I’m sure there are a number of April Fool’s posts about the snow falling in New England right now. But I’m taking a different tack on April and a slow spring with this week’s column for the Addison Independent.
Slow Gardening: Spring Takes its Time, and So Does the Garden
As spring hems and haws and takes its own sweet time, Kate might be out there tapping maples, but I’m watching the snowdrops shivering alone and the migratory birds wondering if they’ve missed a few degrees of latitude. Everything and everybody look a bit stunned.
Nevertheless in theory the garden is ready to roll: the tunnels are up and warming the soil. The stalwart perennial herbs are showing themselves. I could transplant the hardiest seedlings out there, scratch some spinach, carrot and beet seeds into the dirt. But the tunnels remain empty except for the one that sheltered artichokes all winter in a grand experiment to see if they’d be fooled into behaving as the perennials they are everywhere but up north. (We’ll soon see if I’ve succeeded.)
It’s that cold.
Thanks to the basement nursery I’m okay with this slow start. Whenever the snow flies (again) or the biting northwest wind hurls itself at the house (again), I head downstairs to enter spring in full swing: six rows of vegetable and herb seedlings basking in the glow of grow-lights. Okay, so it’s artificial to turn the sun off and on. I’m Persephone in reverse, I suppose, descending into the earth instead of emerging from it to reach the growing season. Try it—there’s nothing quite like turning from the elements to the smell of warm soil, to the wonder of green emerging from where you dropped tiny seeds. Spring-in-a-basement does the weary-of-winter spirit some serious good.
The usual suspects grow happily under their artificial sun–lettuces, radicchio, onions, endive, cauliflower, calendula and company. I can count on them to do well under lights; I can also count on them to transition without incident to the tougher conditions outside–soon. They like the cool weather and moderate sun; most of them are easy to grow. But cool is different from well below freezing.
And the warm-weather, sun-loving types such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, melons, squash, basil and cukes? The ones I’m really craving? I’ve only just planted them in flats, so they’ll be ready for the big outdoors mid-May. In my experience, no matter how early or late spring arrives, there’s no use transplanting them outside any earlier. Every year that I’ve been tempted by warm April stretches of weather, they’ve sulked until it warms up for good, or they’ve done the unthinkable and like a country dog picking up spring ticks, they feed flea beetles and squash bugs coming out of winter quarters unless they’re tucked safely under a tunnel, under a specific tunnel next to specific neighbors. Some of these guys can be pretty headstrong.
Indeed, I study the habits of the garden residents—flora and fauna alike. I make sure plants go into the parts of the garden they prefer (sunny, shady, or a mix), away from where they were last year (I practice rotational planting to keep the soil healthy), interspersed with others they like (companion planting, never monoculture), keeping in mind who might shade whom, who spreads and drapes roots or leaves or fruits, who needs 100 days who 50, who attracts bugs and birds, who repels them. I know sage jumps out of any bed to grow by itself in the gravel path, basil loves tomatoes, lavender attracts bees to the squash, mint protects greens from marauding rabbits. It’s a bit like throwing a birthday party for a pack of five-year-olds.
And so I spend these cold evenings puzzling out the garden’s complex, interdependent ecosystem. But what about the wildcards—the newbies, the experiments (i.e. artichokes wintered over beneath a tunnel), the risks? Because I want to explore the world through my garden and kitchen, every year I bring in new characters and observe their response to the place, and the place’s response to them.
Last year it was fenugreek (ambrosia to the wild rabbits—this year it gets housed within a ring of mint) and cumin (disaster—spindly little seedlings came up and quickly died), epazote (a welcome addition—a Mexican soup herb I’ve never seen in our markets), favas (fantastic—I am quadrupling the number of plants of this delicious legume), za’atar, (also a winner–an oregano-mint-y type herb of the Middle East), tomatillos (happy here– grew right up into the cherry trees) and 16 kinds of hot peppers from much hotter places than here (remarkably successful—many strings of them hang from our rafters).
This year I’m trying out old-time Vermont elderberries and hazelnuts, additional heirloom apples and pears, cranberries, bush cherries, Sicilian squash, heirloom varieties of drying beans and tomatoes, and quinoa. Elderberry flowers and fruit make fabulous healing syrups and teas.
Hazelnuts are as good for the wildlife as for us—and who wouldn’t like to gather their own! Heirloom varieties foster a rich diversity of strains and keep alive the planting past. And quinoa, well that’s a long-shot for sure since it grows ordinarily at about 10,000 feet in Bolivia.
Do I retire old friends (i.e. cabbage) or expand the gardens and orchard to accommodate last year’s successes, this year’s trials? Do I plant quinoa near or away from corn? Will the heirloom varieties play nicely with their neighbors? Just how far will the squash plants meander, how high will the beanstalks reach? There’s a lot to consider. I’ve got to convince Bill to get out there and build a few more raised beds. And so take your time, Spring—I’ve got seedlings to care for and much to imagine before the garden bursts into full, healthy bloom.
Tips on Inter-planting Herbs, Flowers and Vegetables
My rule of thumb about inter-planting (a controversial subject among scientists, by the way) is that things that go well together in the kitchen generally go well together in the garden. Almost every gardening book covers the benefits of intensive gardening and inter-planting herbs and flowers with your vegetables.
Helpful online sites include:
And in case you missed Bill’s recipe for cheap and easy garden tunnels last fall, here’s the article.