Sunday, May 11, 2014

Can I get planting? - By Harrison Wood, master gardener

Sure you can, if you remember a few rules. To begin with we need to look at things with new eyes. It may require a little neighborhood walk, but it will be worth it. The first clues that winter is finally over and spring is finally here to stay is the abundance of pond animals finally making their appearance. Not only are the spring peepers singing early every evening, but the painted turtles and the snapping turtles have all come out of their mud bottom winter hideouts to lie in the sun while making their way to nesting sites.
Sign two of spring: People fishing along the river banks. Nearly every hole and stream flowing out of the Sebago will have someone either standing along the bank or wading in for a cast just waiting after all the planning, which line, which fly, or which lure.

It's not that much different with vegetable gardening. The garden has been planned, the catalogs have been used, the seed packs are at the ready, and contrary to belief even with the cool temperatures not everything in the vegetable garden has to wait until Memorial Day.

For those of you who like to start your own peppers and tomatoes, they should already be well underway, quickly approaching the hardening off stage each day where you place them outside in a coldframe exposed to full sunlight. Doing so allows the plants to acclimate to the cooler temperatures, while protecting them at night from the frosts.

And this brings us to our third point. Once the soil has begun to dry out a bit and warm you will quickly learn that not everything is bothered by a morning frost. Some vegetables in fact welcome the cool weather in order to get established well before the arrival of the summer heat.

Those things that can go in now, include lettuces, beets, spring radishes and of course, sweet-tasting shallots. If you like onions you'll like the easy to grow shallots even better. What you will need is a garden area in full sun that drains well with a near neutral PH between 6 and 7.

This is where the old phrase “feed the soil, feed the plant” truly comes into bearing.

The first step for most Mainers is to raise the soil acidity by applying lime, which at this time of the year should be a faster acting pelletized lime. To keep the soil alive and active the next step requires working in an addition of a rich local compost. Two to three inches would be perfect. A formula to remember is that one yard of compost two inches deep will cover approximately 200 square feet.

A good fertilizer, preferably organic, a 5-10-5 or a 10-10-10 mix should be worked into the soil as well. We all know that the middle number represents the amount of phosphorus that is primarily used by vegetables to establish a quick root system. The disadvantage is that excessive use of phosphorus causes excessive algae bloom in our lakes and streams, leading to the death of fish. Once used the first year you shouldn't need to replenish it for many years.  If you want to skip it all together go ahead, you'll pick up an ample amount in the compost. Once the natural bacteria and fungi break down the compost the hidden nutrients will soon be available for all to use. Feed the soil. Feed the plants.  

Once everything is worked in and raked the next step is to begin planting. With shallots it means separating the individual sets and planting each set root end down 1-inch deep and 4 to 6 inches apart in rows staged out 12 to 14 inches apart. Once planted the top of the sets should be level with the soil surface.

With the shallots done the next things include the all season carrots, beets, radishes, lettuces, especially the loose leaf lettuces, all of them can be seeded in now. For the carrots seed them in a row with the seeds about two inches apart. A bit close some may say and they would be right until mid-summer comes and you find yourself thinning them. These small delicate carrots will add a special taste to any soup or salad. Loose leaf lettuces will also be planted close with the seeds about an inch apart. Unlike the carrots which can be planted as an entire row at once, when it comes to the leaf lettuces do about three feet at a time and then wait seven to ten days and repeat the seeding. About the time you find yourself ready to do a fourth seeding the first seeding will be ready to cut and enjoy. At the same time you seed in your leaf lettuces go ahead and do your first planting of spring radishes, placing a seed about every two or three inches. Just like the lettuce do two or three feet and wait about ten days before you seed any more. In this way you will always have a succession of tender tasty radishes to add to your salad.

Like carrots, the beets are an all season investment. I have a tendency to seed heavily so that as I thin out the small seedlings they can also be added to the said mix. Depending on variety the final spacing should be three to four inches apart.  

Don't worry about frost, it won't hurt, we want all of them with the exception of the carrots and beets done by the time hot weather arrives. With the arrival of the hot weather, the shallots will have developed bunches that begin to have browning leaves. Once the chive like leaves start to wither, dig the clumps and dry them outside out of hot sunlight. Don't be surprised to get ten pounds of long lasting shallots for every pound you planted. To keep the enjoyment coming, the loose leaf lettuces and the radishes can be repeated once the heat of the summer is over in the cool of the fall. The watermelon and radishes are especially rewarding in the cool of the fall.

So you can see that if you hurry to prepare the plot now you can get some things in now allowing you to begin enjoying a bountiful salad in just over thirty days. Go ahead and begin.

On Saturday May 24, Harrison Wood, garden writer and author, will once again assist at the Windham Historical Society plant sale. Everyone is encouraged to come by and learn while picking up a few plant goodies for the garden.

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