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By Douglas Sciorra

The Upland Gardener


Important traditions in planting and growing your garden

By Mary Lou Wells, photo by Lynn Bliven

Timing is everything

You would not know it to look out the window on this late, cold, snowy and blowy February day, but spring is just around the corner! Time for an article or two on Traditions – think Tevye, Act I. New gardeners may not be as burdened as the old, but we all have them. For this reason the Air Force in World War II preferred men with no flying experience; they only had to be trained right – no time wasted breaking bad habits.

Most have heard “Plant your potatoes by the Ides of March.” Why? Caesar knew nothing of the potato! If this is one of your family traditions, chances are great grandpa came from Ireland where indeed they can be set out in early March.

In Allegany County many still believe it best to wait until Memorial Day weekend to plant the veggie patch. If you only grow tomatoes, beans, corn, squash and peppers this is fine – they are all tender, warm-weather crops and need warm soil as well as air to flourish.

All the hardy, cool-weather crops, though, will have missed their best time – not only to grow but to taste their best. Lettuce picked in May and broccoli in June are splendid – a real treat.

So get going in early to mid-April. If you prepared your beds and raised your rows back in October and now keep your feet on the paths, you can plant even in wet soil, gently using your hoe to make a shallow trench for your seeds, gently covering them and gently patting down the soil.

Cool-weather crops fall into two categories: Hardy and Half-Hardy. The truly hardy can tolerate cool soils 45° – 55° Fahrenheit and temperatures which drop to the mid-20s. The first to sow in the first half of April are: peas, spinach, kale, brussel sprouts and lettuce. The half-hardy are sown next in later April: beets, onions and carrots, broccoli transplants and, yes, those potatoes! These will handle 28° Fahrenheit, but you might want to toss a sheet over them to be doubly sure.

So, don’t waste 25% of the gardening year! Your plot will be more productive and the veggies will taste so much better.

To lime or not to lime, now that is the question

This is Part II of setting traditions straight. The practice of adding lime to the hay fields probably slipped over to doing the same to our veggie gardens. But, is it necessary, and if so, when should we do it?

Let’s diverge briefly into the mysteries of soil chemistry – very briefly. The amount of free hydrogen ions in your soil determines the pH – more ions = lower pH number. A neutral soil comes in at 7 – a very acidic one at 4 (blueberries love this level). The acidity depends on your bedrock and climate. For us in Allegany County this ranges from 6.2 – 6.8, or slightly acid. This range is very good for most of your veggies – think of our ancestors as lazy or practical – why bother with fussy plants – learn to eat what comes easily. So, unless you grow potatoes or strawberries, which do better at pH 5.5, leave your plot be. Need I say, test it first to be sure it falls in the average range – pH 6.2 – 6.8. If it needs adjusting (lime to raise and Sulphur to lower) do it in the fall.

Old habits are hard to change! People are used to doing everything in the rush of spring fever when most should be done in October. If you wait until May to add amendments it takes six months to achieve results so soil isn’t “better” until November! So, do it in October when you are cleaning up, adding compost, spading and mulching. Gradually over winter and early spring it will do its thing and come April you will be all set.

It’s finally the month of March. After a long, mild fall and early winter, an old-time cold, snowy six weeks followed. But, already the snow crocus and snow drops (a gift from Lynn Phelan all those years ago) are coming up by the door step. Real spring is not that far off.

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