It was only a few weeks ago that Berkshire County was in the “Abnormally Dry” category according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. At the time, year-to-date precipitation was a little over 4 inches below normal. Since then, rainfall has been frequent and we’ve made up just about the entire deficit.
As a result, garden soils have often been saturated with moisture — another way of saying that they were muddy. Such was the case especially after the rainfall events of last week. Yet, most of the crops I planted have been doing OK. One reason for this is that, in early spring, I have taken to creating mounds of soil, edged by trenches.
The advantage of such raised beds was quite obvious Monday morning, when I observed some of the trenches with standing water. These raised beds drain quickly, allowing for transplanting of seedlings and sowing of seeds at times when it would not have been feasible. Not only do the beds drain well, but the soil also warms more quickly than it would otherwise. This has been another positive feature, given the fact that the excess precipitation has often been accompanied by cooler than normal temperatures.
If the predictions for warming weather, which Clarence Fanto stated in his “Outlook” column on Monday, hold true, gardeners should be able to proceed in full speed with transplanting and seed sowing.
PLENTY OF TASKS TO TACKLE
Shift your gardening gears into full speed with these tasks:
- Increase your crop yield by using the wide-row planting technique for beans, beets, carrots, chard, leeks, lettuce, onions, radishes, spinach and turnips. To make a wide row, just prepare a smooth seed bed that is anywhere from 10- to 24-inches-wide and then broadcast the seed thickly, but evenly over the area. You'll have to thin the planting once seedlings are up about one inch.
- Prepare vegetable and flower garden soils for planting by tilling in organic matter in the form of compost or composted manure. Not only does this improve the structure of soil, but also supplies some nutrients to support plant growth.
- Begin sowing seeds of some warm season vegetables, such as beans and sweet corn, and tender annuals, including ageratum, celosia, coleus, impatiens, marigolds and zinnias, in the coming week. But, don’t put all your eggs or, preferably, seeds in one basket ... uh, that is, seeds in one sowing. The average date of last frost in much of the Berkshires is around May 20. That means that there is still a 50 percent chance of frost after that date. Therefore, stagger seed sowing of such tender crops and tender annuals.
- Dig up some of the suckers from red raspberries and give them to gardening friends. Be sure they replant the suckers as quickly as possible to prevent the plants from wilting.
- Plant garden mums now. Though usually planted in fall when they can be bought while in glorious bloom, mums planted now will have an entire growing season to develop a strong root system and improve the winter survivability of the plants.
- Plant low-growing varieties of daylilies, e.g. "Stella d'Oro," in front of shrubs in landscape borders. Daylilies are relatively free of pests and diseases, and are great for the gardener trying to avoid application of pesticides.
- Don't be afraid to incorporate some small shrubs into your perennial borders. Plant dwarf spirea (Spirea alpina) or dwarf deutzia (Deutzia gracilis "Nikko") at the front of flower borders. Dwarf evergreens not only complement perennials, but also provide winter interest to the garden.
- Make your first fertilizer application to lawns this month. Those who wish to avoid synthetic fertilizers will find that most garden centers now carry a wide array of fertilizers derived from natural materials. I'll often apply a 1/4-inch layer of screened compost to my lawn in lieu of commercial fertilizer.
- Pay attention to those voices coming from the front lawn. It may be the weeds trying to tell you something. Actually, that's not as ludicrous as it seems. While most weeds are tolerant of a broad range of environmental conditions, certain ones tend to be dominant under specific conditions. As such, we can use these weeds as indicators of poor growing conditions. For example, cinquefoil, carpetweed, orange hawkweed, oxeye daisy, poverty grass, sheep sorrel and yarrow dominate in soils in need of fertilizer. Carpetweed, hawkweed, oxeye daisy and sheep sorrel also thrive in soils that are very acid. On compacted soils, knotweed quickly takes over. Rabbitfoot clover and yarrow can indicate soils that are too dry, while chickweed, heal-all, moss, smartweed and violets dominate on moist soils. A large population of ground ivy, heal-all, moss and violets may mean too much shade. If you're not familiar with these weeds, look them up in a wildflower guidebook.