Goodbye ice, goodbye snow. Goodbye frozen fingers, see you later frozen toes. Hello, wee bit of daylight after dinnertime. Nice to have you back sunshine. Although February frequently teased us with glimpses of spring, March is the real deal.
When the Equinox arrives on the 20th, it will officially be spring. But let’s not wait around, season knows no calendar, and we wouldn’t be gardening like a true boss if we weren’t ahead of the game. So, as soon as can see your soil, then it’s time to play.
Too often, spring gets overlooked in anticipation of summer. Garden planting often revolves around tomatoes. Don’t get me wrong, I love those luscious fruits, and I have a salsa habit that has most people who know me quite concerned. However, what often happens is the gardener waits with patience and lust, eyes on the calendar for that magic “last frost date,” then, in early May, POW!!! The garden is planted in a furious weekend, the entire plot covered in tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, as mulch and manure and seedlings fly through the air. Then, in all its glory, the garden…doesn’t do much at all. Sure, if done right, the plants grow vigorously, but it is often months before they yield any food and once they do, the abundance is often overwhelming! I call this the boom and bust cycle, and I’m here to show you there’s a better way.
If we observe how nature does it, we can see that multiple successions of plants grow throughout the year, each player keyed into the subtleties of season. In an elaborate dance, one plant often creates the conditions for the next contestant to thrive, and wave after wave of plants follow. Ecosystems want to evolve and flourish and if we harness that natural tendency inherent in plant communities then we soon find ourselves harvesting greater volumes of food, of a higher quality, out of the same-sized space.
As soon as the snow melts from soil (and often before it’s even completely gone), our first wave of cool weather plants begin to emerge. As soon as you can see your garden soil, you can begin to plant peas. If you can poke them into the soil, then the soil is ready! All manner of leafy greens thrive in spring, in fact you can have multiple harvests of lettuce, arugula and spinach long before you even think about plugging in your tomato starts. Getting going now gets you a full 10 weeks of additional growing time. Bonus: When the time comes, you can interplant all of your existing cool weather crops with your tomatoes, peppers and other warm weather crops and enjoy steady harvests as you wait for the heat loving veggies to grow. Learning to harness the cool weather of spring will have you well positioned to master fall, in which case you will have another full eight-plus weeks of harvest after your tomatoes have succumbed to frost.
The secret to harvesting a tremendous amount of food from a small urban garden is as simple as utilizing space, and time, wisely. A summer-focused garden only grows from last frost date to first frost date, roughly five months long. A garden that harnesses the shoulder seasons can easily run nine months, doubling yields from the same amount of space (and with season extension techniques it’s quite realistic to harvest right through the winter. Take that, imported food trucked in from far-off farms).
We don’t want to eat all of our food from the garden at once, so why should we plant it all at once? With whole harvest crops, like head lettuces, radishes or beets, the goal is to have a steady supply. My family will eat two to three heads of lettuce a week. So, ta-da! I plant two to three heads a week, every week. Better yet, plant six so you have some to share. I know from experience my neighbors let me play music louder and later if I keep them well fed. Just saying…
Now, for those of you looking to maximize your space even further, let’s take it up yet another notch. One can easily double the amount of garden space available by using starts. It’s common for a gardener to start tomatoes and peppers in plugs and trays, but how many of you are starting lettuce, chard, kale, or bok choi indoors?
Let me explain using the example of a butterhead lettuce. On average, our plant will reach a succulent mature size in roughly 60 days. If I start my seed indoors, it can spend 30 days in my soil block (my preferred planting method, although plugs or tiny pots work just fine). Then, when I transplant it outside at 30 days old, it only needs 30 days in the garden before it’s ready to harvest. You can run the math, or you can trust me, but a plant that spends half as much time occupying space in the garden in essence doubles the amount of space you have available! As a plant start, it occupies less than two square inches, whereas in the garden it requires 64 square inches. This is one of the most effective secrets of intensive vegetable production in small spaces. At Salacia Farm in Lehi, we start hundreds of plants a week, every week, almost every week of the year.
Once you are in the habit of starting plants indoors, next season you can get going on your spring garden in late January or early February, and this time next year you’ll have a full complement of cool weather crops that are already four weeks old by the first of March, ready to thrive in that cool spring air.
Speaking of starts, early March is the prime time to get your warm weather plants started. For tips and tricks on seed starting, visit my column on the subject from last spring. http://bit.ly/1HXC7AP
James Loomis is a professional grower and consultant, specializing in Regenerative Agriculture. He teaches monthly classes in Salt Lake City, and is also available for private consultations. For class schedules and info, visit facebook/beyond.organicJL.