The Seeds of Spring BLOG

Lessons From the Garden

Underground Investments February 27, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Seeds of Spring @ 7:44 pm

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.

You can't look at blooming crocuses and think that it's still winter.

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.

It's hard to mess up onions, but some people can amaze.

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.

It's a bad sign if it's February and I'm already talking to chickens.

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.


Feeling Cheated by Winter? February 9, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Seeds of Spring @ 6:10 pm

Two years ago this week, the Washington, D.C., area had two storms a few days apart that deposited well over than three feet of snow in many areas, including my block.

So far this winter, we haven’t had even three inches. What gives?

Whether it’s normal year-to-year fluctuation, climate change, some space aliens playing with our heads or all of the above, it sure changes our outlook as gardeners. Mild days, mild nights and emerging signs of spring-like vegetation can entice all of us to think that maybe spring is just around the corner. Forget the fact that the groundhog saw his shadow on Feb. 2. These days, that just means that we’re condemned to six more weeks of basketball.

It might be good exercise, but shoveling deep snow is no fun...

Now, I’m sure there are lots of people who feel cheated because they haven’t had a “real” winter. No one in Europe feels that way, I suppose. But probably some in the United States–folks who long for the “good old days” when we had Christmas card winters and communities actually plowed snow on residential streets and where and when they didn’t plow you just stayed home, made chocolate chip cookies and watched “Leave It to Beaver” on TV.

I’m not one of these people. And I don’t expect to become one. I like warm weather. I hate cold weather. That said, I hope I never become as winter-averse as the woman I shared an elevator with in late January at a Caribbean island resort who complained that it was “awfully humid and warm today.” Anyone in their right mind who can’t appreciate low-80s temperatures with a gentle breeze during the middle of winter needs a little attitude adjustment.

I don’t mind the snow so much, as long as it comes down no deeper than, say, a foot at a time. And as long as it is confined to October through March. It’s the sleet and freezing rain I really can’t live with. And, of course, the panicked drivers who pour onto the streets all at the same time, congesting traffic so severely that a typical one-hour commute can stretch into 10 or more hours, even stranding some unfortunate motorists in dark, cold ditches. When those situations start to develop while I’m at work, I grab a hotel room and wait it out.

And when we get walloped by those big storms while I’m at home, as long as the electricity doesn’t go out, I can handle it. I can do all my work from home, taking breaks to shovel. There’s something slightly comforting about being snowed in; it forces you to focus on the things you can control and not to fight those you cannot. As long as you have some DVDs worth watching. For some reason I just can’t start on the lengthy Ken Burns Civil War series. Fear of commitment, perhaps?

Now, just writing this blog might be tempting fate. A few days from now, the odds could catch up with us and we could have a huge snowstorm, or several in succession. Snowmageddon 2. If that happens, you can blame me. In a general sense; no lawsuits, please.

...unless you cap it off with a mid-winter cookout!

I’m betting against it. There are significant stretches of I-66 shoulders with forsythia in bloom. Even at my home in the cold northern and western suburbs, daffodils are showing yellow buds. A purple crocus is in full bloom. Everywhere, buds are swelling on bushes and trees. Lawns are starting to green up. Temperatures have not plunged and remained below 30 for very long for much of the past month or so.

I have even started lettuce seeds indoors in flats. It’s too early and wet in my region to plant directly outside, though I did consider that briefly last weekend before accepting reality. I won’t start annual seeds indoors for another month or so; getting them ready too early can make them “leggy,” particularly in houses like mine where the so-called sun room faces north.

I suspect that some people who will claim to feel cheated by a mild winter are masochists. Or perhaps their perceptions of what winter is like have been altered over time. There’s a kind of perverse pleasure in telling young people today (cue the old geezer actor with a cane, a crazed look and bony fingers pointing at a bored-looking kid with a hand-held video game) how bad we had it: “You know, sonny, when I was your age we had to crawl, frostbitten and bleeding, 40 miles in the snow to get to school every day. Many a classmate froze up in January, only to be thawed out in May. It got so cold back then that geese that didn’t start flying south until December froze solid in flight. You don’t know how well off you are, you young whipper-snapper….”

And so on and so on.

No, I don’t feel cheated. Bring on spring!