Saturday, May 5, 2012

It's Spring - Where to Start?

I just got back from a much needed vacation so it's time to get caught up here.

Because of the generally warmer than usual winter in the US, you are in late Spring in many places. Here in The Netherlands it was unusually cold but the Spring is pretty much right on schedule.What should we be doing now to continue saving food dollars and put good food on the table?

1. Foraging: Hopefully last year was your learning year and this year you did some foraging for early Spring greens. The more I learn about dandelion the more impressed I am with that edible "weed". Dandelion greens are one of the most nutritious greens you can eat. (Of course, you have to be careful to ensure wild greens of all sorts have not been contaminated with pollutants from roads or sprayed with pesticides or herbicides in parts and other public areas.) Ounce for ounce, they have more calcium than milk and as much iron as spinach. They are also a strong source of beta carotene, vitamins B, C, and E, fiber, magnesium, potassium, and iron. Dandelion greens have been used in folk medicine for all sorts of maladies but I don't want to get into medicinal properties of plants; that's a whole other subject. In the North East where I come from, common wild plants for foraging are: Pigweed, Cattail, Lamb’s Quarters, Plantain, Garlic Mustard, Wintercress, Black Mustard, Evening Primrose, Dandelion, Chicory, and Fiddlehead Ferns. Last Spring I talked about a couple of these; some I have experience with and some I do not.

2. Gardening: Depending on where you live you should already have some things planted in your garden and other plants started in trays indoors.

Have you planned your garden yet? It is not too late. I always draw a diagram and plan my garden on paper. Truthfully, I don't ever follow the plan exactly but it does give me a good starting point and a general plan. I prefer to grow food plants in linear raised-beds. Mine are generally 3-4 feet wide and 8-16 feet long. So drawing up a planting plan is fairly simple. In these beds I plant intensely using elements of "The Square Foot Gardener" methodology. These are wide-beds or block plantings.

Why do a plan? There are several purposes to a garden plan.

    1. Allocate space for what you want to grow. If you just start sowing seeds or transplanting plants into the garden bed you will quickly run out of room. It is very easy to over plant one type of plant and then have little room left for others. 

    2. Determine if you can grow successive crops or inter-plant crops. Some crops grow fast and can be harvested early, such as radishes. Radishes have a 30-40 day life cycle in my garden. So I often inter-plant them with other slower growing plants. The radishes grow and are harvested long before the other plants have grown enough to use that space. Since radishes grow fast and then are picked, they also open up space for second and third crops in the same location. Peas are much the same. peas are an early season crop that will be harvested before the end of June and the you can use that space for another vegetable. Peas also add nitrogen to the soil to help the second crop grow better.

    3. Ensure you are planting plants that tolerate or benefit each other next to each other. "Companion" planting was well known by our farmer ancestors but was a lost art for a long time due to the adoption of commercial "long row" growing techniques by most growers.

Row Gardening
Wide Row Gardening

With long rows, all the same plants are growing in long lines separated by bare or mulched soil. This is done to make it easier to use motor-driven rotary tillers or cultivators to keep down the weeds. In wide-row or block gardening, plants are bedded close to each other creating a "living mulch", which will also keep weeds to a minimum. But you have to ensure that neighboring plants are compatible. The chart at this website LINK is as good as any I have seen. Circles indicate plants that help each other and an "X" indicates two plants that inhibit or harm each other. On the right is a guide that shows which plants will help curb insect problems in your garden.

    4. Crop Rotation: Crop Rotation is important to reduce plants disease and insect problems. You should always try to avoid planting the same type of plant in the same space in succeeding years. Plant disease and insect eggs from one years crop will attack that same crop even more strongly in the second year. To avoid this problem, plant something different there that the disease or insects cannot harm. Also, some plants strip most or all of certain nutrients from the soil. So in the following planting, it is important to plant something that doesn't need much of that nutrient OR adds that nutrient back to the soil. All legumes (beans and peas) can add nitrogen back to the soil if the seeds are inoculated properly.