This is an exciting time of the year for us yard buffs. Now on Daylight Saving Time, the days are getting longer. There are fits and starts of sunshine intermixed with lingering days of cold, snow or rain. It’s enough to fuel our anticipation of this year’s gardening adventure.
Even with all there is to look forward to, there are common mistakes that occur this time of year. Gardening is both an art and science, and knowing what to do and not do will greatly increase your odds of having a great growing season.
First, avoid tilling wet soil. Many a gardener has tilled too early, before excess water has passed through it. If it’s muddy, or forms a sticky ball when pressed in your hands, hold off a bit. Sure, you can till easily, but you are likely destroying the structure of the soil and creating compaction. Neither is good for the soil, or for the plants that you’ll be growing there. So hold off a bit.
Another common problem is beginning watering too early. This is especially true for turf areas. I have seen watering begin in some yards mere days after snow has melted off. This is way too early. If you can plunge a medium-sized screwdriver into the soil up to the handle, there’s still plenty of moisture for the turf to access.
Many an aspiring gardener has made the mistake of direct sowing seeds in the garden after a run of comfortable warms days. After all, if it’s nice out, wouldn’t this be a good time to get started planting? Probably not. That warmth you’re enjoying is the air temperature, but that’s not where your plants will begin their life. It’s the soil temperature that matters, and many seeds favor soil temps between 55 and 60 °F. The soil always warms up slower than the air. The planting chart on most seed packets is based on the average soil temperature and when it is optimum to plant. Making use of that information will help you get better results. If you don’t want to use the maps, then invest in an inexpensive soil thermometer and know for sure. They are easy to use and give instant readings.
Every year, I warn my gardening friends not to succumb to “sucker weather.” This is when we get a week or two of beautiful spring-like weather, and the illusion sets in that spring has arrived. It’s almost certain that it hasn’t. Data collected for a century is hard to argue with, no matter how fast we want spring to get here. If you plant too early, or put out starts without adequate frost protection, you are gambling against yourself. You can take greater risks with crops that do well in cooler weather (such as spinach, cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts), but you’re likely to lose warmth lovers like eggplant, squashes, tomatoes, peppers and watermelon. Wait until it warms up dependably, or be prepared to go through two sets of starts.
On the flip side, there are a couple of activities that you can invest your time in before the danger of frost is past. First, how about getting pruning done before your trees and shrubs break dormancy? Just like you, your plants prefer their surgery when they are asleep. Now is a great time to trim up items. Anything that has suffered winter-kill is easily seen and removed. Because your deciduous plants don’t have leaves on them now, it’s much easier to see what needs to be done and cleaner to haul away or to feed through a chipper.
It’s also a good time to work on gopher and vole control. These pests are extremely destructive in their search for food sources. Ignoring the problem will only make it worse. Pocket gophers have their offspring around this time, and they have a voracious appetite. There are several products available to either trap or fumigate them. Get ahead of them now to avoid having them devour your garden and yardscape!
Another excellent use of your pre-gardening time is getting your tools ready for the season. This includes cleaning, sharpening and oiling your pruning implements. Filing the digging edges of your shovels and hoes will make them easier to use. Be sure to lightly sand wood handles and dress them with linseed oil to extend the life of the wood grips. Avoid leaving your shovels, rakes and hoes out in the sun and rain. The sun’s infrared rays will quickly weather the tools, and rain will lead to rust and overall corrosion. Be good to your tools, and they will be good to you.
If you have gas-powered equipment, be sure to change the oil, put in new sparkplugs, clean the carburetor, and fill with fresh gas for the season. You’ll greatly extend the life of the equipment and protect your investment if you do. Avoid the temptation of beginning to use any equipment that you haven’t done maintenance on.
Of course, seed-starting season is just about to begin, depending on what crops you are going to plant this year. With adequate light, warmth and moisture, you can start an array of varieties in a relatively small space. This allows you to have access to more varieties than buying from the local nursery. There’s a bit of trial and error in the process, but the single greatest mistake I see beginning seed-starters make is keeping their seedlings too wet and covered for too long.
Most seedlings do well with moderately moist growing medium. The best way is to water them from the bottom with lukewarm water. This is done by having the growing cells or soil cubes in a watertight tray. Humidity, when seeds are first being started, is generally a good thing to assure adequate warmth and moisture. However, when the plants have gotten a couple of leaves, get those covers off. If condensation is forming, that means there is extremely high humidity around the growing plants. This will almost certainly lead to “damping off,” where fungus will take over and kill your young seedlings.
Once your plants are up and going, you will need to transition to their outside life by hardening them off. When they are very young, the plant’s tissues are soft and tender. By exposing them daily to a short period of sunshine, breezes and a bit of temperature variation, you will “toughen” them up and help them greatly to be robust and resist sunburn and wind damage. Don’t forget this important step!
As they get to be a bit bigger, “pot them up” by putting them in bigger growing containers with potting mix. The starting mix you used to start the seeds in only has a limited amount of nutrition and it’s been used up. Give the plant more room and resources to grow. Then, move them into a south-facing cold frame on the ground with a movable transparent cover of some kind. Keep the cover open on warm days, and close it each night.
Using a cold frame will take some diligence on your part, but the results are well worth it. Weather can change rapidly during the day as we transition from winter to spring. If it gets sunny outside, be sure to vent your cold frame. And be sure at day’s end to close the cover.
When it warms up around Mother’s Day, then the fun really begins. Move your plants out into the beds, being sure to rotate crop areas from last year’s growing location. Water your plants in well, and irrigate and fertilize them adequately throughout the season. I can hardly wait!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at email@example.com, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.