NO DISRESPECT TO anybody who really loves the winter holiday season, but for most gardeners, spring is actually “the most wonderful time of the year.” Here in the Northwest, spring starts early. March is the de facto launch of each year’s vegetable garden season. Of course, with proper planning, you can have crops in the ground year-round. However, outdoor planting is pretty much off-limits between November and March, so the new cycle begins now. Here at the precipice of a long and fruitful season, I thought it would be nice to review some tips for successful early-season plantings.
Choose crops you’re excited to grow. This might seem obvious, but it can be easy to pick up plants or seeds in the early spring that don’t really fit with your taste preferences. Overly eager gardeners have been known to convince themselves to plant half a bed of endive just because they saw them at the nursery. Don’t get me wrong, I love experimenting with new crops and I love endive. But a moment of honest reflection will help save room for the crops I love best, and will lead to a more successful garden. It’s tempting to fill up your beds with crops as quickly as possible, but the June version of yourself will thank you if you practice restraint in March. This leads to my next tip.
Try not to overplant. The beginning of the season can be a heady time and it’s almost inevitable that you’ll plant too much of your spring crops. I know I am not the only gardener who has planted two dozen heads of romaine lettuce on a Saturday morning with the thought, “Well the space is empty, and I’m going to eat a lot of salads this year.” Hopefully both of these things are true. However, overplanting the early season crops can make it difficult to get later spring and early summer plantings in on time. It can also be difficult to harvest and consume 24 heads of lettuce at the same time. If you end up in this situation, please harvest and share the bounty, we all know the world needs more lettuce. In most cases, these extra lettuces will simply bolt, take up space, and consume valuable nutrients from the soil. There is also the issue that many gardeners just have a hard time pulling out crops, even when they know that they should. This brings me to my next tip.
Remove struggling crops as soon as you can. Gardeners are nurturing by nature, but it’s important to know when to throw in the towel. Many crops, once stressed, are not likely to be saved. Spring arugula or bok choy that is stunted, yellowing and bolted will never recover and produce a healthy crop. Rather than leaving these crops in the ground, pull them out, loosen the soil, add a bit more organic compost and fertilizer, and plant a new crop. Our long, cool springs are great for second and third chances in the garden. I would love for every crop I plant in the garden to grow successfully to maturity, but I expect at least 20% to 30% of my plantings to fail. If you catch an unhealthy planting early enough, there is usually time to plant the same crop again and still get a harvest this season. If you are concerned that it is too late to try again, move on to another crop and be proud of your flexibility and resilience. Talking about unhealthy plants leads to my next tip.
Make sure your plants are getting enough water. It might seem unnecessary to think about irrigation during the spring. However, for a young and sensitive seedling, hydration is more about consistency than quantity. Breaks in the weather are a serious risk to direct-seeded crops. Because most plants are seeded very close to the surface of the soil, they can dry out in just a few days of clear, sunny weather. Keep a vigilant eye on the weather and the surface of your soil. If the surface seems dry, you can add water only to the areas where you have direct-seeded crops, and it won’t take much to rehydrate these areas. Your spinach and carrots will thank you. Of course, dry soil isn’t the only thing that can lead to unhealthy plants, and this takes me to my last two tips.
Make sure your plants are getting enough food. Remember that vegetables are “heavy feeders.” This means that your crops absorb large amounts of nutrients from the soil as they grow. In order to produce a maximum harvest, each crop needs an adequate supply of plant food. Nutrients are supplied by compost and organic fertilizers, and both should be added to your soil before each season begins and between every new planting during the season.
Make sure to follow the plant’s (or seed’s) recommended spacing requirement. Many beginning gardeners assume that if they plant their crops closer together they will get more food per square foot. That’s not exactly how it works. When crops are planted too closely together, they compete for sunlight, water and nutrients. When forced to compete, plant growth is stunted, production is limited, and crops are more susceptible to pest and disease pressures. Spacing requirements have developed through generations of trial and error, so take advantage of this experience and take heed of the instructions on your seed packet.