Winter

Winter gardens in the county struggled this year with frigid temperatures but spring planting is just around the corner.

By this time of year, my longtime friend and fellow organic gardener Lalla Ostergren used to be highly excited about the imminent beginnings of the planting season. She would have dozens of seedlings on her window sills, ready to go out in the garden when, in her opinion, the perfect time had arrived. I was never sure about what exactly determined her “perfect time” as she would talk about several factors including moon phases, plants in the woods starting to bud out, wild animal behavior, the appearance of certain insects, and smells in the air.

Also by this time, she had already ordered most of her seed choices for the year, including at least one choice she had never tried before. Additionally, she had her map of where everything was to be planted in her garden. She was something of a poster child for garden preparedness.

Most of us will never achieve her level of performance but we don’t want to let that stop us from participating in one of the most richly rewarding activities available to almost everyone. Even those with physical challenges can start a window sill herb garden, or a pot, bucket or tub of greens near the back door. I have several raised grow boxes that do not need bending over to work in. And positive benefits can start immediately for us with even the smallest of gardening efforts.

An article by Allie Gouveia, distributed by UNC Health Talk, lists “8 Surprising Health Benefits of Gardening”:

Gardening is a self-esteem builder. Even a little success with growing things lifts our spirits and gives us more of a sense of being in tune with the natural processes of earth.

Gardening can reduce stress. It helps get our focus off our problems and onto a goal. Watching things grow and thrive imbibes us with a sense of well-being.

Happiness can increase with gardening. There is a healthy bacteria in the soil, that when inhaled, raises the level of serotonin in our body and that reduces anxiety.

Gardening can keep your hands nimble and strong. Digging, planting and pulling helps keep the kinks worked out and builds strength.

Outdoor gardening can boost your vitamin D levels. Exposure to the sun produces vitamin D which strengthens bones and our immune systems. Remember to use sun screen.

Heart health can be enhanced through gardening. Depending upon your level of exertion, cardiovascular health can improve.

The whole family can benefit from gardening. In addition to the bonding and sharing experience of a family garden, kids exposed to dirt early have been shown to have reductions in allergies and autoimmune diseases.

Eating healthier can be a natural extension of raising your own food. Being intimately involved with the process increases the importance of the outcome. It doesn’t get any fresher than straight from your garden to your table.

Looking back briefly, the recent visit by a polar vortex made winter gardening really difficult this year. Even with coverings, many cool weather crops expired under the relentless well below freezing temperatures. A few neighbors report, having made extraordinarily efforts, and In conjunction with the insulating effect of the snow, that at least portions of their gardens survived the frigid temperatures. This kind of success most often has to do with good southern exposure, protection from north winds and a willingness to quickly cover plants when extreme cold is predicted. Some winters are a lot easier than this one was. Thank goodness spring is just around the corner.

March is a wonderful month to get serious about the spring and summer garden.

I would guess, and it’s always a guess with the weather, that well developed plants from indoors can start being prepared for set out in the garden soon. Get them use to the outdoor conditions by setting them outside for a few hours each day for about a week before planting. This is called “hardening off.” And be prepared to cover them if overnights drop below freezing. Even cold hardy plants are not as resistant when young.

Additionally, seed to direct sow now could include broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard, kale and rutabaga. A little later in the month plant beet, carrot, cauliflower, celery, endive, lettuce, mustard, onion, parsnip, salsify and turnip, to name a few.

Shelling, snow and snap peas can all be planted as soon as the ground thaws.

It depends upon how long the soil stays wet. Seed, and potatoes, can rot if kept wet too long. Good draining soil helps but keep an eye on the forecast and check your soil for moisture content before planting.

Getting seeds to germinate properly requires a balance between moisture and temperature. Even with the perfect balance, seed like carrot, can take up to two weeks. Also, once planted, don’t let seed dry out as that will delay germination.

I like to soak my seed in a kelp solution overnight before planting. This softens the seed coat and gives germination a bit of a jump start.

Longtime gardeners are fairly clear in their minds about their plans at this point but here are some questions beginners should consider.

How much time will you devote to your plants? A big garden is no good if you don’t have the time for it. Will you plant in pots, boxes, buckets, tubs or the ground? Each will require a different amount of soil, amendments and seed. Where will you get your soil? Beginners should be checking what’s available at the local nursery. Longtimers are making their own. Will you use a tiller for your garden, or use a shovel and hoe? I like a shovel and hoe for the close feel of connectedness it gives me with my soil. What to plant? If you don’t like to eat it, don’t plant it. Will you have supplemental water available? We can’t depend on rain always coming in a timely manner so we need to be prepared. I favor rooftop collection with well water backup. What fertilizers will you use? To keep my conscience clear I have to use organic. How will you store your produce? Canning was my first choice for years but recently I’ve moved towards dehydration and freezing. Do you have a person to cover for you when you can’t be there for your garden? For more considerations like these, get a good book.

One last item deserving mention now, plenty of warm weather plants can still be started indoors, including bean, eggplant, okra, melon, pepper, squash and tomato, to name a few. Just remember not to transplant outside until the last chance of frost has passed, which can vary from year to year, but generally tends to be towards the end of April.

Check seed packs for information about days from seed starting to transplanting outside. Knowing when the last frost is expected allows you to know when to plant your seeds. For this example, let’s say the last frost will be May 1. The seed pack says 8 weeks from planting seed to transplanting outside, so that seed should be started about March 1. It’s ok to transplant out a little later if you get started late, and you can always purchase transplants at the nursery.

Now that the worst of winter’s cold weather is behind us, it’s time to be thinking spring. Before you know it buds will be swelling, flowers will be blooming and there will be wholesome, fresh and local vegetables available. Embrace the change.

Hope to see you in the garden next month.

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