Leaving our valiant hero, locked in mortal combat against the forces of
darkness, we return now to gardening that is now in progress
By MEG McCONAHEY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
It's the first full weekend of daylight savings and the beginning of the
vernal equinox, igniting that primal urge to plant.
After months staring at dismal planting beds, the seed catalogs and
garden centers are as irresistible as a plate of fresh brownies on the
But experienced gardeners warn eager newbies and those who falsely think
getting an early start is the secret to growing success to resist the
seductions of planting and instead, do their spade work.
³Everybody wants to put their tomatoes in now. But not now. Not now,²
chuckles Mary Frost, a private garden tutor who coaches people
The dirty truth is that the first couple of weeks of spring are best
spent cleaning up and getting your ground, irrigation system and tools
While the date of the last frost varies from year to year, in Sonoma
County it's generally regarded as April 15. Plant your warm, summer
crops before that and you risk losing them. Or at best, they won't do
anything, wasting time that could have better been spent weeding,
building up your soil and doing the last of your pruning.
When it comes to happy plants, so much of your success will get down to
one thing ‹ the quality of your soil.
³You're going to be wasting your time and wasting your money if you
don't get your soil prepared. Dirt is dirt, but soil is filled with
microbial life, insects and earth worms breaking down organic matter and
feeding your plants.²
The way to add microbes to your soil, she says, is through compost.
There is healthy disagreement over whether rototilling is necessary or
even good for most gardens. Spiegelman maintains that just a thick layer
of good compost ‹ about two to three inches ‹ just laid on the top of
the soil, is all you need to do in most cases. Spread it out now and
then wait a few weeks, letting the micro-organisms and earth worms time
to do their job.
³I call microbials your people,² she laughs. ³They're doing all the free
labor for you.²
In fact, if you've got worms, be flattered. It means you've got great
digs for growing.
Compost really has many advantages. Not only does it increase the
percentage of organic matter in your soil, says Alan Siegle of Sonoma
Compost, but it also builds up soil structure, makes heavy clay soil
easier to work and drain better and improves the moisture-holding
capacity of your soil, cutting down on water use and making plants
At the same time, compost can serve as a slow-release fertilizer by
adding nutrients and minerals to your soil and plants as it breaks
³Adobe tends to eat up organic matter. Clay soils are generally
incredibly rich but the nutrients are bound up and not always available
to the plants,² says Siegle. ³If you don't have enough mulch or compost
added it can turn into brick very early in the spring and just makes it
very difficult to plant.²
It's wise to have a sense of the soil you have, to help determine what
compost might be best.
You will also want to choose a different soil for shrubs and perennials.
Vegetable gardens need more nitrogen while shrubs do better with a
Experts say that it's not a good idea to work your soil while it's wet.
Add your compost and after any rain, let it dry a bit. Meanwhile, tackle
another dreaded task that will pay off later ‹ weeding.
It's not just for appearances. ³Weeds steal nutrients and water from
your desirable plants. They compete and they usually win,² says Frost,
who does her weeding the old-fashioned and healthy organic way, by hand.
Wait a few days after a rain when the soil is damp but not soggy. You
don't want to be removing big clumps of your soil. But if its slightly
damp you can get at those big tap roots. Moderate your time spent
pulling. Ten minutes here, 20 minutes there to avoid injury.
While you're waiting to plant you might also check your irrigation
system for leaks and finish pruning.
And if you simply can't wait to put something in the ground, hold off on
your tomatoes until April or May and start with cooler weather crops.
Spinach, radishes, turnips, beets, peas, carrots, cilantro, Asian greens
and potatoes can be sewn into the ground now. You could also plant from
starts lettuce, leeks, onions, brassicas, peas and Asian greens.
"Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the
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