Peas for St. Patrick’s Day

Image: Peasl Photo source: Jessica Ruscello, UnsplashIn Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is the traditional day to plant peas in a spring garden. In the United States the timing can vary somewhat from zone to zone, but March 17th still works well as a guide for starting peas for most areas. And what a perfect way to bring your garden a bit of the “luck of the Irish” by planting something green!

Why you should grow peas.

Did you know peas have been cultivated by humans for anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 years? Peas are an easy, rewarding crop for spring, and are a great way to fix nitrogen in the soil for your summer plants. As an early spring crop they can be out of the ground by June, leaving time for a warm weather crop to succeed them.

Selecting a variety.

Image of peas in a basket

Dried Shelling Peas are typically used for soups or stews, and fresh shelled immature peas are good lightly steamed or boiled. Their pod is too fibrous to be edible, and the peas themselves must be removed from the shells, hence their name. Bush Shelling peas grow in a compact bush form, while the more common Vine Shelling peas, which grow on vines that require staking or trellising but which are generally more productive than bush varieties.

Snap Peas are a more recently developed edible-podded pea, this one originated in America. The pod is thicker and more succulent than that of the Snow Pea, and less fibrous than standard Shelling Peas. These are now one of the most popular types of pea, because there is no work in shelling and very little waste.

Snow Peas have thin crisp pods that are nearly translucent and bright green, with tiny seeds. The whole pod is edible and quite sweet when picked at the right time. The name may come from the whitish tint reflected from the pods, or because of their tendency to grow at the end of winter, just before the last spring freeze. As their name suggests, they can be covered with snow during these times, but still keep growing.

When to plant.

In moderate climates, you can sow directly into your garden bed, while in colder climates you may need to start them indoors. Fortunately, peas do well in containers, so you may not even need to transplant them!

In warmer climates, you may have already started your peas back in January or February, but you can still continue to sow new seeds for a second harvest before the warm days of summer.

Getting started.

The best soil for peas is a loose well-drained loam. Peas don’t need a lot of nitrogen, as they can obtain their own. In fact, if nitrogen is too easily available they won’t bother to fix any. Peas do need phosphorus (colloidal phosphate) and potassium (wood ashes), as well as calcium and magnesium (use dolomitic limestone).

If the soil is compacted double digging is beneficial. If it is poorly drained, use raised beds, especially for early plantings, as they don’t like wet soil. In very poor soils it may pay to plant your peas in trenches, filled with a mixture of soil and compost.

If you’re growing a vining variety, you will need to supply a trellis or poles for the plants to grow along.

How do I prepare my garden for planting?

Image: close up of blue spade in garden bed. Photo source: Markus Spiske, UnsplashIf you’re like me, when the first warm days of spring arrive, you can’t wait to get out into the garden and start planting. It means winter is finally over and the gardening season has begun. You’ve been looking at seed catalogs for months and have plenty of ideas you’re just waiting to try. However, before you plant anything you need to get the soil ready.

Don’t be intimidated
This can be quite a bit of physical work, but luckily it is pretty straightforward and doesn’t take a lot of explanation. It helps to do it methodically though, so I’ll go through the steps here. And, while it may feel overwhelming to considering tackling a large garden space, keep in mind you don’t need to do the bed preparation for your entire garden at one time. You can easily do each bed as you need the space for planting, and leave the rest for another time. Start small to keep it manageable.

When to start
Just because it is a beautiful day doesn’t mean you can just go out into the garden and get to work on the beds. I know it’s tempting, especially after a long, wet winter, but digging very wet soil can damage its structure and cause long-term harm (not to mention being harder to dig).

To determine whether your soil has the right moisture content, you can do a rough check by lightly squeezing a handful of soil into a ball and dropping it from approximately waist height. If it doesn’t break up when it hits the ground it is probably too wet to dig (you have to take into account that a sandy soil breaks up more easily than a clay one).

Image of a woman working in a garden with a shovel, surrounded by plants.Another indicator of excessive wetness is when you walk on the soil and leave shiny footprints where water was squeezed from the soil. If your garden tends to stay wet every spring, it helps to use raised beds, as they drain and warm up faster than flat areas.

One very wet spring I was so desperate to get outside and get planting I covered some of my raised beds with plastic sheet to prevent them absorbing any more rain. This actually worked quite well, though such extremes aren’t usually necessary.

Clearing the space
If the soil is dry enough to work, you can start bed preparation by removing all of the surface vegetation. If there are only a few weeds or dead crops, it only takes a few minutes to loosen them with a fork and pull them out. If you have been growing a cover crop over the winter, removing it is a much bigger job. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to skim off the above ground parts with a sharp flat spade and compost them (cut right down at soil level, to sever the top growth but leave the roots in the soil). You could also dig the cover crop into the soil, but it will need a couple of weeks to break down before you can plant into it. This means you will have to prepare beds a couple of weeks before you intend to plant.

Image of a person holding their two hands out filled with dark, rich soil.Amending the Soil
Now that you have your garden bed cleared, it’s the perfect time to add any soil amendments you need. Typically, I add a couple of inches of compost and some standard fertilizer mix. If you know your soil’s pH balance if off, this is also a good time to add some ground limestone for acidic soil, or some pine sawdust for alkaline soils.

These are simply scattered on to the soil surface and then incorporated into the soil. If the soil is already in good shape, you can simply dig them into the top few inches of soil with a fork. If it isn’t so good then single digging works better. If the soil is very poor or compacted you may have to resort to double digging (usually you only need to do this once though).

Once you have your amendments thoroughly incorporated, all that remains is to break up any large soil clods with a fork and then shape the bed with a rake. It is then ready for sowing or planting and your garden season has officially begun.

Five herbs perfect for indoor growing

Spring has yet to arrive in many parts of the country, and we’re pretty sure a lot of you gardeners are getting a bit of cabin fever. One cure for the late-winter gardening blues is to start an indoor herb garden.

We’ve come up with a list of some of our favorite herbs to grow indoors, and some tips for getting started. Note: it’s pretty easy, so it’s perfect for beginner gardeners too!

1. Chives
Chives are in the allium family, making them a close cousin to onions and garlic. But unlike their stronger cousins chives have a delicate flavor perfect for adding a light garnish for eggs or potatoes.

These attractive and compact plants are super low maintenance. They can be grown from seed, but it’s easier to use starts. To harvest, just trim a few of the thin, round leaves. 

2. Mint
Mint is a wonderful addition to tea and other refreshing beverages. It’s also a delicious garnish for many deserts. But did you know you can also include it in salads?

Mint is easy to grow, and with care can thrive in an indoor herb garden. If you want to move it outdoors, be sure to keep it in a pot as mint is extremely invasive and will take over your garden.

3. Oregano
This aromatic perennial is essential to Italian and Greek cooking. Fresh oregano can be used immediately in the kitchen, chopped into sauces or added to meat dishes.

Oregano is a hearty herb that is quite easy to grow. Like other herbs, it likes well-drained soil. Compared to other herbs, though, it can tolerate some dryness.

4. Rosemary
Evergreen rosemary grows into a deliciously scented shrub whose needle-like, gray green leaves are a classic aromatic seasoning for Mediterranean dishes, as well as chicken, lamb, and bread.

In a pot, it will remain small and easy to cut and come again while retaining its lovely shape.

5. Thyme
Intensely aromatic, thyme is indispensable in a kitchen herb garden as it adds a delicate peppery-lemon flavor when added to soups, casseroles, pizzas, and breads.

Thyme is an easy herb to grow, and requires little care. It needs full sun and well-drained soil. It doesn’t like having “wet feet” and will develop root rot if the soil stays moist for too long.

Getting started: 

Selecting a location:
The best way to grow herbs is to place them on a sunny windowsill or wherever gets the most daylight. A minimum of four hours of sunlight per day is ideal.

Planting Tips:
Starting from seed may be a bit of a challenge, so it’s usually best to buy plant starts or get a cutting from an established plant.

When choosing a plant, make sure you get one small enough for your pot. Remember, they’ll grow! Four inch pots are perfect for windowsills.

Put each herb in its own pot. Garden soil can often contain unwanted pests, so it’s better to use fresh, quality potting soil.

Growing Tips:
Leaves may drop in the first few weeks. The herbs are adjusting to a new environment and with care they will begin to thrive.

Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. It should feel slightly damp when you poke your finger into it about 1 cm.

Be patient. Some herbs, like rosemary, can have difficulty adjusting indoors.

Dealing with pests:
If your indoor herbs attract aphids or spider mites, don’t fret. An easy treatment is to cover the soil surface and dip the plant upside down in a container of insecticidal soap and water. If persistent, you can do this once a week until the pests are gone.

 

Spring Vegetables

Image of seedlings in pots. Photo Source: Francesco Gallarotti, UnsplashSo you’ve got your soil ready, it’s finally warm enough, and now you’re thinking about what to plant. It’s tempting to start planting all those great seeds you bought over the winter, but it’s best to take a moment and consider what weather conditions each plant needs to germinate and thrive. Each plant has an appropriate time to be planted, and it’s important to be aware of which plants can go out at what time.

The vegetables that grow well in spring all originated in temperate climates and prefer cool (50-75˚ F) growing conditions. When you first plant your spring crops, the soil and air are cool and days are fairly short, so crops germinate and grow slowly. As spring progresses the days lengthen and the weather gradually warms, until by the time most crops are ready to harvest it may be warm most of the time. Fall has cool weather too, but there the reverse is true, conditions are warm for seed germination and growth (and pest activity), while maturation takes place in cooler weather.

When to plant
Blue spade in garden bed. Photo source: Markus Spiske, UnsplashIt is important to get your spring crops into the ground as early as possible, so they have enough time to grow and mature before the long, warm days of early summer cause them to bolt or develop bitter or pungent flavors. Fortunately cool weather crops aren’t perturbed by minor cold snaps, so planting them early isn’t a big problem. If it is cold they will just sit and wait until the weather warms up enough for growth.

The hardiest crops can be planted as soon as the ground is suitable for making beds in spring, which may be 4 to 8 weeks before the last frost date. These plants include: leek, onion, parsley, pea, spinach, and shallot.

The slightly less hardy crops can be sown 2 to 4 weeks before the last frost date. These include: lettuce, cilantro, mustard, and radish.

The rest of the spring crops are sown a couple of weeks before last frost date. These include: beet, carrot, broccoli, cabbage, chard, kale, and potato.

 

Smart Gardener makes it easy
We show you quickly and easily when it’s the right time to start your seeds indoors or outdoors, based on your region. Just check the Overview tab in the variety descriptions, and you’ll see when to start your seeds, transplant your starts, and harvest your vegetables. The top lines are for spring/summer crops, and the bottom lines are for fall/winter. Easy as can be!

Planting Overview showing sowing guide

Where to Put the Vegetable Garden

Image: selection of shovels and a pitchfork in grass. Photo source: Dylan Nolte, UnsplashIf you are completely new to vegetable gardening, one of the first things you need to think about is where to put the garden.

In a small garden you usually don’t have many options. It has to go where there is room. Don’t make the mistake of putting it where it won’t work though. If the best place is already occupied by an ornamental bed or a garden shed, it may be necessary to rearrange things to make room for the vegetables. In some situations you might have to remove sources of shade, such as a tree, in order to get enough sunlight.

In a large garden you’ll have many more options. If you have several choices you should try to take advantage of any favorable microclimate, such as a south facing slope. Ideally the vegetable garden should be fairly low down on a slope to avoid high winds and to get better soil with more moisture. However it should not be so low that it is in a frost pocket. In a dry climate you might put the vegetable garden in any area with naturally moist soil. A flat area often isn’t as warm as a south facing slope, but it is generally easier to work with.

There are certain conditions that all food gardens must meet in order to be productive. Consider the following before you start digging:

Image of a watering can watering plants in a garden. Photo source: Markus Spiske, Unsplash

The most important factor in growing a garden is sunlight. More sun means more plant growth. In fact, the majority of crop plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day to grow well. So your first objective is to put the vegetable patch where it will get the most sun.

A fertile soil is also a big help, but it is less important than sun because you have the power to improve the soil through your gardening activities.

Good drainage is important because plants won’t grow in waterlogged soil. This is particularly important in spring because you should never dig wet soil (it will damage the soil’s structure). And waiting for the soil to dry out can cause delays (wet soil also warms up more slowly than dry soil).

If your garden is exposed to strong winds, you will need to think about shelter. Strong winds can batter plants, cool winds can chill them and dry winds can increase evaporation. If there is no natural shelter you will have to think about a windbreak (without creating shade however).

You should never put your vegetable beds on the north side of tall objects such as buildings, walls, trees or shrubs where they will get little sun. You should also keep them well away from any trees or shrubs, as their creeping roots will move into the fertile and well watered soil and extract most of their available nutrients (this would drastically reduce your crop plant growth).

A graphic showing a garden's optimal orientation to the sun

Consider the proximity to the house. The closer the food garden is to the kitchen the more you will use it. Ideally the garden should be within 100 feet of your kitchen door so it is easy to nip outside and harvest while cooking. If it is further away you tend to limit your trips out there , so the harvest becomes more sporadic. Someone once estimated that the harvest declined by 30% when the garden was over 100 feet away. A garden that is close to the house gets tended more conscientiously, not only because it is more convenient, but because it is so visible. You make more effort to keep it looking good because otherwise it would be embarrassing every time someone came to visit.

Finally it’s nice if the vegetable garden is in its own area and isn’t on the way to somewhere else. If it is right in the center of a play or entertainment area then plants may get damaged by passing children, dogs and wheelbarrows; and those tempting ripe tomatoes will keep disappearing.

Image of a garden layout showing shade area

SmartGardener.com creates a Smart Garden Plan for you which automatically and optimally orients all your plants in relation to the sun – so you can get out into the garden!