Same Ol’ Same Ol’
The thing about gardeners is that we like consistency. To be successful caretakers of plants, we know we must provide steady amounts of moisture, nutrients and heat to the extent that we can control these things. That’s why gardening in the marginal season of late winter and early spring is so challenging. Nature’s plan is normally unrelated to our wishes.
Here’s the problem: March is notoriously one of the most volatile weather months for much of the northern hemisphere. We are just as likely to have “gardening weather” as we are to have a blizzard. It’s not abnormal to have both within just a few days. How can we deal with this reality and be productive in the garden?
Have A Plan
Daydreaming about gardening has it’s usefulness, but to be really productive, make a plan. Knowing what you will do, in what order, and where each plant will be planted when the weather breaks will save a lot of time, and can make the whole gardening experience much more enjoyable.
Watch the signs that nature is providing. For instance, in my area there are a few flowering trees and shrubs that help to tell me when the time is right to plant my crops. Okame cherry trees, Bradford pears, and forsythia often flower as early as mid-February, but none of these have shown color yet, at the end of the month. This tells me that the soil is cooler than average and I should delay planting.
Plan For Cold
If you garden before or around the average last frost date, you will experience the stress of early season cold threats. Be prepared. When you plant something, be ready to water it and cover it ahead of a cold snap. Have the coverings (straw, blankets, containers, etc.) and any stakes you may need lined up and ready to go, just in case.
A good layer of organic mulch will mitigate temperature fluctuations by keeping the soil temperature steady. Bear in mind that organic mulch slows the warming of soil, which may or may not be desirable. Black plastic may be helpful to warm the soil more quickly; simply cover the area for two or three weeks ahead of planting.
There are numerous considerations when deciding whether to start seeds indoors or direct sow. Most plants can be started ahead of time, and doing so may help the garden produce more quickly. Short windows of great weather during the marginal gardening season sometimes aren’t enough to allow for germination of direct-sown seeds in the number of days the seed pack indicates. If you do not have the time or space to start them indoors, try soaking the seeds in water overnight before planting. This will give them a head start on germination without depleting your other valuable resources.
Use Cold Protection Devices
Devices such as cold frames, hot beds, and low tunnels are very useful for the marginal gardening season. These structures provide a more consistent environment by trapping the air around the plants, reducing heat loss and increasing soil heat gain. In their traditional configurations they are all passively heated and used to increase growth of cool season plants during the cool season – not like heated greenhouses that are used to grow warm season plants outside of their normal season.
Meet The Challenge
As with so many things we do, in gardening we are most successful when we accept our situation as it is and steadily work toward the ideal. The ideal of consistent growing conditions is a tall task during the marginal gardening season, but not impossible. Good luck and happy gardening!