Hands on Gardener: Planting and Planning

by Miriam Hansen

In last month’s column I lamented the demise of all the spinach and lettuce seedlings I planted in the greenhouse last fall. Too cold for too long, I said. Wrong again! While it is true that everything in the small greenhouse died, the tiny seedlings I planted in the big greenhouse very late in the fall, not only survived, they thrived!

Outdoors, we’ve planted onions, leeks, peas and a long row of radishes. Anything where the planting instructions read, “as soon as ground can be worked” can be seeded now. That said, after years of planting carrots, beets, parsnips and other root crops the minute I could get outside, I now err on the side of caution. Night temperatures are still pretty cold which means that soil temperatures are pretty cool as well. While these seeds will germinate between 50 and 75 degrees, ideal temperature for germination is closer to 70. So I’ll wait another couple of weeks to let the soil warm up a bit.

Another thing to consider when planting seeds like carrots—small seeds that require consistent moisture to germinate successfully—is soil preparation. Take the time to prepare the seedbed as though you are expecting an inspection from the Queen. Fork out any clumps of weeds or cover crop that has not broken down. Then rake the bed thoroughly to remove rocks, pebbles and crumble up any clods of soil that remain. The extra time it takes to get the bed pristine will be repaid in quick, steady germination.

Consider the size of a carrot seed. When you make the planting furrow, it should be no deeper than a ½-inch. Look at that on a ruler. It’s not very deep. I plant using the tap method— slowly tapping the seeds to the top of the seed packet and tapping them out individually, one by one or at most, two by two. When the seeds become too numerous at the opening of the packet, I tap them all back to the bottom and start again, slowly bringing them to the top. It’s like a Chinese opera in reverse. The performers spend an hour laboriously bringing their sleeves up over their hands and then in a single gesture flop the capacious sleeves back down. The time it takes to plant sparingly pays off with little to no need for thinning. Once I’ve planted, I cover seeds lightly and tamp down the soil with the back of a rake. Tamping down the soil—or in the case of peas, pushing the peas slightly into the soil in the furrow—ensures that when the seed germinates, the root immediately makes contact with the substrate. I confess that when I plant, I try to put myself in the seed’s place, thinking about what it will take to be successful. When the seed is successful, so am I.

Poor germination is usually tied to one or more of three things. The seed is too old, you’ve planted too deep, or you’ve allowed the soil around the seed to dry out. Seeds for root crops like carrots are particularly sensitive to drying out and notorious for being slow to germinate. A useful tip is to plant before a rain, let the bed get good and soaked and then lay boards on top of the rows where you’ve planted the seeds. After five or six days start lifting the boards to check for germination. When you see carrot seedlings, remove the boards. Works like a charm.

Planning the garden is no less important than knowing how to plant the various crops. One important rule is to rotate your crops. Don’t plant the same vegetable in the same place you planted it the year before. This is sensible when you consider buildup of pests and diseases. But it is also sensible when you consider that different plants require different amounts of and different concentrations of the elements that deliver the nutrients.

In addition to pests, diseases and nutrients, plan according to how long the crop takes from germination to harvest. We situate deep feeders like brassicas and tomatoes on the part of the garden where we had either chicken or pigs the year before. Since garlic is pretty much done by late July, we plant that where the chickens will forage in August. Next to the garlic, we plant the peas that will also be harvested by the end of July. Quick growing plants like lettuce and radishes can be popped around slower growing ones like cauliflower or broccoli. Those beds do double duty.

Knowing that peppers need good fertility but set poorly in areas with too much nitrogen, I plant them at the edge of the chickens’ foraging pen. The chickens have fertilized there some but not as much as right around the coop. There is an art to it. The longer you garden the more you get a feel for it. Right now, I’m regretting that we didn’t dig any compost into the area where we planted the peas. But then I remember that was mostly sunflowers and lettuce last year. Perhaps the soil is not too depleted. Time will tell.

Happy gardening!

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