Starting Your Spring Garden

Look at what’s sprouting up at the home of our produce expert, James. Read his tips for a successful spring garden and then share your own.

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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