GTTY -- April
Harvesting in April is one of the best surprises of gardening here in the Northeast. The snow recedes and the ground begins to warm and suddenly there can be food everywhere. There are three sources of this bounty – perennial vegetables, herbs and wild foods.
Plant a perennial vegetable or two this spring. Asparagus comes to mind immediately as an early spring vegetable, harvested from mid to late April until the 4th of July. There are many others that will provide variety and flavor to every meal. Good King Henry is a perennial spinach and French sorrel provides greens for salad or soup. Jerusalem artichokes are wonderful freshly dug in the spring. They are good raw or cooked.
Next consider the herbs that are popping now – chives, oregano, marjoram, thyme, lemon balm and soon other mints, wintered-over parsley, salad burnet (a beautiful plant with cucumber tasting leaves), chervil, lovage and tarragon. You might even find some cilantro has wintered over and provides many leaves before going to seed. Using handfuls of these tasty plants mixed with wild greens, commercial lettuce or spinach adds nutrition and protection to your diet. The protection comes from the antimicrobial properties of these culinary herbs.
There is a great variety of wild food all growing season, but it is especially welcome in the spring. Dandelion leaves and blossoms have long been known to provide high levels of vitamins A and K, but also many minerals and liver simulating phytonutrients. The leaves picked young are sweet and tender. The blossoms should be picked early in the day. There are many mustards growing wild. Garlic mustard is considered a invasive week, growing everywhere. The leaves have a strong garlic flavor and are a good addition to salads but can also can be steamed lightly or added to pesto. Any one of the mustards have small, broccoli-like flower heads. Harvest them before they begin to open and prepare like broccoli rabe. Stinging nettles is one of the most nutritious and tasty of spring wild greens. Be sure to wear gloves to harvest and prepare the nettles. Once steamed or boiled they lose their sting. The cooking water or tea made from nettles has long been prized for its tonic value. Other edible wild greens include jewelweed, plantain, evening primrose, chicory, chickweed, violets and violas (including the flowers). It is a time of great bounty.
For the home garden it is time to plant all the spring, cool weather vegetables: lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, peas, broccoli, cabbage, collards, kale, Swiss chard, onions, cilantro, parsley, to name a few. If you want to transplant strawberries or raspberries, it is good to get them in when there is rain to ease the transplanting. April is also the month to plant new fruit trees and bush fruit.
One of the variations on vegetable gardens you might consider is planting in containers, raised beds or lasagna beds. Here is lots of information that might be helpful if you want to experiment.
There are many advantages to container gardening. The containers can be moved to follow the sun or lengthen the growing season. There is no digging and little weeding. Pests can be controlled by hand and are noticed quickly because you are watering frequently. You have control over the growing medium, size of container and watering method. It is lighter work than gardening in the dirt, but you will not produce as much because of limited area. When the plants are mature, they need daily watering. Self-watering containers or systems will provide optimum moisture for sustained, rapid growth.
You should not use garden soil in a container. The potting mix should be nutrient rich and well draining, but be able to hold sufficient water and air for the roots to take up the nutrients. You can buy a prepared potting soil or make your own. There are several recipes below.
Containers come in many sizes, shapes and materials. The size is determined by what you want to plant. The bigger the plant, the bigger the pot has to be. Plastic pots are lightweight, long lasting, and can be in a variety of colors, but do not biodegrade. Plastic does not lose moisture through the sides, but can promote roots running around the inside of the container and be less effective in using water and nutrients. Clay and wood and cloth pots dry out quickly. The soil mix for these can contain coconut fiber (coir) that holds more moisture than peat moss. These pots promote better root development because when the roots come close to the pot, the presence of air stops growth at the tip and forces branching inside the pot where moisture is more abundant.
WHAT? A raised bed is simply an area of the garden, which is higher than the ground surrounding it, which ground is usually an aisle. Your reach determines the width, - whatever you’re comfortable with, often 3-4 ft. The length is usually what you’re willing to walk around in order to work on the other side. It can easily be curved, either for esthetics or to fit to the ground contour. The height is arbitrary, with greater height requiring stronger side walls and more fill material. Spacing between beds must be enough for any carts you plan to use,
WHY? The advantages vary from garden to garden, and include:
- Better drainage, most useful in the spring and in wet areas.
- Contains soil you make over rocky or poor soil.
- Helps to keep you from stepping into the area, thus compressing the dirt.
- Higher raised beds discourage some little critters, and the edge can be a place to sit,
- A useful boundary when it comes to weeding and cultivating,
- An attractive way to separate plantings,
- Uses soil amendments more efficiently, e.g., they’re kept out of aisles,
- Keeps inert material used for aisles separate from the planting areas.
- Can be used to give a level planting area on a sloped surface
- Can make it harder to use machinery for tilling, cultivating,
- One more thing to buy/do as you create your garden,
- May be of marginal utility if you have lots of good dirt and good drainage
HOW TO? It’s creativity-limited. Below are a few examples.
- Easiest for lower beds is simply to have sloping sides of dirt. These sides can be planted, which should help limit erosion.
- Most garden catalogs will offer a variety of wood or plastic raised beds.
- Low beds can be edged by whatever you have laying around, e.g., stones, logs, cement blocks, railroad ties, ... It simply has to remain in place for a useful length of time. Old lumber is common, recognize that if untreated it will rot in a few years, and if treated you may be compromising the quality of your food. Lumber such as 2x10’s will tend to bow out from the pressure of the dirt it is retaining, so either cross-ties or stakes into the ground can be helpful reinforcement. Corners can either be nailed to stakes or held with metal brackets.
- We particularly like cinderblock for appearance, functionality and longevity. It is just stacked, and not mortared. For good appearance it is necessary to lay the block on a straight (and usually level) foundation. A treated board (2x8 or 2x10) lying on the ground under a row of block works well (see the bed at our old house). Our main beds are on a foundation of gravel. The blocks are staggered vertically, with a block in one row being centered on the joint between two blocks in the row beneath. The holes in the blocks can be filled with dirt and planted. Use of split-face block is particularly attractive. The surface of the top row of block is a fine working/sitting surface.
The basic ingredients: peat moss, compost (including composted/aged manure), vermiculite or perlite, sand, fertilizer and mineral additives.
Containers: 50% compost, 40% peat moss or coir and 10% vermiculite, and dolomite lime to offset the acidity of peat moss. Mix thoroughly and add fertilizer. Dampen and put in containers.
Raised Beds: Equal portions of sand, compost and peat moss. Fertilizer and lime can be added if needed. If manure is used for part of the compost, other fertilizer is not needed.
Organic Additives: Dolomite lime raises the pH to 6.5 - 7 and adds magnesium and calcium. Use blood meal for nitrogen; bone meal for calcium and phosphorus; wood ashes (carefully) for potassium and to raise pH; greensand for trace minerals and potassium. Many organic complete fertilizers are available. A pH measurement will tell you if lime and/or wood ashes are appropriate.
Both methods described below use mulch and compost**. Both give you dark, rich soil. Both promote worms that naturally aerate and fertilize. Both conserve moisture and minimize the need to water. The major difference is the amount of organic material. Lasagna is highly recommended over poor soil.
Begin by choosing and marking off the area, you want to cultivate. The area should be chosen with the sun requirements of your plants in mind. Many vegetables, herbs, and flowers need full sun. Berries (other than blueberries), mints and some green leafy vegetables and flowers can produce well in partial shade. Full shade is suitable for woodland wildflowers and medicinal herbs. A good seed or nursery catalog will have this information.
The next step is to remove the existing vegetation by mowing or stomping it down. Woody plants should be dug up. If you are planting on a lawn in the spring, skip this step. Sprinkle with fertilizer (4 cups of soybean meal per 100 square feet, a dusting of wood ashes, perhaps ground eggshells or bone meal, and rock phosphate).
Next cover the entire area, including paths, with a barrier (this will kill the vegetation below) that will decompose quickly. Wet newspaper 4-8 sheets thick, cut-open old leaf bags, or cardboard boxes all work well. Be sure to overlap the edges. Cardboard is best used in the fall for time to decompose.
Cover the areas that will be paths with wood chips, pebbles, stone, straw, or sawdust.
Weedless Gardening (book by Lee Reich – a wealth of great information)
Now simply put down 1-2 inches of compost in areas to be planted. Seeds or seedlings can be planted. Do not penetrate the barrier. If 2 inches is not deep enough for a seedling, set it on the barrier and gather compost around it to steady it and then surround with mulch to the level of the soil that was in the pot. For seedlings apply 2 inches of mulch over the entire bed around the transplants. For seeds, after the seeds are up a few inches, mulch as you did around seedlings. (Weedless Gardening by Lee Reich)
Lasagna Gardening (book by Patricia Lanza)
Layer organic matter 18-24 inches thick over the entire planting area. Layers could be compost, shredded leaves, grass clippings, weeds, peat moss, animal manure (Predel’s sells good stuff), vegetable and fruit peelings, coffee grounds, hay, straw, sawdust, or wood ashes. Start with 2-3 inches of compost or peat moss and then add 4-8 inches of a mix of some of the others, then another 2-3 inches of compost or peat and so on. To plant seedlings, just spread the layers apart, set the plant at the right depth and gather the material around it again. To plant seeds, on the top of your layers spread a row or patch of compost or damp peat moss, place your seeds and cover with more compost or peat moss. If you build the garden in the fall, it will be about 6 inches deep, dark, rich “soil” by spring. Plant in this “soil” as you would dirt. Mulch with a 2-6 inch layer of leaves or other mulch when plants are up. (Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza)
**Mulch is any material placed around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds. An organic mulch (e.g. leaves, grass clippings, sawdust, hay) will decompose and adds nutrients to the soil. It will also protect the soil from the hot sun and heavy rain.
**Compost is decomposed organic matter. It can be purchased or homemade. It resembles dirt but can hold much more moisture. It can be used as a mulch, mixed with soil or used to make soil-free planting mixtures.
Nancy is a retired secondary teacher. She built and lives in an active and passive solar, high thermal mass home. She is an avid gardener and helps others to learn how to garden.