, artichoke, cardoon, Jerusalem artichoke
Don’t get too worked up over this rotational business. It’s complicated—we know that. The good news is that if you compost a wide variety of plants, strict rotations are less important since your compost heap is full trace elements and minerals that will help to balance out your soil nutrition.
PREPARE YOUR BEDS
You can take the following steps now, even if your last frost date is a couple of months away.
1) If you haven’t already done so, clean up all your previous garden debris and cart it to the compost heap.
2) Take a forked tool (a rake won’t get deep enough) and lightly loosen the soil to a depth of four inches. If you see squirmy little worms or grubs, kill them. (Keep the earthworms, however!) If you have chickens, either give them the grubs as a treat or better yet, let them scratch around in your beds. They’ll become virtual “rototillers” with an attitude. I prefer this strategy because they’ll drop a little fertilizer in the beds as well!
3) Using soil from your compost pile, spread enough to bring the beds up to the top of your 6” side boards. Surprisingly, the dirt in your raised beds will be down about one-third from last year. You’ll want to add a little extra soil in the center of the beds so that there is a slight crown. This will allow for better drainage and give you a little more planting area.
4) Once everything is in place, lightly water in the top dressing. Repeat the watering process when you notice the beds are dry. Now that the hard work has been done, the fun can begin!
5) If you have 6 weeks or so before your frost date, get some heavy clear plastic sheeting. Put them over your beds, securing the sides with heavy objects like bricks or boards. You are now going to let the sun solarize your soil. This will heat the soil, killing some insects, fungi, viruses and weed seeds at the same time.
MAKE YOUR OWN POTTING SOIL
You’ll want to use a basic potting mix without a lot of built-in fertilizer. If there is too much nitrogen, the seedlings can get leggy and the stem and support structures won’t be able to support mature fruit.
I prefer to save money and make my own potting mix; this recipe from Rodale’s Institute for Organic Growing is a good one. (You’ll want to make sure that any chicken or horse manure has been aged at least a year—preferably two—and that your compost heap was heated to at least 140 degrees F for about two weeks so that the weed seeds will not germinate.)
4 parts fine compost from one year old shredded leaves & aged animal manure
1 part perlite
1 part vermiculite
2 parts peat moss
You’ll want to mix this outdoors in a wheelbarrow; lightly moistening the ingredients to keep the dust down. I like this mix because there is a good balance between moisture retention and good drainage. Without good drainage you will struggle with “damping-off” which is a fungal disease that causes newly germinated seedlings to weaken, topple over and die. I like using shredded leaf compost because you get a timed release of good nutrition, thus avoiding the necessity of fertilizing.
WHAT TO PLANT IN YOUR SPRING GARDEN
If you reside in growing zones 3-7, you can plant any of the varieties found in your kit, as you have a relatively short growing season.
Persons living in zone 8a can reasonably expect to get in two gardens per year, and those in zones 8b-10 can grow three crops. Try getting a quick crop of beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce and other greens, mustard, radishes and regular spinach in before it gets too hot. You’ll have to wait to plant Malabar spinach (not a true spinach anyway) as it is very cold sensitive. Start trays of peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, peanuts and squash indoors, or in your greenhouse.
To determine your growing zone, Google “USDA Plant Hardiness Zone” and your zip code, or call your county agricultural extension service or Master Gardener program. Bear in mind that the zone map changed dramatically in the USDA’s 2012 revision, so be sure to be sure.
Now get out there and turn some soil!
– The Seed Lady