We didn’t have Earth Day when I was growing up. But we had plenty of earth on our North Dakota farm. We called it dirt.
About this time in the spring, as ground would warm and the snow would melt off, we’d start the planting season by picking rocks.
I’d join my many siblings on a walk behind the tractor, which slowly pulled a shallow steel bin. We’d fan out, each grabbing a stone the size of his or her ability, the older kids teaming up to grapple with the larger rocks. We’d toss them into the bin and enjoy the satisfying clang.
When we came across a particularly stubborn or hefty boulder, Dad would stop the tractor, get out the crowbar, and as many as were needed would grab onto it and heave it or roll it into the bin.
When the bin was full enough, Dad would back the bin up to the rock pile at the edge of the field and dump the load. Every year, the rock pile grew as the frost heaved the stones up from the deep.
That the earth spit rocks at us every year, we did not take personally. It was not a metaphor for the hard life of farming, even if it could have been. It was not a hated chore, although it was a difficult one.
This was just something that had to be done in order to grow wheat. You could not subject the cultivator’s tines or the discer’s blades to a soil full of rocks.
My two main vegetable beds in the front yard are ready for planting. I’ve cleared the winter vegetables, forked dolomitic lime into the soil to restore a neutral pH, and covered the bed with a wire mesh to keep the cats out. I even cleared a few rocks that had sunk into the dirt, and placed them in a little pile on the edge of the garden.
This year, the larger bed is going into grain. Not wheat, although varieties are being tested for the western Washington climate. Rather, I’ll be planting amaranth and quinoa, two amazing, colorful and very different edible seeds. I saved the seed from my small stand of each last year, so now I can cover the bed.
It will be great to watch it wave in the summer breeze. It will remind me of the visible wind on the prairie, swathing through the amber grain, flowing like a river.
I can feel the vibe from here: when can we set out our tomatoes? A neighbor already has done it. Gangly plants in gallon-size pots are front-and-center in the stores. The questions go beyond tomatoes, though: how will you get your vegetables off to their best start? And what’s the right timing for planting the summer garden?
How? Season Extension
I’m on the verge of being a nag on this topic, but a great way to ensure a better start is to shelter your spring plantings with season extension devices.
This Sunday, April 12, 1-2 p.m., I’ll be showing and telling all about season extension at the West Seattle Nursery & Garden Center. I will explain in more detail why these devices help, and then I’ll show off a few of my designs and things sold by the nursery. You can “kick the tires,” so to speak, and think about what might work for you.
When? Be Conservative
It’s tempting to march out to the garden, clear away last year’s detritus, and just plop everything in the ground — seeds, starts, trellises, cloches. One big afternoon of work and you can just sit back and wait for the harvest, right? Well, maybe. Go ahead and try it. I would counsel patience.
I like to take a couple of steps at a time, slowly building my garden throughout the spring. I do it this way partly because I enjoy the process, and also because things will grow better if planted at the right time. As with so many things, timing is everything.
Right now, my spring greens, root crops and peas are up and growing nicely. I’m still a couple of weeks away from fresh salads, but we’re just finishing the last of the winter salad greens.
Also, I’m clearing and prepping the beds for my hot summer crops. The cover crop and flowering brassicas are coming out, lime is being dug into the soil where needed, and all the old stuff is being chopped up to make compost.
Soon I’ll dig in compost and fertilizers, as needed, based on the planting plan.
I continue to plant small quantities of root crops and greens, so that I’ll have a longer continuous harvest of these crops. I eat a lot of them.
The green manure provided by chopped-in cover crops, and the lime, have to settle into the soil for a week or two before planting. That will bring me to the end of April, which is just about right timing to shake out the bean seeds. Then I’ll think about getting warm-season transplants like tomatoes and peppers in the ground.
By mid-May, those will all be planted, and then I’ll do the last of the summer plantings: squash.
Meanwhile, I am also planning my fall and winter garden. Yes, well before summer has come! By early June, I’ll be planting fall brassicas, and by July, most of my winter and overwintering crops will be in the ground.
All that will be left to plant are short-season fall crops, which will go in after the heat of our summer has dissipated, around late August.
Right now I’m enjoying watching the orchard mason bees. They have emerged from their cocoons and are busy pollinating my fruit trees. Soon they’ll start laying eggs in the holes in my wooden bee house.
If I want to really see all this activity, I need to slow down, and stand or sit near the bee box for a while. (Don’t worry, they’re not aggressive.) My eyes need to adjust to their erratic activity, to see their patterns.
The bees are not working on my schedule. In order to learn from them, I must accustom myself to their ways.
Observance of the natural world takes time. I must take it on its own terms. Growing a vegetable garden also requires relinquishing my own concept of schedules and needs, replacing those with a studied observance of the weather, growth habits of plants, and messages from nature.
Vegetables aren’t the only edibles in my yard. I enjoy growing a variety of fruit, from berries to rhizomatous perennials to fruit trees. Their cheery buds and flowers fill my garden with sweet promises of desserts, jams, ciders and fruit salads to come. Here are more images from the first days of spring.
I took a photo break from gardening on yesterday’s sunny Saturday afternoon, the first full day of spring. Here are images from my garden.
Do you want to get started in the vegetable garden, but are unsure what to do right now? Come to my first free class this Sunday, March 15 at City People’s Garden Store in Seattle’s Madison Park.
I’ll share a bunch of timely reminders in “Start Edibles Early for Longer Harvests.”
Now is a great time to get an early batch of edibles into the ground, and plan for multiple harvests.
The class is the first of “The Edible Year, a four-part series that runs through early June. Each class is at 11 a.m.
Here’s the whole series:
If you’re in West Seattle or across Puget Sound on the Kitsap Peninsula, you might be interested in these other talks on my calendar this spring: