Monday, March 23, 2009

Breaking New Ground

It was a wonderful thing to see First Lady Obama and some kids starting a vegetable garden at the White House. I can imagine her first garden journal entry…”Sure was fun starting the garden. Kids had fun. Need to get better gardening clothes… maybe some bib overalls and decent work boots. Also, sure wish I had access to this site last fall. I could have done something about that sod. Raking sod is no joke. That bald guy looking on and shaking his head got me wondering if that was the best way to go about preparing a new garden. I wonder why we didn’t start with raised beds. At least we sent off our soil test sample on January 2 and have our results back already. That Extension Service is a wonderful organization. I wonder if they have any ideas on this?"

The bald guy shaking his head was me and I was watching via newspaper pictures of the first lady doing battle with that sod. And I only hope someone told them about soil testing.

Personally, I’d have had the grounds keeper strip off that sod with a sod cutter and start the First White House Compost Heap with it. Maybe try a little lasagna-style prep (newspaper layers) on sod that will be planted later this year with warm season crops. I certainly would have lobbied for raised beds. Could have killed that sod right in place. When I toured the White House grounds some years ago I noted that the lawn was a well fertilized, tall fescue sod. It ain’t giving up without a fight. It was laughing at the rake. Oh well, I am sure Michelle is gagging on gardening advice by now.

I got to thinking about this right after I got a call asking me when the “first till” date was for Bucks County. You know, "when can I till the garden?" There is no “first till” date but what we talked about was waiting until the soil had dried enough that tillage would not make pottery out of the soil. Wet soil and tillage is a bad combination. Then we had the discussion about using a tiller on sod. Tough way to start. Reminded me of poor Ms Obama and that rake.

I have no doubt that the First Garden will be a success. Hard work will overcome novice mistakes…and teach many lessons. It will be an inspiration to many people and remind everyone involved what an interesting, rewarding and challenging thing it is to grow your own food.

Now on to the First Apiary…”Ms. Obama, I’d suggest three-pound package bees headed by Buckfast queens; ten frame, Longstreth hives with wax (not plastic) foundation. It’s a good idea to…”

Monday, March 16, 2009

Spring Fever

It doesn’t take much to get a gardener’s motors started. Just two consecutive days above 60 degrees usually does it. The forecast isn’t that good yet but my weatherman says that 7 of the next 10 days will have high temperatures in the 50’s. And it should be relatively dry. But it will be below freezing on several of those nights.

Time to plant the tomatoes? Not quite. Many of the things we grow in our gardens are tropical and will not tolerate cool temperatures, not to mention a freeze. In the vegetable world, we’d consider all of the vine crops (cucumbers, zukes, melons) to be most cold sensitive. Tomato, eggplant and pepper will tolerate a bit more cold stress but still prefer temps above 45 at a minimum. So, in Bucks County the vine crops go in about June 1 and the tomato/eggplant/pepper group in mid-May.

So, if you’re itching to plant something, what can you do? Start with hardy perennials. They don’t mind a freeze. All of the fruiting plants such as strawberry, brambles and fruit trees should be planted ASAP…as soon as the soil is fit to work. If you were thinking about planting trees and shrubs in the landscape, now if the time. No worries about cold temperatures here.

In the vegetable realm, think about leafy vegetable crops such as lettuce in a week or two. Onions and shallots can go in then, too. Root crops such as beets and carrots also tolerate early spring weather.

You can enhance the growth of early seeded crops and protect from wind and cold by using cold frames or floating row covers. In addition to cold protection these techniques increase daytime growing temperatures and accelerate growth.

In many areas the soil is still simply too wet to plant regardless of temperatures. Those of us with raised beds have an advantage since they dry out sooner than soil. Never try to work soil that is still saturated. You will destroy soil structure.

So, rake those garden beds, finish pruning fruit trees and shrubs, plant a tree or shrub, start a new compost pile, get a soil test and sharpen your hoe as we wait for planting season.

Pansies have appeared in the gardnen centers and are a great way to liven up a late winter/early spring landscape. They love the cold. Put them in a planter box with potting soil if native soil is too wet.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Spring has Sprung

Ok, officially, Spring arrives on March 20 this year but I have observed several things that tell me it is already here.

Silver Maple is in full bloom. This isn’t a very showy bloom but it means a lot to honeybees who are looking for their first sips of nectar and loads of pollen. Red maples were not far behind. You can easily see the swollen, red buds on this common tree. These species bloomed even before Cornus mas, the Cornelian Cherry Dogwood, which is an early bloomer. In fact, I saw a stunning specimen of this tree on the edge of Morris Arboretum yesterday. Blazing yellow. Just drive a few miles south to Philly if you want to get a preview of what is in store for us in the northern suburbs.

The first summer annual weeds have germinated, too. Prostrate knotweed, which is one of the first to emerge has taken advantage of the micro-climate along the stone pathway leading to our office and has sprouted. By contrast, the winter annual weeds, which began growth last fall, are already beginning to bloom. Purple deadnettle, common chickweed and bittercress are flowering in warm, sheltered areas. These species will form seeds later this spring and then naturally die. The seed that they drop will wait patiently until fall when the cycle begins again. Ain’t Nature wonderful?

I am not much of a bird watcher so I’ll leave it to others to announce the bird signs of spring. I did happen along a lovesick wild turkey last week… dancing in the middle of a rural road.