How to grow early-season veggies
For the past 100 years, the last frost of spring in our area has been around Mother's Day, or sometime between the first and second weekend in May. With that in mind, cool-season vegetables should be in the ground by now.
It's easy to differentiate between warm-season vegetables and their cool-season cousins. Summer vegetable plants produce edible fruit harvests such as eggplants, cucumbers and beans. Cool-season vegetables include spinach, cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and all other plants grown for consumption of their stems or leaves. These crops do not like summer temperatures, performing better in the cool nights of early spring and/or fall to early winter.
Reduced water usage is a definite advantage to producing edible plants this time of year. Right now, watering once a week is sufficient as opposed to the 2-3 times a week necessary in the heat of summer. If you are concerned about the expense of watering, I highly recommend shifting some of your edible crops to this earlier spring season.
My early vegetables already are planted, mostly in containers or raised beds. When planting in containers, look for glazed clay, wood, plastic, or metal planters. Stay away from terracotta clay containers; they tend to disintegrate in the freeze-and-thaw cycles of our climate. In plastic pots, plants dampen off, wilt, and then die if not really carefully monitored. I don't use plastic containers because they can't "breathe" and I tend to over-water whatever I've put in them! Glazed clay pots and wood containers don't have these issues, making gardening less demanding. This is the perfect opportunity to try the Earthbox, a "self-watering" container conducive to nearly effortlessly successful crops.
Whichever containers you choose, use a good potting soil or grower's mix and plant directly into this mix. Notice I said a "good" mix, which means there also are "bad" ones. Many folks take cost shortcuts when buying potting soil and end up paying the additional price of poor crops. It's wise to keep in mind that the soil in a container is the most important ingredient - even more important than the quality of the plants.
Top dressing and timing are important to successful cool season plantings. Top dressing with a layer of shredded bark not only keeps the early spring weeds at bay, but also insulates the soil, which increases the harvest. With the right timing, lettuce that literally melts in your mouth for Easter brunch and fresh broccoli for Christmas dinner can be realities at your table. Get the timing wrong and these vegetables will bolt into flowers and become bitter-tasting and unworthy of your garden space.
Now is also the right time to plant all perennial vegetable plants because selection is at its best. Wait until May, the start of the summer planting season, and you'll find that plants will have been picked over or bought up all together. Now is the best time to plant asparagus, rhubarb, artichokes and strawberries. Do so ASAP, even if a last-minute cold front is expected; these plants love being out in the cold. You are welcome to stop by the garden center and ask for my handout "The Vegetable Calendar for Mountain Gardens"; it has the exact planting dates for the most popular vegetables.
Seasonal vegetables are excellent candidates for setting out in a "square-foot" or "high-density" garden. This is a popular planting method because it allows a small garden plot to produce amazing amounts of food. For example, in March, plant early spring peas. Then, in May, after the peas have been harvested, rip out the pea plants and in their place put heat-loving bean plants. My planting calendar expands upon and further clarifies this efficient, practical gardening technique.
For planting directly into the ground, one requirement for successful early-season vegetables and herbs is to plant them in rich soil. Because soil temperatures are cool this time of year, it is essential that soil be thoroughly amended with composted mulch and a natural plant food.
Spread over the soil a 2- to 3-inch layer of composted mulch, the correct number of pounds of Soil Activator, and a layer of my All-Natural Plant Food. Then turn it one shovel's depth into the bed. The mulch replenishes depleted organics; Soil Activator promotes deep roots and better germination for plants started from seed. The addition of plant food promotes stronger, sweeter foliage and earlier harvests.
Planting can be done immediately after this soil preparation. Water thoroughly and top-dress the planted bed with a 2-inch layer of shredded bark. Water regularly about once every 6-7 days unless we're lucky and get a storm that delivers 1" of rain that week.
A reminder to Facebook fans: Sometime around the end of May to the first of June I'll be asking for photos of your best-looking container gardens for our contest. Use Watters Facebook to submit, view, and vote on the photos. The one with the most votes will win a sizable garden prize. You could be the winner!
Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.
Throughout the week Ken Lain is at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, and can be contacted through www.wattersonline.com. Ken says, "My personal mission is to help local homeowners garden better in our mountain landscapes."