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Garden Journal

Garden Journal: This season’s start is slow, but it has begun

It is tempting to compare this year with last year, when the tree leaves and the tulips arrived at the same time – a month early. On the first day above freezing last week, I flung open the doors and windows for a badly needed airing out only to find an owl lurking right outside on the ledge. He was gazing intently at the bird feeder, upon which several innocent chickadees fed. He turned his head all the way around when he heard me and gave me a stone-cold bone- chilling stare before swiveling back to his focus. Who-who-who-cooks-for-you indeed!

Winter this year has been dilly- dallying. We have deep snow pockets locked in the woods and a slow thawing of the ground that, by golly, looks like we’re in the midst of the most gnarly mud season! If there were a contest for potholes, aka frost heaves, 2014 would be the year the Northeast took the prize. With the season opening like this, it is no wonder there are birds, and no buds yet, in the trees.

The weather can make or break a growing season, and a savvy gardener should always keep an eye on the sky to monitor weather patterns.

The first order of business? Not wheelbarrows, trowels and Wellingtons. If you are serious about this, go out and buy a journal to jot down notes and observations. I am so grateful to have been keeping a journal for so many years, and it has improved my design, helped me hone some skills, and let me know the best time to start seeds and where not to plant carrots. Keeping a journal will give anyone a real boost in getting the most yield out of the too-short-crazy-weather-insect-filled-too-wet-too-dry garden season here in New Hampshire.

The early Spring planting rule has always been that as soon as the ground thaws you can safely plant cold crops. Local farmers will tell you to be patient because we could still get a freeze and the ground is not quite ready until May. Sometimes the soil is waterlogged and you’ll need a broadfork to loosen it to dry it out. Quite often, the soil quality can change from year to year, so if you really want to leverage your success, do a soil test to see what it needs and then give it time to settle after mixing. A healthy, vigorous soil will give you healthy plants that won’t be as bothered by insects and can beat competing weeds. Each year some plants do well and some don’t. The tomatoes last year had so little flavor; most of them ended up in the compost pile. But the micro-greens, parsley, peas and squash delivered off-the-charts bounty and flavor. The perennial beds will need a complete overhaul as everything has expanded and doubled, and since I had not gotten to it last fall, I will have to go forth and divide.

There is always the temptation to overcrowd and plant more than you can take care of. Seed packets come with too many seeds and then you don’t notice problems until the plants start to get larger and it’s too late to disturb them. Plant several crops weeks apart in case one harvest fails, and plant seeds much farther apart than the recommended spacing. Draw a grid in the soil and sowing becomes much easier. I have found that planting tender edibles with companion perennial plants can offer ornamental beauty as well as help with pest control. Sun-loving Catmint is a great example, with its ethereal clouds of periwinkle blue flowers and a deterrent for certain caterpillars. Catmint made the perfect partner for ornamental cabbages and kale, which also can be inter-planted with last year’s chives, onions, garlic and carrots to help deter and confuse insects.

Scented annuals, like alyssum, marigold and calendula, will help protect peppers and tomatoes from attacks, while parsley makes a nice filler between plants to control weeds. Plant sweet-smelling flowers abundantly! Yes, the weeds will arrive, but if you are diligent consider weeding as one of those “work-that-is-fun” chores. Especially when you realize you could possibly reach what I call the “Zen zone,” a pinnacle of gardening where one has achieved the balance of causing the surrounding plants to be so happy and consistently strong that the weeds will pull up obligingly like cooked spaghetti and pests will be easily managed by picking them off each day. It doesn’t happen very often but one can always dream.

Mulching is as necessary as watering. Consider using chopped leaves and dried grass clippings as your very best and cleanest option, one that is the most readily available and in addition to being non-toxic, is free! You can keep weeds out of your paths with mulches or use gravel or stones. If you have raised beds, you can mow grass between the paths and create a square-foot garden blueprint using a software program. Remember, there are micro-climates that exist within your garden space no matter where you are growing things, so the same plant may not do as well in one spot as in another.

The best strategy of all is to be prepared and be flexible. Start out this season with a back-up planting plan, because sometimes things just go awry. Last year, we had pumpkins escaping their nice, composted beds to go into what I call the “wild” section of the property – one that harbors uncultivated Jerusalem Artichoke, an 8-foot-tall grass and a feral raspberry vine. Sadly, the rotund hostages could not be rescued.

Don’t forget to pack your sunscreen, hat and gloves along with that journal, and bring your camera or some watercolor paints. You never know what natural wonders you will discover. I also always put in a back-up pen in case I drop the first one.

Being outdoors and nurturing plants is a healthy activity, so be sure to get the kids involved, too.

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