Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Lessons learned in the garden

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Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, "Mistakes are lessons by which we learn. When you learn the lesson, forget the mistake." Well, one of the many mistakes I've made over the years is overlooking the fact that March — and even April — can be very unpredictable with regard to weather. For example, last Sunday lived up to its name as it was a sunny and mild day. So, I sowed seeds of lettuce, kale, spinach, carrots and radishes in the garden. Then, on Monday, it snowed. Here I am, Tuesday morning and the forecast calls for a sunny, warm day, but followed by rain later in the week. As such, garden soils will remain quite soggy and cold, conditions that make seed-sowing a wasted effort with the high probability that the seeds will rot. Under such circumstances, it would be unwise to be planting anything.

Lacking wisdom, planting in wet and cold soil is a mistake I've made many times in the past. So, why did I sow those seeds last Sunday? It took a while, but one of the lessons learned from those experiences in failure is to plant early, cold-hardy crops in raised beds. That may seem like a lot of work and a bit of expense. However, a raised bed can be made simply by digging shallow trenches and piling the dug soil between the trenches. The piled soil drains well and warms much quicker than it would otherwise. After a bit of leveling, the soil is ready for seeding. The other option is to build a wooden framed raised bed and fill this with soil. It is in such a bed, which was built several years ago, that I sowed my seeds last Sunday.

As an additional step to get an early start to the vegetable garden season, fabric-like row covers (often called "floating row covers") can be placed directly over the seeded areas or over metal hoops to create a greenhouse effect. There are light-weight and heavy-weight types of these row covers. The heavy weight offers more frost protection and would be the choice for early season use. Clear plastic may also be used over hoops above the seeded crops but, on sunny days, the edges should be lifted to allow for ventilation.

The best crops to seed this early in the year are ones that are cold-tolerant or actually require cold weather for best growth. These include: celery, peas, leafy greens, such as arugula, radicchio, lettuce, kale, and spinach, and root crops, e.g. carrot, radish, turnip and onion.

MORE LESSONS LEARNED

Here are a few more lessons, many of which were learned from mistakes:

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- Prepare a planting plan for this year's vegetable garden. The plan should indicate what, when and where each vegetable is to be planted. This is especially useful in doing crop rotations from year to year. Crop rotation is an important step for reducing pest and disease problems.

- When direct-sowing vegetable seeds in a section of the garden that tends to be weedy, it is often a problem trying to decide what sprouted seedlings are vegetables and which are weeds. Since we are most likely to plant in rows, weed sprouts tend to be random, whereas the vegetable seedlings will be in a defined row. With slow-to-germinate seeds, such as carrots, I always mix those seeds with fast-germinating seeds of radish. This helps define the rows.

- Try something new in this year's vegetable garden. New varieties of vegetables enter the marketplace every year and opting for some of these not only enhances interest in gardening, but they may also outperform some older and well-established varieties.

- Remove some of the straw or other loose-textured mulch from garlic plantings if the plant shoots are not yet visible. However, leave a light layer of mulch over the planting. Garlic likes cool soil, so leaving mulch around the shoots promotes better growth.

- Peak beneath the straw mulch covering strawberry beds. If new leaf growth is apparent, mulch may be removed. However, do the peaking in the middle of a bed rather than at the ends. Berry plants at the ends of rows or beds always emerge a little earlier than those in the middle. Removing mulch too early can result in damage to the young growth should a hard freeze occur. Depending upon the frequency of warm weather, new growth may occur soon or it may be sometime in April. As with garlic, leave just a light layer of mulch over the new growth.

- Plant dwarf varieties of fruit trees if space is limited. Even less space is required if dwarf fruit trees are grown on a trellis or fence. This will allow for easier pest management and harvesting.     

- Apply horticultural oil to trees and shrubs that have a history of infestations by scale insects, spider mites, and wooly aphids. Such applications made now are referred to as dormant applications because the oil is applied before leaf buds open. Making these dormant applications control the aforementioned pests, but have little or no effect on beneficial insects and pollinators, which resume activity later in the season. Read and follow the directions on the product label.


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