If you've been following our Gardening Checklist series, you'll know that the last several months have been all about preparation. Compared with the juggling act of the summer and fall, for most regions around the country the winter and early spring offer far fewer tasks to keep a gardener busy. Trust us, we know how you feel: you're restless, and if your weather is as unseasonably warm as ours, you're probably thinking secretly about getting a few seeds in the ground. But we're going to tell you (and don't resent us!) to hold off just a little bit longer unless your last frost date says otherwise. March, dear gardeners, is all about patience. But that doesn't mean you have to be idle. This month, we'll review some tasks that are already on the list, and plant a few new ideas.
- Find your last frost date: It will determine when all other gardening tasks can take place. Here's one tool you can use.
- Take notes: Think back to last season and make note of what did or did not work out. Resolve to keep a garden log this season—it will help you stay organized in both this and future seasons!
- Plan your garden: Use your notes and your garden sketch to think about what seeds you'll need and where and when to plant them. Read more on garden planning here.
- Buy seeds: Having planned out what you're growing, you're ready to stock up! Buying seeds now means you'll be preparecome planting time.
- Purchase supplies: Think potting soil, compost, fertilizer, pots, hoops and row cover, and tools.
- Repair: If you get a passably warm day, take some time to mend fences, sheds, greenhouses, and tools. Pots and rain barrels can use a good scrub, and many old supplies should be sanitized to prevent disease.
- Start transplants: Some crops, like tomatoes and peppers, should be started indoors approximately 10 weeks before your last frost date. If you're in that range, check out this article to get started.
If you're a gardener, you're almost certainly a nature lover too. Gardening is as much about cultivation as it is about stewardship. If you're looking for something to do this March, consider putting up bird houses and bat boxes. And be sure to include some pollinator-friendly varieties in your crop plan.
Additionally, this is where patience comes into play not just as a virtue, but also as a lifesaver. Though it may be temping to use sunny days to mow the lawn or till your plot, remember that all that leaf litter is a nursery for multitudes of pollinating insect eggs. By waiting until after your last frost to disturb your yard, you're giving those creatures time to hatch and get out of harm's way. It may also encourage you to consider the environmental benefits of no-till gardening!
TEST YOUR SOIL
Say it with us: Thank you, soil! Our soils give us so much; without the multitude of organisms and minerals that our plants nestle into, life as we know it simply couldn't thrive. So once in a while, it's a good idea to check in on our soil and see how it's doing. Not only is it good manners, but it will help you determine when you can start cultivating and what amendments, if any, you should add.
For the most detailed and scientific tests, get in touch with your local county extension agency. But you can learn a lot of key information about your soil with your own hands. The diagram below from a manual by UC Santa Cruz demonstrates how to perform the "squeeze test":
Grab a handful of soil. Now squeeze it. Now open your hand. One of three things will happen:
- The soil falls apart immediately into a pile in your palm. This means you have sandy soil.
- The soil forms a fist-shaped clump that will hold its shape even when poked. This means you have clay soil.
- The soil forms a clump that crumbles when touched. This means you have loamy soil.
Now you now your soil type. Awesome! What's next? If you have loamy soil, you're in luck; loam is considered the best soil type. It excels at both retaining moisture and nutrients and providing good drainage. Clay soils are great for nutrients but their compact structure means water doesn't drain well. Sandy soil is just the opposite; it drains very well—maybe too well depending on what's growing in it—but nutrients are easily washed out. A batch of good organic compost is the tonic for both of these situations. It breaks up the density of clay soils and adds nutrients and structure to sand.
There's one other important reason to do the squeeze test. If that clump of soil stays solid in your hand, it could also be an indicator that you soil is too wet to till. If you're still in the midst of a snowmelt or a rainy winter, this is likely your reality. Tilling wet soil will knock the air out if it, and when it dries it will be far more compact than before. In other words, it will have the opposite affect of what you want it to! On the other hand, if it turns to dust in your hand, it means it's too dry, and tilling will cause the same puff of dust to happen on a large scale. Aim for the crumble of moderately moist soil before preparing your garden beds.
We hope we've given you a few good ways to stay busy this month. And we hope the downtime has the benefit of giving you plenty of time to plan and prepare for your best garden yet. And we promise: next month's checklist will have planting involved! In the meantime, take a moment to reflect and appreciate your garden with this poem by Rumi which our farm manager Steven wrote on a board in the greenhouse:
THE SEED MARKET by Rumi
Can you find another market like this?
with your one rose
you can buy hundreds of rose gardens?
for one seed
get a whole wilderness?
For one weak breath,
a divine wind?
You've been fearful
of being absorbed in the ground,
or drawn up by the air.
Now, your waterbead lets go
and drops into the ocean,
where it came from.
It no longer has the form it had,
but it's still water
The essence is the same.
This giving up is not a repenting.
It's a deep honoring of yourself.
When the ocean comes to you as a lover,
marry at once, quickly,
for God's sake!
Don't postpone it!
Existence has no better gift.
No amount of searching
will find this.
A perfect falcon, for no reason
has landed on your shoulder,
and become yours.