The Island Garden
Even though the weather is moderately cold, it is nice to be able to attack the garden again after ignoring it all winter. In your spare time this week, you could start raking off the lawn, plant some potatoes, get herbs and other seedlings ready to plant out and harvest some spinach. That's right, if you planted spinach in your garden last fall, it will start to go to seed right around now, but before it goes to seed, you can pick the leaves. Add them to some sliced mushrooms and bacon crumbs, pour a little dressing over the top and you have a quick and easy spinach salad.
When starting plants make sure your pots and implements are clean and sterile. If they aren't, you'll probably find that your plants grow for a while then get a fungus and die. Use a little bleach in the water that you wash your pots and tools in to ensure they are clean.
When you start your plants, don't over water. More plants are killed by over watering than are killed by under watering. Make sure that your potting soil almost dries out before you water again.
Keep the temperature up. If you let your seedlings get cold, you will get poor germination and probably help the plantlets to get affected by disease. Most seedlings are killed by downy mildew, a disease that is abetted by cool temperatures and over watering. If you are growing tomato plants, make sure the potting soil stays a little moist and that temperatures are quite warm. Letting tomatoes dry out sets them up for blossom-end rot, which occurs on new fruit. Make sure your tomatoes have plenty of light or they'll get leggy. If they do get leggy, simply plant them up to the level of the first leaves. The stem will turn into roots. The development of new roots also slows down plant growth. Tomatoes won't set fruit until nighttime temperatures reach about 55 degrees, so don't worry too much about planting them out early. If you put them out early, you can help them to set fruit by gently squeezing the flowers. This helps to distribute the pollen for tomatoes to grow.
You can, however, put artichokes out early. They need about six weeks of cool temperatures to help them set fruit this season. Artichokes can survive temperatures into the mid-twenties, and by setting them out early you trick them into thinking that they've survived the winter and its time to set fruit. I have found that artichokes survive the winter in the greenhouse under heavy mulch and some spun fleece. I haven't had them survive outdoors, although I suspect that they'd survive in a cold frame under a heavy mulch and spun fleece in a sheltered area.
Another trick I've learned is how to get an early supply of spinach and parsley. Both plants can be sown in fall and allowed to go dormant over the winter. In spring, they both start growing fast as if they are going to seed. You can pick and enjoy them before they go to seed. Similarly, sorrel, a French herb starts growing early. This is a perennial green spinach-like plant that makes a delicious soup or its leaves can be chopped and added to salads.
Don't try to set onions, leeks, broccoli and plants such as beets out early. If you leave them in cold weather long enough they think they have over wintered and will go to seed in the first season. Midto late April is plenty early enough for them to go out.
As soon as your lawn has dried out, rake off the detritus from last year and spread some fertilizer for a quick green up. Try not to walk on the lawn after it has rained as this will only compact the soil and make it hard for nutrients to get down to the root area. If you haven't done it already you can also spread some lime. Lime helps the grass to take up fertilizer. It doesn't actually add fertilizer to the grass. You can get both lime and fertilizer from Jamestown Hardware.
Plant out potatoes if you'd like fresh spuds with a little mint and butter in about two months. I'm growing some fingerlings this year. They tend to be ready right around the time of the first tomatoes and I find that fingerling potatoes, olives, capers, basil, and fresh tomatoes with a little olive oil and vinegar makes a terrific accompaniment to grilled meats. When planting potatoes, cover the bed with a layer of compost, but do not plant spuds in freshly manured soil, which tends to make them scabrous.
You can seed the spinach patch if you wish. It should come in about 45 days. Plant your peas as well. I am planting second crops of peas and spinach as the first crops are at the baby leaf stage in the cool greenhouse. I find that with a greenhouse I can get two, and sometimes three crops of early vegetables each year, which are fresh and nutritious and haven't made a long journey across the country in a plastic bag.
Side dress your soft fruit plants with compost - that is, assuming that you have already pruned them back. If not, prune ASAP and then dress with compost. I noticed last Sunday that the gooseberries and blackcurrants are already showing signs of budding out even this early.
Hopefully you have already pruned them and will be ready to spray with organic dormant oil as soon as daytime temperatures get over 50 degrees. If not, well, you know what to do.
With daffodils just coming into bloom, Siberian squill about to break into bloom and narcissus in bud form, take a look around the garden and see where the gaps are in your plantings. Mark any gaps with a stick so that you can fill in the opening a little later. If your bulbs are looking a little crowded, maybe its time to dig them up and replant. Don't do it now, you'll ruin your flowers, but again mark the bulbs that you want to replant so that you'll be able to find them later in the season and replant them when they are dormant.
At this time of year you want soil to warm up quickly, so don't put mulches on vegetable or flower gardens. You can however, put wood chips on paths or walkways. Not only do the wood chips delineate the path, but they are totally organic and eventually break down to provide nutrients to the soil. The problem is where do you find wood chips? At this time of year you can often see landscapers trimming trees. Last week I asked Byron Rymer of All Island Landscape service (683-1588) about some wood chips and he kindly dropped a full truck load of nice chips on the property. All you need do is ask and most landscapers are happy to drop off a load. I put the wood chips on the garden path and around the soft fruit bed about six inches deep and when I get a load of pine bark mulch from Dave Ruggieri at Hopedale Trucking (294-4032), I'll cover the wood chips and have a nicely manicured, weed free area.