by Mark Adams of Mark Adams Greenhouses
Gardeners who can’t wait for spring to arrive have plenty of options. I always plant my vegetable garden too early (and put everything way too close together). Garlic that I planted last fall has sprouted, and the strawberries – a new variety called “Archer” that is supposed to rejuvenate the local strawberry market – are out from under their winter mulch and greening up. Last Saturday, the only halfway decent day since February 21, I spread a little granular fertilizer around the berries, garlic, and also the daffodils, to be dissolved into the soil by Monday’s rain. Now is a good time to feed small trees and shrubs. Toss a handful of Garden Plant Food or Holly-tone around the base of each azalea, lilac, or hydrangea to be washed in by the rain. If the days finally warm up this weekend, there’s lots you can do in the vegetable garden:
Tilling – After 25 years, I replaced my original Mantis tiller with a new one I bought online. It was shipped within a week and was easy to assemble. If the garden soil is a bit soggy, I spread a bale of peat moss over the surface, about an inch deep, and work it in. Compost, if it’s not too wet, can also be blended in now. When the soil is ready, I can plunge my hand in up to the wrist.
Cool weather vegetables from seed – Radishes, carrots, beets, peas, spinach and Swiss chard are easily started by sowing the seed directly into the garden now. I plant in rows so they’re easier to weed. Weeding carrots is a real chore, as the tiny plants are smaller than the weeds and don’t look much different. If the carrot seed is planted deep enough, the weeds will germinate a couple of days before the carrots and can be burned off with a propane torch. This is called “flame weeding” and is tricky but effective.
Radishes are always attacked by root maggots, which hatch from the eggs of a small fly that comes along in early May. To prevent this damage I cover the radish patch with a special fabric designed to let in light and water but keep out pests. It’s sold by Johnny’s Selected Seeds under the name Agribon. Install the Agribon right after the seed is sown, and keep it in place up until you can harvest the crop.
Beets are a garden staple because they can be harvested up until Thanksgiving (or later) if they’re mulched with straw in October to keep the ground from freezing. I’ve been growing an heirloom variety called “Bulls Blood.”
Transplants that will tolerate frost – Broccoli, kale, cabbage, and lettuce can be started from seed, but I prefer to use transplants. All the “brassicas,” or members of the cabbage family, will tolerate a light frost in late April and will grow in cool soil, except for cauliflower, which is more tender. Cover the cauliflower transplants with gallon milk jugs, with the tops and bottoms removed. It’s amazing how big these brassicas will grow with enough plant food, sun and rich soil. They really should be set three feet apart, but who has that kind of room? Not me! Use captain Jack’s Dead Bug Spray to get rid of the little green cabbage worms.
Onion sets or plants can also be put in now. How many recipes call for just one onion? It’s wonderful to have a supply at hand all summer. The same goes for parsley, which can be put into the garden now. Use started parsley plants – the seed is notoriously slow to germinate.
Ramps – Not exactly a garden vegetable, ramps are a perennial wild leek that grows all over the Hudson Valley. Lately, I’ve noticed that ramps are catching on as part of the local food scene, used in place of onions or garlic. The flavor is so strong that if you eat ramps, especially uncooked, be sure to stay away from your friends for a few days, unless they’re sharing the feast. I’ve seen ramps growing along the stream banks during April trout fishing forays. They look a bit like lily-of-the-valley, with foliage broader than wild onions, and underground bulbs. As the season progresses, the leaves wither away and the ramps are obscured by other forest vegetation. I guess it’s okay to harvest ramps for personal consumption. For a real sustainable ramps patch, order bulbs, roots or seeds online and plant in a damp shady area with rich soil.