Right now my peas are yummy and the Swiss chard is lush. I have some lettuce and carrots growing. But my broccoli and baby bok choy are done and in the compost bin. The roses are ready for their first feeding of the season. This can only mean one thing—it’s time to start planning for a spring garden. Spring fever can lead to a lot of impulsive behavior at home and at the nursery. Getting carried away is easy to do without some thoughtful planning. There are a few things to think about before you buy seeds or seedlings.
Picking the right spot for your vegetable gardening is essential. Vegetables will grow in a garden plot (preferably level), a raised bed or in pots on your deck or patio. Raised beds can make your work much easier on your back and give the soil a quicker spring warm up. To give your vegetables the best chance to produce they need six to eight hours of direct sun every day. Vegetables do not need an area designated just for them. If the sunniest spots in your garden are where the flower beds are, mix them in together.
Very few of us are lucky enough to have the perfect, ready-to-plant soil in our gardens. The ideal soil is loamy, which means it isn’t too light (think sandy) or too heavy (think clay, common in Marin). By adding organic matter like compost, humus or well-composted manure, sandy soils retain moisture better and clay soils become crumbly which will help with root penetration and drainage. No matter how eager you are to get started, be careful not to work your soil if it is too wet. Cultivating or walking on wet soil compacts it, which causes it to lose the tiny air spaces between soil particles and results in poorer plant growth all season long. You can determine if your soil is too wet to work with by squeezing a handful of it in your hand. If you are left holding a dense ball that sticks together or drips water, let it dry out more before working it.
It is important to keep the last frost date in mind before planting anything. Some areas of Marin that are most affected by the marine influence get little frost. In other areas and protected valleys, frost can come until at least the end of April. For susceptible plants, a frosty night can spell the ruination of your newly planted seedlings. The air may be warm and sunny during the day but the soil may not be warm enough to plant. Plants may live but they seldom thrive in cold soil. When the nighttime temperatures stay at 50 degrees F or above and the daylight hours lengthen, the soil temperature will rise.
Vegetables need even and consistent moisture for maximum yield. It is important to assure that there is an adequate and handy water source near where you are planning your garden and that it is in place and in working order before you plant. Not all plants have similar water needs. Find out the water requirements for each choice and plant those with similar needs together. How often and how much you water is also dependent on your soil and weather conditions and will vary. As you figure out how frequently and how much to water, poke down into the soil and see how moist it is down where the roots are. A screwdriver can help you check as the roots get down deeper.
Choosing what to plant is like shopping at a healthy candy shop. There are so many varieties of each vegetable available. Choose vegetables that you and your family like and in the quantities that you will use. Select disease-resistant varieties that do well in our growing area. Your local nursery and your Master Gardeners can help you with your selection. Consider the amount of space each plant needs. If your space is limited, it is a good idea to plant varieties that don’t get quite as large as others, or to select varieties that can be grown vertically on trellises or similar support structure.
You can either plant seed or purchase nursery transplants. It is certainly more economical to plant seeds and you have many more choices of varieties. You will need to carefully read the seed package before planting. It will have recommendations of when, where and how to plant and tell you how many days you can expect to wait to harvest your crop. If you want an instant garden, transplants are for you. They cost more and limit your choices to what is available but shorten the wait to harvest time. The Farmers’ Markets are also great sources for transplants. Transplants are also a good choice if you want to try a few of several different things. I plant a combination of seeds and transplants.
As you stand back to admire your newly planted garden be aware that there are other critters looking to your plants as dinner. Insects and birds may visit your garden for samples and the young tender ones are their favorites. Take the time to learn which insects are beneficial and which are there to dine. Bird netting can cover your seedlings until they get a little bigger. Often it is not necessary to do anything more to insects than spray them off with a strong stream of water from your hose. Snails and slugs can often be trapped under boards and flower pots positioned throughout the garden where they will hide in the daytime and then squashed.
There is a great Agriculture and Natural Resources Publication called Vegetable Gardening Basics that you can find at http://ucanr.org/freepubs/docs/8059.pdf. Websites to check out for more information are the UC Vegetable Research Information Center at http://vic.ucdavis.edu and the UC Integrated Pest Management site at http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu.
Take advantage of a talk on Thursday evening 7 p.m., April 5. on “Growing Great Tomatoes” with Stephen Albert. Steve, a Sonoma County Master Gardener, is the author of “The Kitchen Garden Growers’ Guide” and has also taught landscape design at UC Berkeley Extension. The event will be held at the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. Admission fee $5.