It has been a tricky start to Spring, hasn’t it? Five inches of snow fell here on the vernal equinox, just in time for our workshop and volunteer work session on Getting Started in the Garden. I was prepared for this with a list of tasks that can be done under cover as well as a few out in the garden and compost areas in our Working Backyard demonstration area at the Armstrong Preserve and Education Center.
Our first task was to clear the hoop house and compost bins of snow so that we could work in them. Five hardy student volunteers from Pleasantville High School assisted in preparing these areas for workshop participants and then listened in to hear how their work contributes to our mission and programming at PRLC.
They were astounded to learn that the dark brown compost in our seed starting mixture was harvested in fall from the same bins now in need of mixing. They took turns forking in a winter’s worth of kitchen scraps and chicken coop bedding. In a separate bin, they stirred leaves that are breaking down slowly into a nice weed-free seed-starting medium. Here they are petting our rabbit, who produces a rich fertilizer for the compost.
Speaking of seeds, we have experimented with a number of starting mixes, which are intended to provide optimal conditions for germination but not necessarily for growing. Mixes that lack compost will not support growing seedlings, so the gardener must either carefully add nutrients or transplant to containers with soil right away. Our philosophy is to mimic natural ecological processes as much as possible, so I sacrifice some seed and plant in a mixture that contains 15-20% compost.
We also try to use what we have on hand: this year, a large brick of coir, or coconut husk fiber, which is commonly used in greenhouses for tropical plants. It breaks apart like peat moss and both absorbs and releases water in the same way. I either scatter seed across filled trays or place them individually in plastic cells. Seeds planted now do better in plastic, but closer to May, I will use cardboard egg cartons that have been soaked and prepped with drainage holes.
The first seeds I plant under lights are celery, leeks, and onion. Next, started in mid-March, are the Mediterranean vegetables like eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. They need the extra time in order to yield mature fruit by late summer. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and kale produce will better harvests when started early, say at the end of March. Most other vegetables can be planted directly as seed in the garden.
Outdoors in the (unheated) hoop house, we re-seeded lettuces, kales, and spinach over and around the surviving fall plantings of spring onion, carrots, and parsnips. Feel free to plant the following outdoors now: peas, arugula, spinach, and maybe even cabbage, onion sets, mustard, and turnips. Wait a few weeks to plant beets, carrots, chard, and radishes, as they struggle against insects in cool weather.
See my prior blog posts on garden planning and getting a jump start on spring for more information on seed starting and use a cold frame or hoop house to extend the gardening season. You can contact me for a tour of the garden and working backyard landscape at Armstrong, and please share your knowledge and your questions at our May 30 workshop on planting and productivity. Happy spring!