03 April, 2013


March. Baseball teams are in Spring Training in Florida and Arizona. Tomatoes are growing in a protected location with 'bottom heat' so they can be set out in the garden close to the end of April.

We've all heard the old saying about March coming in like a lamb and going out like a lion, or is it coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb? Whatever the exact saying, it correctly alludes to March as one of the more schizophrenic of our months; certainly true as far as gardening goes. On one hand, we are still tending our winter vegetables, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce, while on the other we need to be planning and planting what we will soon be eating in summer.

Those of us on the coast can continue to plant more winter vegetables if we haven't had our fill of all those cabbage-family plants. I usually find I can grow almost all the winter vegetables right on into late May in most years. Some of the winter veggies will 'oversummer' for us; leeks, fennel, chard and kale will hold on in most summers although they can look downright ratty once our June Gloom has left us. Even lettuce, if we don't have those hot and dry Santa Ana winds scorching through here too much. Even if you have lettuce that doesn't bolt (run to seed), you will find very bitter if it gets too much heat.

Royal Purple Pod beans can be planted even in February, and certainly by mid-March, I'll have a row growing. This is the only bean that will germinate in cold, wet soil and they are worth growing even when you can plant the more traditional 'green' green beans. I have had good production from my Royal Purple Pod beans even when snails have completely defoliated the plants. They taste great and turn a deep green at the exact second they are perfectly al dente, which is the way I like them. All other beans, in most years, will need to be planted no sooner than late March or early April because of their need for warmer soil.

You can buy tomato starts in March, but I wouldn't want to plant them out until later in the month. Tomatoes will survive cool soil, but they will only thrive in warmer soil. If you want to grow tomatoes from seed, I usually sow mine in February. I start them in a location sheltered from insects, but still in direct sun – I use a grow mat that warms the soil to about 70° so the tomatoes get off to a good start – I sow basil the same way at the same time. Other summer crops I start in pots to be transplanted later, including peppers, eggplants and okra, need more heat so I don't even mess with those until after mid-March. They will be ready to plant out into the garden come the first of May (allow about 6 weeks to get them up, up and away).

I'm awfully fond of lettuce. One of my Summer rituals is making a big production out of the First BLT of the Year with the L and the T coming from my garden – if I'm lucky I'll have also baked the bread myself too. The hard part is getting the L and the T to cooperate with the vagaries of weather. Tomatoes love heat and to really fruit they need temperatures above 84° while most lettuce is positively allergic to temperatures above 75°. There are some varieties of lettuce bred to be less heat sensitive – Jericho and Summertime are the two I'm most familiar with – look for them in seed catalogs and try planting lettuce plants on the north side of taller plants to give them more shade.

In a fit of fanaticism, I once grew lettuce year round. I created a bed just for lettuce. I stapled a copper snail barrier to keep those salad lovers out to my wood box, and set up a series of little misters to spray the plants twice a day with a cooling mist. But the most significant feature was an old window screen (frame and all), resting over the plants on four 18” wooden stakes (easily purchased at a local garden supply store). The screen proved to be the most effective part of the whole operation. I was able to grow lettuce thru the brutal Californian summer right on into the middle of October, when a heat wave and an irrigation failure contrived together to completely fry the remaining plants. Fried lettuce has about the same appeal as month old sushi. If you want lettuce all summer you might give this – or some variation – a spin in your garden.

March is a month filled with activity – daylight savings time now starts at the end of the second week and boy do gardeners need that extra hour! Look at what you have in the ground and begin to imagine full size tomato, pepper, eggplant and basil plants growing there. Try to contain yourself and get a reasonable view of what you really can plant. Check out the suggested planting spaces on the plants you want; measure to see how many you can reasonably accommodate. No, don't multiply by four! (We all do it anyway, don't we?)

Now that we've gotten ourselves into the garden and have a few things growing, I want you to begin to think about your soil. Here's a lovely little exercise that will tell you more about your garden soil: Dig into a place in your garden, going down about nine inches. Try to get below any mulch and get into the area where the roots will live. Get approximately a cup's worth of soil and put it in a pint container. Add a tablespoon of alum, you can find a lifetime supply in the spice section of any supermarket. Fill to within ½ inch of the top with water, cover tightly and shake vigorously. Allow this to stand for at least an hour, but 24 hours is better. Now observe what you have in your jar.

Observe carefully without disturbing the water too much. You will see that the soil has self-sorted into layers. The bottom layer is sand. The middle layer is called silt or loam and on top there is a layer of clay. The water should be clear, any floating debris in the water is mulch or compost material called organic matter.

The thickness of the separate layers define your soil. If sand is the predominate layer, your soil is sandy and will not hold water or nutrients. If clay is the thick layer, you will need a large dose of patience because your soil is hard to work, but is more fertile than the sandy soil. If your middle layer is the fat one, your soil is the dream of every gardener around you and you should play the lottery more often because you are blessed with good fortune! Most of us, though will experience the two dominant layers operating together to create our own unique set of opportunities and problems.

Every characteristic of clay soil is the opposite of a sandy soil. Silt is the 'silent majority' of the soil community. We all want silty soil. Few of us have it.

Looking at this chart, you can see if you have a sandy soil, you will need to water more than a neighbor with a clay soil; like wise you will have to consider more nutrients because your soil won't store them. You will be able to plant earlier in the spring because your soil will be warmer than a clay soil, but you'll need to add a lot more organic matter more frequently. It isn't good or bad, it's just different.

Characteristics of Soil Components

Water holding
Medium +
Drainage rate
Slow/Very slow
Soil organic matter
Medium +
Decomposition of organic matter
Speed of warming
Storage of nutrients
Resistance to pH change

Sandy soil will more readily forgive mistakes of too much fertilizer, too much water and too much of psychosis because it holds nothing for any length of time. Not even a grudge.

A clay soil is higher in nutrients for plants and takes less water to get a crop. But screw up with clay soil and it very much does hold a grudge for a lot longer. If you even walk on clay soil when it is wet, you can create clods that will haunt you as you try to plant later in the year.

Neither, though is ideal. Silt, in the middle, is what gardeners dream about. A soil that is neither too much clay and is therefore easier to work nor too sandy that holds no nutrients for the garden crop.

If you have too much sand or too much clay, take heart, I have a solution in two words:

organic matter

Organic matter is any material that used to be a plant. Technically, it is anything that used to be living, but I would rather you skip disposing your victims' bodies until you get to be a much better gardener. Stick to plant material for now.

Yes, compost is one of the organic materials you can add to your soil, but it's not all. Anything that used to be a plant is fine. My preference is for slightly unfinished compost. And I'm glad you asked why, because I am dying to explain it.

Finished compost is delicious. I love the stuff – but UNfinished compost has chunks in it that you can identify what it used to be – it hasn't quite broken down completely. This material still needs critters of all sizes to finish into a dark unidentifiable compost. Those critters are the key to soil fertility. They are multi-celled animals like earthworms or they are fungi or bacteria or critters that are a little of both, 'actinomycetes.' Penicillin is one of the actinomycetes – and that smell of good garden soil that smells musty and sweet? That smell is the smell of actinomycetes. We want to have all these creatures in the soil because the plants derive real nutrition from them as they decompose. This is the stuff that past generations have ignored and so tried to add fertility with various fertilizers. It only works for a little while.

I don't have any scientific proof, but I do know from many years of gardening, we are being asked to buy a lot more stuff than we need. You will get big beautiful tomatoes if you use all those expensive fertilizers, but it's not a sustainable model and you'll get good tomatoes without the expenditures and save money. If you use fertilizers, I think the fertilizers either kill off the actinomycetes and fungi in the soil, or make your garden a very inhospitable environment for them. I'm not sure which it is, but I am sure that the addition of fertilizer in the long term ruins the fertility of your soil. And I believe this is true about chemical and organic fertilizers alike, although, organic fertilizers tend to be milder and therefore less harmful than the chemical ones.

A few fertilizers, though are the exception. I have used, and if I need to, I will use again, including alfalfa meal and cottonseed meal. Alfalfa meal has nitrogen, but is noted for inspiring rather than hindering microbial activity in the soil. I have used it in the beginning of the summer garden as the soil begins to warm. I used to use it every spring, but I've gotten lazy and now only use it on occasion.

Cottonseed meal is a provider of nitrogen and somehow seems to release the nitrogen over a long period of time, unlike most fertilizers that have a very short beneficial effect. If you elect to use cottonseed meal, go out of your way to find organic cottonseed meal – the commercial cotton crops are doused with unending amounts of chemicals, and many of the commercial fields are planted with genetically modified cotton these days. I haven't used cottonseed meal for about 6 years, although if I was putting corn, as the only example I can come up with, into a soil with marginal fertility, I would not hesitate to use it.

Look at the list below. If you haven't yet, get orders off to the seed companies to get your seeds for the summer. Get cracking now and you'll reap huge rewards this summer!

Warm Season Vegetables
Lettuce Leaf, Genovese,
Beans - drying
Black Turtle, Cannellini, Hutterite Soup, Jacob's Cattle
Beans – Lima
Beans- snap
Roc d’Or, Romano, Royal Burgundy, Romano, Blue Lake
Sweet Corn
Golden Bantam, Stowells Evergreen, County Gentleman
Lemon, Mideast Prolific, Japanese, Armenian
Pingtung Long, Rosa Bianca
Jenny Lind, Ambrosia, Hales Best, Golden Midget
Star of David, Clemson Spineless, Red Burgundy
Peppers (Sweet)
Banana, Pimento, Cubanelle, Marconi,
Peppers (Hot)
Ancho, Corno di Toro, Anaheim, Jalapeno
Small Sugar, Howden
Squash (Summer)
Zahra, Lebanese White, Black Beauty, Yellow Crookneck
Squash (Winter)
Sweet Dumpling, Red Kuri, Queensland Blue, Musquee de Provence
Purple de Milpa
Black from Tula, Juane Flamme, San Marzano, Black Krim, Stupice and millions of others!

You have to allow that I am not a fan of okra or eggplant. My choices are influenced from those around me that consider these plants more than just ornamental. I will tell you, few plants are rivaled for beauty in the garden; but that doesn't mean I'm going to eat them!

Start These In Containers
Start These In The Ground
Move to the Ground from Containers
More tomatoes
Still some of the
Ultra-early tomatoes
Winter veggies
Lettuce, cilantro,
Beets, radishes, lettuce, cilantro
Any perennial herb (marjoram, oregano, etc)
Summer squash
Purple beans (early)

Winter squash (late in the month)
Green beans (later)

Refer to the text for exact dates.

Beets In Orange Juice

By now you should have the beginnings of a beet harvest – and if you've followed my lead and put in some Golden beets, these sweet treats from the garden can be treated nicely this way. Other beets will stand in readily, but the golden beets in the juice is exquisite.

With the beets sliced into thick slices, I parboil them to the point their skins will slip off easily, and they are just beginning to be soft enough to eat. They usually have to cool quite a bit, but once you can handle them, slip the skins off and compost.

Put the beet slices in a skillet with orange juice. Add a little cinnamon or other spice you think will compliment the beets and saute until tender.

Serve as a side dish to a simple, earthy meal. They are fantastic.


No comments:

Post a Comment