It’s time to get ready for outdoor gardening season. Yes, the tradition in Maine is for the season to start on Patriots Day (April 18 this year), but if you spend the next five weeks reading and worrying about troubling current events around the world, you’ll be way off. behind when it comes time to do some real gardening.
A few decades ago, when we had less money and weren’t taking spring break, the coming week would be when we set up our seed starting station and planted pepper seeds. Tomatoes and other vegetables would come later. We don’t do that anymore. We removed the fluorescent light fixtures that were hanging on chains above the ping pong table which we then used as a seeding station. Now, when the teenage grandchildren visit us, we play table tennis.
But we are still planting things now. My wife, Nancy, is growing ranunculus for the first time because she really liked the ones in the floral arrangement I gave her for Valentine’s Day. In zone 7 or above, buttercup bulbs could have been planted outdoors last fall. In the frigid North, planting is more complicated.
First you need to soak the bulbs, which look like plump claws, in warm water for several hours. After that, put about two inches of commercial potting soil in the bottom of a container, place the bulbs on the soil, then cover them with about an inch more soil. Keep them in a cool place until they sprout, then place them in a sunny window. In May, plant them outdoors.
Nancy, who is an avid recycler, puts some wet planting mix in the bottom of one of those big plastic containers that supermarket shelves use for salad greens, then closes the lid. In this improvised mini-greenhouse, the bulbs quickly grew. Ranunculus will be lovely this summer in what is still called the vegetable garden, joining dahlias, gladioli, zinnias, tithonias and other flowers that are brought indoors to make bouquets.
It’s also about the time that, for the past two years, I’ve been planting lettuce in a cold frame (essentially a miniature greenhouse) in the vegetable patch. I started the practice in 2020. It was a very hot month of March and I was looking for something to do at the start of the pandemic. In just a few weeks, I was cutting young lettuce leaves for our table. Last year, I repeated the experience. I was still getting lettuce in December, when the wind put an end to my project. It blew the top of the cold frame and the lettuce froze. This year I may also try growing carrots to give us more variety in our early spring vegetables.
It’s a good time to check your gardening equipment: is it clean and in good condition? In previous years I would have already sharpened all our pruning saws, hand pruners, loppers and other equipment, but this winter I was busy refurbishing and reweaving lawn chairs, so the tools are still waiting in a box for necessary maintenance. . I’m done with the furniture, so plan to move on to the tools next.
If I have time, I can try sweet potatoes, which I heard about this year even though I’ve been growing potatoes for at least 40 years. My method has been to take the seed potatoes – whether the ones I saved from the previous year’s harvest or the seed potatoes we bought – and cut them with a few eyes of potato by piece a day or two before planting, usually in late April.
Do the same procedure three or four weeks before planning to plant and you have sweet potatoes. During this time, you leave them in a cool but sunny place, letting the eyes sprout and grow. Now, I’ve been happy with our potato crops in the past, but who knows? Maybe they could be even better. This spring, I hope to do a side-by-side comparison of the two methods.
With a lot of these pre-April chores, the real goal is to convince me that winter is almost over and gardening season is approaching. This thought improves my mental, and probably physical, health at a time when both could use the boost.
Tom Atwell is a freelance writer who gardens in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]
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