Thursday, April 17, 2014
By TOM ATWELL
This is the weekend that gardening season traditionally begins in Maine. If you plant your peas by Patriots Day, the saying goes, you will have them for the Fourth of July.
Because I am old, a traditionalist and still expecting at least one deep freeze if not a full snowstorm, I am writing my garden-season-kickoff column for today, the traditional weekend.
In the real world, however, I started outdoor gardening before the Ides of March. Nancy and I cleaned out the perennial beds, raked the lawn, pruned the peach trees, took all the fallen branches to the dump (er, transfer station) and got ready for the season.
With all of that done, on March 31 we planted spinach, lettuce/mesclun and Swiss chard, quickly followed by carrots, radishes and five varieties of peas. The soil was warm enough and dry enough, so I figured I didn't have anything to lose.
I would welcome a gentle two-day rain at this point. I refuse to start watering the vegetable garden in April.
I was looking forward to this gardening season even before I knew that spring was going to arrive ridiculously early. I have more free time, and am hoping to make the vegetable gardens both neater and more productive -- picking the produce before it gets over-ripe. I am looking forward to more flowers and greener grass, mowed at the correct time.
The biggest project for the vegetable garden involves a new frame for the sugar snap peas. I complained last year about finally creating 8-foot fencing for the sugar snaps, which really want to grow that high, only to have the wind blow them over during a thunderstorm.
A reader sent me a description of a great frame he created using 10-foot-long, half-inch galvanized electrical conduit and various L-shaped and straight fittings, plus some three-quarter-inch T-shaped plumbing fittings. I went to Home Depot, and for about $27 bought all the required pieces for a 30-foot pea trellis.
Unfortunately, I left the printout of the email describing the structure at the register and can no longer find the original email in my computer, so I can't properly thank the person who gave me the instructions. But the frame is up -- sunk 2 feet into the ground, 8 feet tall, sugar snaps planted, 6-inch mesh netting ready to hang.
What I still haven't decided is whether I am going to make this frame a permanent installation in the vegetable garden or if I am going to take it down each fall and put it up in a different spot each spring so I can rotate crops.
I also haven't decided what I should do about succession planting. Since everything went in about two weeks early, should I plant everything again in a week or two, so we will have twice as many peas and carrots over a long period? Or should I assume that the early start will continue, and I should put in our warm-weather tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, beans and melons around May 10?
I probably will not test fate and put in warm-weather crops that early. Seed, for a garden as small as ours, is relatively cheap. Tomato and pepper seedlings are more expensive in time, effort and real cash.
The various seed companies have not caught on to our early spring, so I have not yet had delivery of seed potatoes, onion and leek seedlings, and the strawberry plants are on order. They could be planted now if we had them.
We are making another change in our vegetable growing this year. During the winter, we had a major renovation in one of our bathrooms, and the old ping-pong table we use for starting seedlings was occupied (it's a long and dull story). So for the first time in decades, we have not started our own seedlings of warm-weather crops.
I really care only about the tomatoes and peppers. I decided a few years ago that we have just as good luck direct-seeding squash, cucumbers and melons. But we will be buying our tomato and pepper seedlings at farmers markets or farm stands, and I am hoping we can find all the varieties we want. And if it all works out, we might do away with our seedling setup permanently.
We have also begun some renovations in our ornamental gardens. We had some switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) near a small garden pond in our backyard, and it was taking over. We dug that up and moved it to an area at the edge of our property where we had cleared out a bunch of invasive plants. The switchgrass is pretty aggressive and native, so it will be nice if it takes over that area.
So the garden season is off to a good start. But I am still worried. Two years ago, we had another very early spring. A lot of ornamental shrubs, strawberries and apples blossomed early.
And from May 10 to 12 that year, the state received a hard frost, causing a lot of damage to flowers and crops.
I am hoping that doesn't happen this year.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer who gardens in Cape Elizabeth, and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org