It’s a brilliantly sunny day on the farm. A rooster crows repeatedly atop a fence, as if to proclaim the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The temperature is around 50 degrees, and there’s very little left of the ferocious winds that had ravaged land and landowners for two long days.
Never mind that the calendar still reads “February.” We all know that winter has given up the ghost.
Having just made my annual trip back into time at the ancient Nichols Hardware in downturn Purcellville, Va., I am ready to plant onions. If you have never visited this store, it’s a must if you are in the Northern Virginia area. Ninety-eight years old and still going, the store creaks just like a 98-year-old man. Wooden flooring that seems like it’s the original flooring groans and gives with each footfall. The store is crammed to the ceiling with odds and ends that you can’t find anywhere else—certainly not in chain stores. Seeds in sacks and jars, to be measured out and weighed—but mind the sign admonishing customers not to plunge their hands into the jars. There’s poison ivy soap and fishing lures and tiny screwdrivers and kitchen measuring cups and mousetraps and a thousand and one things you didn’t think you needed—until you saw them on the shelf.
When you check out, each item is entered by hand onto a bill of sale, using classic carbon paper, and the totals are computed manually. You get a friendly chat with whoever is at the counter. This year: “You know, a lady came in and said her onions didn’t do so well last year,” the clerk commented with a sly grin. I knew what was coming, but I let him finish the commentary anyway. “She planted them upside down.”
I imagine that about 1 percent of people who plant onion sets make that mistake in a given year. It’s hard to conceive of how anyone could miss the fact that the bottom of an onion set is relatively flat and contains the remnants of small roots from its previous upbringing. Plus, in the barrels containing the red, yellow and white onion sets, there are always a couple that have begun to sprout from the tip. But as with so many things in life, if something can go wrong, sooner or later it will.
So, back to the garden plot: It rained two days ago, at least half an inch. So, if you go by the “rules,” I shouldn’t be planting anything today. If you handle garden soil when it’s even a little bit wet, you run the risk of it forming hard-as-concrete globs. Seeds and roots can’t get or keep their footing in soil like that. And the problem is magnified in places where soils are mostly heavy clay, as in my area. Most years, that means that I’m lucky to find a day by the third week of March when the ground is dry enough and I can start spring planting, which includes lots of lettuce cultivars, a spinach planting or two, and two types of snap peas—one short and relatively quick to harvest, the other tall and often lost to high heat in late spring.
But as I run my fingers over the surface of my raised beds, I am astonished to discover that the top inch or so of the soil is actually fairly dry, fairly granular, fairly amenable to early planting. What’s going on?
Could it be all the work I have done in the past 12 years or so to build up organic content? As a famous lady once said, “You betcha.”
No-till gardening, plus generous top dressing of compost (with its substantial percentage of horse manure), have combined to provide a heart- and soil-warming dividend. It’s like that crazy investment you tried based on your brother-in-law’s big tip many years ago. It never did anything noticeable until, all of a sudden, it’s payday. Sure, I always hoped that I would see some payoff for my investment of time and labor in improving the quality of my soil, but in this late-February sunlight, the proof is vivid and exciting.
I make some shallow furrows just a few inches apart and pop in the onion sets—base down and tip up, in case anyone out there was still wondering. I plant them two inches apart, maybe a touch less. I’ll thin out most of them for spring salads. Around the second week of May, I’ll plant six dahlia bulbs in the same bed. As the dahlias grow, they will give a little shade to the onions still not harvested, which will depress their maturation into full-sized bulbs. But by the end of June I will have harvested most of them anyway.
So I say a silent prayer of thanks for this planting day in February, the earliest I have ever put out onions, lettuce, spinach and peas. I owe it all to the work of previous years, enriching the soil in my raised beds. If only all of our investments paid off so handsomely.