Today we planted a fifty foot row of raspberry canes. This is the time of year for thinning the herd, so if you have a neighbor or family member with a raspberry patch (we got ours from my mother-in-law), you can just ask if they have any explorers pushing out beyond the boundaries of their bed. Given half a chance, raspberries are vigorous and spread through the roots, so we planted them at the top of the orchard, where they are hemmed in at one side by the woods, and they can take over a nice swath of sunny meadow before interfering with anything. We staked a rotten log into the grass to form a bit of a terrace in the long run, dug over the uphill edge, tossed some compost from the chicken run into the holes and planted the bare root plants, watering them in with buckets from the spring.
There are two types of raspberries: early bearing ones that you prune each spring by removing the canes that bore fruit the previous season, and fall bearing ones that you cut to the ground each spring and that bear fruit on first year canes. These are the second ones, which are vigorous and tasty (believe it or not, there are many varieties of raspberries, not all of them that tasty). We will probably get a small crop of them this year, and hopefully in two or three years we will have an abundance. This is a great example of a group of plants that you should be sourcing now from your neighborhood. Berries, comfrey, nettles, mint, all manner of spreading plants.
Go get em.
Way more time than you think. Best to get used to it, plant it and forget it. And, just when you start to truly stop thinking about it, it starts to be ready to harvest.
Today, April 9th, it hailed. And it was also in the thirty and blowing rain much of the day.
All of which is to say it was not a good day to be a plant.
There is this things that happens with the first warm days of spring, where you forget how fickle the weather can be and you are tempted to plant absolutely everything out. And for awhile, it might even seem like you are getting away with it.
But sooner or later there comes a string of weather that makes you regret planting so soon, as your seeds fail to germinate and start to rot in the ground, and the dirt plasters over with mud and forms a hard crust.
Back when I was vegetable farming, we kept much better records than I do now of when we sowed and planted, what the weather was, and when we were able to harvest. All of which reinforced the truth that you can sow twice in the spring, weeks apart, and that first harvest from those plantings often happens just days apart. And what is more, the later plantings often produce better and suffer far less insect damage, because they grew vigorously right from the beginning, while the earlier planting struggled and grew slowly and got attacked by insect pests precisely because it struggled and grew slowly.
So this is the time of year when I am pretty regimented in what I plant and when. And I am prepared to sow again. And I am prepared to wait. Because just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
The last few days of warm weather have kicked the spinach in the low tunnel into high gear. It had been loitering along, barely growing, but the leaves have leaped up in the last half week, and show every sign of being able to put out as much spinach as we care to eat for the next two months until they bolt from the summer heat.
This is spinach that was sowed last fall, early September to be exact (although precisely when is of less help to most of you than the simple idea that you can do this), and this technique of sowing spinach and, to a lesser extent, lettuce, is one of the best tricks I know of for producing quality greens in your garden year round. Depending on how you protect them, you can be eating out of a hoophouse every day of the winter if you have enough space and a second layer of protection in the form of a row cover, and if you get the timing right with sowing. But even if you don't meet any of these criteria, you can still have a bed of spinach seedlings that, come early spring, will go nuts growing months ahead of when you would have anything else from your garden.
All you have to do is remember to sow them in the fall, and then cover them, with a hoophouse, low tunnel, or even a thick straw mulch. Wind and water are a bigger threat to the baby plants as they go into winter than cold, and they will actually freeze and thaw each day without problem in the greenhouse and low tunnel (under the mulch they more go into stasis). By late fall, it is a good idea to start keeping them slightly underwatered, to help the cells be able to freeze without bursting. And that is it!
I know it's not something you can do right now to begin gardening, but it's something to keep in mind and plan for in the fall, because this time next year you will be very happy you did. Early spring spinach feels like one of the greatest luxuries in the world.
If you are watering your garden with a hose and a spray wand, stop. You might be thinking that you are providing your plants with the moisture they need, but unless it is soaking a newly germinated seedling (or carrots waiting to germinate), what you are actually teaching your plants to do is to set shallow roots, because that is where the water is. You are teaching them to be sub-acutely, chronically water stressed.
What you actually need is a sprinkler, and you need to get in the habit of providing your plants with an inch of water a week, unless you are sure they already got it from rain. I don't bother having a rain gauge, I just run the sprinkler, but I have the luxury of being in the wet Northeast. Want to know how much your sprinkler produces in a given amount of time? Set a tin can or something else with straight sides inside the drop zone and come back in an hour. You can see how much it filled up and extrapolate from there how long you need to run the sprinkler.
A sprinkler run once a week for long enough to provide an inch of water is far better than a hose every day, because the water behaves differently. With a hose, the water is fast and furious, but brief, and so it stays at the surface, barely wetting the top couple of inches before it moves on. A sprinkler, on the other hand, happens slowly, and patiently, and it strikes in deep because of that very slowness. So the plant roots dive deep in response, seeking out the water, and because of this they gain access to a far greater slice of soil and all the nutrients it contains than plants that have shallow roots because that is all they were encouraged to grow.
I prefer a three armed spinny sprinkler, and I like the brass kind on the metal stalk that has a spike you step into the ground (mine is the brand Orbit, purchased on Amazon). The stalk keeps the sprinkler head above most crops, so the water comes down evenly. And I prefer the spinny kind because there is nothing to break and it produces a nice even pattern within the circle it waters. I'm not concerned about overwatering if I need to overlap coverage to get to everything, and I'm pretty casual with how long I run it. But the very fact that I can turn it on and forget about it IS the thing that makes it work so well. Your plants will thank you.
Let's pretend you planted your garden, or turned over some ground, maybe for the first time, maybe it's the usual thing you do. A week goes by, surprisingly fast in these days of quarantine, and you start to think about other things. But the weeds aren't thinking about other things, they are thinking about grabbing life by the b@##$ and GROWING. And you need to do something about it.
Now you could mulch your garden, if you have something to mulch with. Maybe you have lots of leaves from the fall (I do, but they are in with the chickens right now). Maybe you have some bales of straw. Maybe you have woodchips (careful there) or maybe you work for a coffee roaster and have a million burlap bags. Mulching can work great under certain circumstances, largely those where you have a lot of surplus vegetative matter. But I look around in the spring and I don't see much of that. Just a lot of lawn threatening to become mud pit if the kids ride their bikes on it one more time.
You could also go the route of hand weeding everything, which I have done in certain circumstances where there were lots of volunteer annual flowers coming up. But this is laborious, hard on your body and slow.
What you need is a hoe.
And you need to set your garden up to be easily hoed. Have an image in your mind of the long skinny single rows of pioneer gardens? That's a garden that is designed to be easily hoed. Just put the hoe down and walk . It is also, incidentally, a garden designed to be drought tolerant (each plant has access to enough soil to meet it's water needs without irrigation) and capable of growing crops with minimal fertilization. If you are just starting a garden, and have relatively more space than money, this is the sort of garden I would recommend.
Setting up your garden to be hoed also means spacing your plants far enough apart that you can get in there with whatever hoe you have. I hoed our garlic tonight (we grow 700 or so heads to sell) and I used our small stirrup hoe, which works perfectly with the spacing. Hoeing is good in the heat of summer because it breaks up the capillarity of the soil, forming a dust mulch that prevents the soil moisture from evaporating. It is good in the rains of spring, helping you keep on top of the weeds that keep trying to outpace the crop. Hoe once after a rainy spell and you are good to go until the next rainy spell.
The name of the game here is making it easy. Get your row spacing right, be generous with it. Keep your hoe sharp with an occasional filing. Hoe early and often, before the weeds are visible. All of these details will allow you to grow a big garden with relative ease, big enough to grow some food for other people. And really, that is the point of having a garden in the first place.
When it comes to making a garden out of something that is not a garden, you have a few options. You can rototill it, but honestly that takes forever (at least three passes for sod) and is bad for the soil microorganisms, who get too churned up. Plus you always bite off more than you can chew with a rototiller or god forbid, a tractor.
You could go the no till method, but unless you are swimming in giant piles of compost and woodchips and hay, you are unlikely to be able to make a large enough garden without a prohibitively large budget.
The third option, the middle way, is the shovel. Oh, the shovel. It's pointed snout, judiciously sharpened with a file, plunges down through sod and willingly severs roots. The long handle keeps you from stooping, and the action of flipping each load maintains soil structure while burying the sod down deep enough where it mostly won't grow back.
Today I shoveled over a section of existing garden. It was an area of incredibly crummy soil that broke my shovel five years ago, and I finished turning it with a pick axe, a grueling process that took hours. It is still working its way to a reasonable garden soil, and this year's heavy application of compost should help tremendously. But for now, the flipping action of the shovel helps by increasing the organic matter down deep, as each load inverts the compost spread last year with the clay eight inches down. Spread more compost on top of that, and you are well on your way to a soil that will reliably grow good vegetables, provided you fertilize and amend as well (more on that later).
In many of our other garden beds, we simply use a broadfork to aerate and then spread and cultivate and rake. But if you are starting out, or if you are looking to improve a soil dramatically, go with a shovel. You won't regret it.
First, I want to acknowledge that someone asked if I would share more photos with these blogs. The answer is no. Uploading photos is much more time intensive, not to mention taking them and curating the right one, and my goal here is to do a daily post that takes me about fifteen minutes. So take it as it is, just some gardening advice that isn't meant to inspire you with a beautiful photo. Just words. But thank you for the ask.
Someone else asked if I would talk about how you can grow some food if you only have an apartment with no outside space, and I want to use tonight to honor that request. My experience with container gardening is minimal, but here is what I know.
First, if you can get starts, either at your supermarket (our coop carries them) or at a hardware store or garden center, you will be much better off. While you can germinate seeds, it is far more efficient in both time and money for you to buy starts than to start seeds. You will be harvesting weeks or even more than a month sooner, and it will probably cost you less than buying the seeds etc.
The next consideration is sunlight. You really need to give them as much of the available light as you can, even if that means rearranging your house. Pull your couch away from that sunny windowsill and give it to the plants. Depending on how sunny the windowsill is, you may need to pay extra attention to watering.
One of the ways you can reduce the need for frequent watering and general stress of the plant is to pot them up, or to sow into larger containers, yogurt container sized or even bigger if you have the space. Give the plants plenty of soil space to roam in! And if you can, get some real soil or compost to pot them up so they aren't just in that weird sterile potting soil most starts grow in. That stuff is engineered to have enough fertility to get them to sale, and no further. They will need more space and more earth.
If you are sowing seeds, consider doing large trays of soil, you can even buy plastic seeding trays with a clear plastic lid that help keep the soil moisture in and the temperature higher for improved germination.
Watering is an art. You want to let the soil get to the point of just barely being dry, then give it a good soaking. This obviously can mean you need plates and trays under your plants. Or if you are using yogurt containers, stick some gravel in the bottom to allow the soil to drain at the bottom. Eventually, the plants roots will reach down to this water sink, but obviously not right away.
Despite your best efforts, the plants will get leggy and bend towards the light. Keep turning them to keep them from getting too floppy, and regular foraging will also keep them compact. Good candidates for indoor food growing are herbs like parsley, cilantro, and dill. Thyme, oregano and rosemary are not worth starting from seed but would be worth getting plants of. Chives are lovely to have.
Another thing to consider is forcing vegetable scraps, such as the top of beets or turnips you trim off. Stick them cut end down in a dish of water on the windowsill, and they will put out leaves, drawing from the bit of root that is left.
By far the most satisfying time to garden is in the late fall and the early spring, when having anything fresh coming out of the garden feels like you are pulling one over on the world, at least where I live in New England. This is made possible with the season extension of a plastic cover and some kind of hooping. We have two at the moment, a 10x12 ft hoophouse with saplings used for the frame (and it has lasted a long time, these saplings are going on 11 years now), and a low tunnel that is 4x12 ft and with hoops from metal electrical conduit bent into imperfect arches. The plastic is a greenhouse film specifically designed for light penetration and tear resistance, and lasts five years before it should be replaced. In both places, we can have carrots that go to Christmas without being frozen in, and spinach and lettuce that give a bounty in the late fall, go into stasis and then fire up in April, providing greens for many weeks before anything else in the garden is ready. Everything about our garden revolves around creating these crops. I make sure to plant them with sufficient time to size up, the carrots by the beginning of August and the greens by the beginning of September.
I'm actually far less interested in the rest of the garden than I am in these spaces. Because there is nothing like harvesting a bowl of spinach in the middle of winter. And while I bought the plastic (Johnny's Selected Seeds, $200 delivered for a ten year supply), everything else was scrounged for free. So don't go spend a lot of money. But do devise some season extension for yourself. Because you won't ever want to be without again.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.