The Plot Thickens – GTTY February
Gardening Through the Year!
Once upon a time there was a lawn, green and lush, well fertilized and safe from broad leaf intruders. In the spring, as the days grew longer it began to grow longer, too. When the mower approached there was something very wrong, the blades were set low, way too low. Next a sprinkling of some unfamiliar grainy stuff. What was going on? Expecting to be allowed to recover before another assault, the grass was shocked to find the sun had gone dark and a heavy pressure weighed it down. Days passed with no relief. Suddenly roots were coming from above, making their way down past the dying grass to the soil beneath. Deprived of sun the grass grew weaker and slowly died. Buried alive, brutally murdered!! How quickly it all happened. How easily was the lawn replaced by an beautiful, lush garden, providing food, flowers, herbs for its people and habitat, pollen, prey for its insects and animals.
Winter is indeed long, but it can be a time of great creativity. The grass simply succumbed to a gardener making his first weedless garden (see complete directions below). February is the month to put your garden ideas on paper. Garden plots can be all in one place or scattered around your property. They can be islands in the grass, raised beds, containers or a traditional garden with straight rows and a fence around it. You can have it any way you want it or every way. February is a great month to make garden maps. Having decided what you want to plant, you can map out where each plant or seed will go. There are several good reasons for doing this type of planning. First you will have a record so you can be careful to rotate your crops the next year. Plants from the same family* shouldn’t be planted in the same place for three years. This minimizes the chance for pests to winter over and hatch out in the immediate vicinity of their favorite meal. The diseases that may have been present will also be foiled. Second, when it comes time to plant you will know where everything goes. You can figure out spacing. It will be busy and just a glance at your garden map will show you your well thought out placement. Finally, it is a puzzle exercise and fun. In February, you have time to consider planting tall plants to the north of shorter ones so they do no shade their neighbor. You can think about color and shape, who is tall and slender, short and bushy. Companion planting can also be taken into consideration. Some plants actually help others prosper.
In those evenings by the fire, scan those nursery catalogs, too. It could be the year for that long deferred raspberry or strawberry patch. Consider other perennials that will give food, flavor and beauty for many years. There is asparagus, thyme, oregano, marjoram, chives, chervil, fennel, several types of onions, lovage, good king Henry and sage. As you plan your plots, there are bushes that provide food and beauty. Choose from blueberries, cherries, cranberries, currants and josta berries. While you are at it put in a couple fruit trees. Whoa!! February is a good time to start a five year plan. Plotting how many new things you can add each year. Slowly, all the grass will be gone and you will have your own Garden of Eden.
There are actually a few planting projects for this month as well. With our short summers, some seeds should be planted now to be planted out in the spring. Celery is a wonderful vegetable to grow here, but is slow to germinate and has a long season. Onions are best started early to allow them time to grow into large bulbs in the spring and early summer. If you are a novice gardener, both celery and onion seedlings can be purchased in the spring. Onion sets (small onions) are also a possibility.
Weedless Gardens (book by Lee Reich – a wealth of great information, see book review from last year)
If you are starting a new garden or expanding an old one, this method has many advantages. It is fast and inexpensive. It involves no digging and minimal hauling. You will need only compost, mulch, fertilizer and newspapers. Because you will be building the garden on top of the existing soil, you do not disturb the balance of soil organisms and fungi that already live there. The existing vegetation will die and provide more organic mater and their root channels allow water to easily penetrate the new soil. Not only does the existing vegetation die, but the many seeds that lie dormant in that soil do not germinate and there will be very few weeds.
Begin by choosing and marking off the area, you want to cultivate. The area should be chosen with the sun requirements of your plants in mind. Many vegetables, herbs, and flowers need full sun. Berries (other than blueberries), mints and some green leafy vegetables and flowers can produce well in partial shade. Full shade is suitable for woodland wildflowers and medicinal herbs. A good seed or nursery catalog will have this information.
The next step is to remove the existing vegetation by mowing or stomping it down. Woody plants should be dug up. If you are planting on top of a lawn in the spring, skip this step. Sprinkle with fertilizer (4 cups of soybean meal per 100 square feet, a dusting of wood ashes, perhaps ground eggshells or bone meal, and rock phosphate or an organic fertilizer).
Next cover the entire area, including paths, with a barrier that will decompose quickly. Wet newspaper 4-8 sheets thick, cut-open old leaf bags, or cardboard boxes all work well. Be sure to overlap the edges. Cardboard is best used in the fall to allow time to decompose. You want this barrier to block the sunlight to kill the existing plants, but be soft enough that the young roots will be able to penetrate it when they get down that far.
Cover the areas that will be paths with wood chips, pebbles, stone, straw, or sawdust.
Now simply put down 1-2 inches of compost in the areas to be planted. Seeds or seedlings can be planted. Do not penetrate the barrier. If 2 inches is not deep enough for a seedling, set it on the barrier and gather compost around it to steady it and then surround with mulch to the level of the soil that was in the pot. For seedlings apply 2 inches of mulch over the entire bed around the transplants. For seeds, after the seeds are up a few inches, mulch as you did around seedlings.
*Major Plant Families
Nightshade – tomato, pepper, eggplant, potato
Cruciferous – broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, collards
Apiaceae – carrots, parsley, celery, cilantro
Beets and Swiss chard
Legumes – beans and peas
Nancy is a retired secondary teacher. She built and lives in an active and passive solar, high thermal mass home. She is an avid gardener and helps others to learn how to garden. She has learned a great deal about how and when to garden in upstate NY. Her goal is producing all fresh vegetables and fruit eaten from May through November. BUT gardening offers fun and activity the year round, as you will learn in this series, “Gardening Through the Year” (GTTY).