Timing is everything. It is true in sports, cooking, publishing, buying and selling stock, and proposing marriage.

It is also true of gardening, which depends on nature. The year progresses from frozen hibernation to warmth and lushness.

While the calendar provides a guide on when certain seeds and seedlings should be planted, it is only a guide. The real test is temperature and the condition of the soil. If the soil is dry enough to fall apart easily when squeezed to make a ball, it is ready for the planting of early crops – as long as the forecast doesn’t include unusually cold temperatures.

New gardeners can use the mud-ball method as a guide. But talk to any neighbors who have gardens, too. Their on-site experience will be more specific for your location.

I have already finished some of the chores I list in this column for April. One, planting lettuce in a cold frame, I did in mid-March. But I was bored and anxious. You can do the April chores anytime during the month – even later in some cases – and still harvest healthy, tasty crops. Barring late snow, some of my peas will have been planted by today.

I recommend fertilizing for most vegetables. I use Pro-Gro 5-3-4, from North Country Organics in Vermont. Plenty of other balanced fertilizers work, too. But I like the idea of organic fertilizer that is made in our region.

Dave Stevenson hoes asparagus in a family plot in Wayne in 2016. You can’t harvest asparagus for three years, but after that, you’ll be eating them every summer for a decade. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Early April: Peas, spinach and asparagus

Patriots’ Day is the traditional start of the Maine gardening season. This year, the Maine/Massachusetts holiday happens to come on April 19, which marks the actual date of the 1775 battle of Lexington and Concord. Since 1969, the holiday has been celebrated, for convenience’s sake, on the third Monday in April.

When I was a kid, I remember my uncle saying that you needed to plant your peas on Patriots Day to make sure you could eat them on the Fourth of July. That was in Farmington, so in southern, coastal Maine – especially with this year’s mild spring  – if your peas are already in the ground, they’ll do fine. Maine is a big state. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, before scientists noticed climate change, people were planting peas on April 19 in Farmington. Given that, peas could go in the ground April 9 or earlier in York but probably not until around May 1 in Millinocket and Madawaska.

Peas, spinach and the other early-planted vegetables aren’t bothered by the cold. If the temperature dips to 20 degrees or lower, the seeds and sprouts will stay viable.

People whose gardens have a lot of clay should plant later, because the clay soil holds moisture, while people with gardens with sandy loam can plant earlier. Keep in mind that peas are a vine so they like to climb. Seed companies describe some as bush varieties, but actually they’re merely shorter vines. Decades ago, I bought rolls of metal wire fencing, and still use the ones that haven’t rusted away, stapling them onto tall stakes. For something simpler, try nylon or cotton netting hitched to metal or plastic stakes.

Seed packets say to plant pea seed one inch deep and one to two inches apart in rows that 18 to 36 inches apart, with wider row spacing for taller vines. I’ve always planted more thickly than that, following the recommendations of Jim Crockett, the original host of Public Television’s Victory Garden. I do so because that gives me more peas in less space. Try either method, make notes in your garden journal or the big calendar in your kitchen about how things went, and adjust your method next year if you find you need to.

I grow both edible-pod and shelling peas, and there are hundreds of varieties. Read the descriptions and pick ones that appeal to you.

I never fertilize peas because they are nitrogen-fixing plants. Some years, I’ve added nitrogen-fixing rhizomes (an inoculant, or something that adds desirable bacteria to soil, and is said to boost the nitrogen-fixing properties of peas), but haven’t noticed that they helped much.

Another annual vegetable planted at this time is spinach, which bolts (goes to seed) when temperatures get warm. If you want to eat mature spinach, plant seed a half an inch deep and six inches apart. If you prefer to eat baby spinach, make a shallow trench about an inch wide and plant about 50 seeds per foot. Wait five or six weeks, then harvest.

One other vegetable to plant in very early April is asparagus, my favorite. The drawback is that you won’t be able to harvest any for three years. The advantage is that you won’t have to replant for a decade or two. Many local nurseries have asparagus crowns for sale. It is probably too late to order by mail this year, but if you can find some and plant by mid-May, you should be OK.

Prepare the asparagus bed before you have the crowns. Dig the soil at least a foot or as much as two feet deep, leaving the soil on the side. When we first planted our asparagus, I went to a dairy farm and got a pickup-truck load of composted manure, but it is probably more practical now to buy a rich compost in bags. Create six-inch mounds of compost about a foot apart at the bottom of the trench. Spread the roots of the crowns over the mounds, and just barely cover with topsoil. As the shoots sprout, cover them with soil until the trench is filled. Don’t cut any shoots this year and cut only one per plant next year.

This is also a good time to plant ornamentals: trees, shrubs and perennial flowers, purchased from nurseries or traded with friends. They survived the winter, though many are still dormant, and come back to life when temperatures warm and daylight increases. Just water heavily after you plant and add compost to the soil when you fill around your new plant.

Selection is generally best in spring, and planting early gives the plants time to spread their roots before next winter.

Plant radishes in late April, and this could be even later in the season. Osman Hassan and Habibo Salad harvest radishes at Whiting Farm in Auburn in late summer, 2020, as part of the Somali Bantu Community Association’s Liberation Farms community farming project. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Late April

Lettuce, beets, carrots, radishes, turnip and Swiss chard are among the vegetables that can be planted unprotected as seeds in late April.

Plant all of them in about the same way: Loosen the soil using a hoe or iron rake, remove about a half an inch of the soil, put down the seed, keeping them about an inch apart, just barely cover with soil and then water heavily.

Early in my vegetable gardening career, I planted in rows, usually about 18 inches apart, which gave us room to walk between the rows. I’ve come to learn that arrangement is an inefficient use of space. For the past few decades, I’ve adapted the method of square-foot gardeners. Instead of a single narrow row, I loosen soil in a row that runs about a foot wide and the whole length of the garden, 50 feet or so in my case. I plant the seeds about an inch apart from each other all along that foot-wide row. This method lets you plant a dozen seeds in not much more space than used for a single-seed row.

The carrots, however, I grow in the cold frame (basically a box — with a clear plastic or glass top and sometimes clear sides, as well — that acts like a tiny greenhouse) that I have moved from the now well-sprouted lettuce. I remove the plastic from the top, leaving just the screen. In our yard, something eats the baby carrots, so they need protection.

Potatoes are a signature crop for Maine. They take some physical work but no particular skill. Dig a trench four to six inches deep, piling the removed soil neatly beside the trench. Cut your seed potatoes so there are two eyes per piece, and cover them. Just as you did with the asparagus, cover the pieces as soon as the sprouts show above the soil. Keep it up until there is a hill of about six inches where the potatoes are growing.

The key to enjoying home-grown potatoes is to grow something instead of, or in addition to, the standard Kennebec and Yukon Gold, which you can easily buy at the supermarket or at farmers markets. Grow fingerlings, as well as potatoes that are red, blue and purple.

Early May

Be forewarned: Onion seedlings are labor intensive, at least in the manner I have developed.

Early on as a gardener, I planted dry onion sets (small onions that plant dealers have kept dry and dormant from the previous year) in regular rows, and was rewarded with onions that were at most an inch in diameter. I felt like a failure when farm stands and gardening friends produced onions the size of a baby’s head (OK, maybe only as big as a cat’s head). A friend suggested I try onion seedlings. He recommended Dixondale Farms in Texas. I tried them and they worked well, but now I like to buy locally so recommend the three Maine standbys – Johnny’s, Fedco and Pinetree – which all carry onion seedlings.

Using seedlings helped, but I didn’t get big onions until I started using landscape fabric. Onions like warm soil and hate pressure from weeds. The black landscape fabric (or black plastic mulch) helps with both. The landscape fabric – which I store over the winter – is about two feet wide, and I have cut holes in it about six inches apart, where I put in the plants. I use wire pins (you can buy the pins or cut up wire coat hangers and bend the pieces into a U-shape) to hold down the fabric. The fabric keeps the plants weed-free yet lets water reach the onion roots.

I plant sweet onions, which don’t store well but can get huge; keeping onions, which are smaller but can be stored until early March the following year; and leeks. I fertilize when I plant and about once a month after that.

Future

This is enough to keep you busy for the next few weeks. Look for my May 23 column, when I’ll tell you about warmer-weather crops. I’m looking forward to applying sunscreen and wearing short-sleeved shirts by then.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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