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Starting Your Spring Garden

My part of the world wakes up from the long winter slumber earlier than most here in the US.

The marine effect of the Pacific Ocean that keeps us cool in the summer also regulates wintertime temperatures here on the central California coast; it’s cold here but not nearly as cold as it is further inland.

The spring rains have been sparse this year but what little we’ve received combined with progressively longer days have brought a change to the drab barrenness of my yard and neighborhood.

The patch of sweet peas that reseed every year near my kitchen have sprouted; this is my reminder that it’s time to plant my spring garden.

Here’s my basic philosophy for choosing what goes in my garden: I plant what’s best at its freshest, like herbs and shelling peas, and what I have trouble finding at my local grocery store or farmers market, like green garlic and shallot tops.

I also like to plant things my kids like to harvest, so carrots and potatoes are at the top of the list for my spring garden.

The timing for harvest is also a factor.

For example, my potatoes come out of the ground in the early summer, right about the time I need to start thinking about planting pumpkins and sunflowers.

I have more morning sunlight in my backyard garden this spring. In January one of my neighbors finally got tired of the giant avocado tree producing fruit that never ripened and had it removed. This cleared the eastern skyline for my yard, bringing morning light to beds that in the past had to wait for the afternoon sun.

To go along with my brighter backyard there is the new Plant Hardiness Zone Map from the USDA.

Recently updated for the first time in 22 years, this map shows the average annual wintertime temperatures in 13 zones throughout the US and has long been the standard gardeners and growers use to determine which plants are most likely to thrive in a given location.

This new map has 13 temperature zones (compared to the previous 11) and further divides each zone into two parts to help pinpoint plant compatibility.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decide what method is best for planting in my garden. Some items — like potatoes, garlic and carrots — I start from seed planted or scattered directly into my garden.

But for items that are susceptible to early insect damage, have a high seed failure rate or long germination periods (like herbs), I like to use plant starts. Starts are plants grown in greenhouses that have germinated and are more mature.

Gardening from starts is a lot more expensive but it’s also more precise, especially if you have limited space or your spring is short and you want to avoid waiting on seed germination.

I learned some new tricks that are extremely helpful when using seeds instead of plant starts.

Most of these tips came from reader comments on my gardening post from last year, so thanks!

  • Soaking beans and peas prior to planting speeds the germination process enormously (24 hours is usually plenty unless the bean is very large).
  • Rubbing the hard outer shells of larger seeds with fine sandpaper also cuts down on germination time.
  • For small seeds, you can replicate the sandpaper effect by putting the seeds in a jar with gardening sand. You shake the seeds and sand together then just broadcast the seeds and sand into the area you want to plant.
  • Really small seeds can be spread more evenly using salt or pepper shakers.

I find plants like bamboo and grapevine enormously helpful for creating garden trellises. So I always try to save some of the grapevine I prune back in the fall or the bamboo I seem to be constantly trying to control. Both are great for supporting peas in the spring and beans in the summer.

Besides the peas peeking out near my kitchen, there are more signals of spring all over my yard — the maple by my driveway is pushing out bright green new leaves and my two-year-old apricot tree has twice as many blooms this year than last.

With the longer days I have more time to appreciate everything that’s sprouting up around me.

Maybe the yard woke up weeks ago and it’s just been too dark and gloomy to notice.

What’s much more likely is that the raindrops of February met the sunshine of March and together they’ve nudged Mother Earth from her winter sleep. Yes, my part of the world is indeed waking up.

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Christie says …

I'm glad that your garden finally receives more light. Mine works just like a calender. The key is to start at the most convenient time and than it flourishes almost by itself. For the first time I'm also planning to build a greenhouse so I'm already curious how this is going to work out. And thank you for your tips regarding seeds. It really did the trick!

Shannon says …

We had avocado trees that we thought "didn't ripen" until we realized the avocados aren't supposed to ripen until after you pick them -- which you do when they get to be the right size.

says …

Hi Kim, I don't get rabbits in my garden anymore but I still get skunks and other semi urban critters. One of my garden friends suggest finding plants your garden past likes better- in your case I suggest clover if you can grow it in your area. I personally subscribe to the "plant enough for everyone" philosopy and hope for the best. Hi Shannon, We live pretty close to the coast so I suspect there were some maturity issues with the fruit as well. I remember he also mentioned fruit falling on his roof at all hours as well. I did not know avocadoes don't ripen on the tree.

Kim says …

Thanks for this very helpful post. I have tried and failed to keep the neighborhood rabbit population out of my garden - organic sprays or "pebbles" and mesh have all failed. Any tips?

Melissa says …

I'm once again trying to get a few plants growing but I live in Las Vegas. I have a black prince heirloom tomato that has some blooms and a tiny tomoato :) and rosemary that are so far so good. Do you have any tips for a desert grower.

Karen says …

Does anyone know where I can buy good quality bags of soil for my small garden out front? I have heard that "organic" bags of soil mean nothing. I am new to this gardening- do not have space or time to get a compost going.

says …

@Karen Some of the Whole Foods Market Floral Departments offer soil for purchase. I encourage you to reach out to your community Whole Foods Market to learn if they offer this product. You can identify their contact information at the following link. www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores

Kristin says …

We are pushing for so much organic items in our house..and the garden will be a big part this year. What is a great item for just smaller flying pests? We have a smaller yard and in Florida, so I am not worried about rabbits, etc. but definitely the rest!

says …

@Kristin I reached out to James, the blog author for a response. Here's what he said: "Hey Kristin. I’m afraid I cannot advise you on what would work best for your area- my climate is very different from yours and applications will vary depending on what you want to grow. My best advice is to grow what is best suited to your climate as these plants will have developed natural pest defenses. I would check with folks at your local nursery for plants that are best for your area and pest control methods that are proven for your climate."

Cyndi says …

Good info, James! Do you have any tips for someone living in an apartment? I've always wanted a garden, but I don't even have so much as a balcony! The only outdoor space available to me is a small area right outside my door, but it's completely shaded. Is there anything at all I can grow in a couple pots there? Thanks!

says …

@Cyndi I reached out to James Parker on your behalf and here's his response to your question... "Hi Cyndi, You might search on the web for community gardens in your area – these are popping up everywhere and are an excellent resource for folks who don’t have space at home to garden. As for your shade space – I’m a big fan of fresh herbs in pots. There are several varieties that do well even in low light conditions- I suggest you go to your local nursery and ask what grows well where you live." -JP

bharti says …

I been trying to grow herb garden since two years never good result.But when I got redy plants from stores I got excwllent result. I need help for spinach and asian indian veggis. can you help me how to get seeds and growing methods?

says …

@Bharti Since growing conditions differ from town to town and often from neighborhood to neighborhood, it's best to contact gardeners in your own area for recommendations. The Team Members in the floral department at your local Whole Foods Market are wonderful resources. You can identify the contact information with which to reach them at the following link. www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores

fake grass says …

Thanks for posting the tips. I've been having a little trouble getting much of anything to grow. Good idea too on planting crops. That way a garden won't only look good, it will taste good when cooked as well.