by Peter Heffelfinger
As an early herald of spring, March usually blusters in with winds and cold temperatures, but then settles down at the end of the month into a bit warmer weather. The annual temptation is to start digging the soil and planting whatever cold-tolerant seeds or transplants one has been yearning to get into the ground. The best option, however, is to proceed with caution and patience. The wet soil attacks the seeds with rot and the low temperatures set back any early sprouting. Transplanted starts, such as lettuce or early cabbage family crops, will just sit there, waiting for the sun to warm up the soil in order to start more vigorous growth. The bottom line is that anything you plant very early will likely just stall in place. Later plantings, however, done when the soil is adequately dry and beginning to warm up, will soon outpace the early hopefuls.
Oriental snow peas are my favorite spring treat, either fresh off the vine or quickly stir-fried in a wok with oyster sauce, a dash of rice wine, and garlic. Pea seeds, traditionally planted in February on Washington’s Birthday, all too often succumb to rot or grow too slowly. I now wait till early March or later into April to transplant those jam-packed boxes of 4-6 inch starts available from nurseries. The trick to separating the closely entwined stems and attached seeds is to remove the root-ball from the plastic container and then gently swishing it in a bucket of water, which will gradually remove most of the potting soil. Each additional dip in the liquid will free up the outside roots a bit, allowing small clumps of the tangled roots to be carefully freed, along with the attached seeds that are still needed to feed the transplant.
Set out the groups of 3-4 plantlets six inches apart in a checkerboard pattern, with a smidgen of all-round fertilizer in the pre-watered hole, making sure the roots are all pointing straight downward. Snug the soil around the stems, spread a little Sluggo bait on the bed surface next to the plants, and insert stakes nearby for support. I always put floating row on top of and around the stakes at first, making sure there are no gaps at ground level. LBB’s, little brown birds, love to alight on the soil bed and snip at the initial pea leaves. It must be their preferred spring treat as well.
Remove the cover once the plants have risen 1-2 feet up the stakes; the vines may need extra support from twine wound around and between the stakes. The lovely purple flowers of the snow peas will soon be offering the edible, slightly crunchy pods; harvest them daily. Any pods that start to go to seed by swelling and hardening up should be removed quickly to keep the plant from maturing too soon. I like the Tall Telephone variety, which if kept harvested will climb to 6 or 7 feet. As a complement, plant sugar snap peas: a bit sweeter and definitely fleshier. Great for salads.
Key To Success
In general the key to early success in the garden is timing and knowing when to dig in. Before turning the soil, do a standard moisture test: gently squeeze a handful of soil into a loose clump, and then either tap it lightly or drop it onto the ground. If it breaks apart easily, the soil is dry enough to work. If it maintains its wet, semi-muddy shape, then it is too wet to plow, as they say. Wet soil that is worked too soon will form rock-hard clumps when it dries, destroying circulation of both air and water. Wait for the tilth, the proper fluffiness that is characteristic of healthy soil.
Early spring is when raised beds show their worth: the mounded soil dries out earlier and gets warmer sooner than ground level beds. If you have raised beds lined with boards, the higher they are the sooner they will be available for planting. The trade-off, of course, is that during the heat of summer raised beds will need extra watering, but that is a far off concern for the hungry gardener. For those with greenhouses, large grow tunnels, or simple hoop houses of floating row cover, the season can be started much sooner than outdoors. Early spring crops of lettuce and other greens can be grown under protection and harvested by May, just in time for the peppers and tomatoes to go in.
Another spring caveat: be on the lookout for over-wintered pests. Large snails will hide out all winter in old cabbage family plants, in the crevices next to raised bed boards, or inside the warm environment of a hoop house. Slugs will have deposited caches of small white, translucent eggs in the fall, just waiting to hatch into new hordes. Crush or eliminate both the snails and the slug eggs as soon as you find them in order to limit the repopulation of your cultivated space. Doing such pest patrols early and on a regular basis throughout the year will cut down damage from these two endemic scourges.
Also be aware in the spring of signs of residential rodents: small holes leading to below-ground mice nests, surface trails of meadow voles that have been commuting from adjacent grassy areas, or perhaps the fluffy nest of a rat living in a garden shed corner. Such gnawers will have been dining on garden leftovers from the previous year: root crops still in the soil, accessible compost piles that have not been fully digested by the beneficial microbes, or the overwintering hardy kales that are just starting to form spring buds. Control now will prevent population surges later.
Mechanical spring traps baited with peanut butter work, but not consistently as the targets get wise or the traps get clogged up and don’t fire. Note: voles require a trap slightly larger than a mouse trap, but smaller than a rat trap. Get the right size to fit the creature. Also, be aware that basic traps catch unintended victims such as small birds or beneficial garter snakes, even if placed in a wooden box with entry and exit holes.
A method recommended by the Audubon Society is a 50-50 mix of plaster of Paris and corn meal: put a few tablespoons of the mix inside a 3 or 4-inch size black plastic drainage pipe “T” or elbow (to keep the mix dry); place the pipe on the aboveground vole trail or near the mouse hole. The corn-plaster combo gives the diner an ultimately fatal intestinal blockage. The problem is that you usually don’t see the result to confirm success, unless you find a post-mortem in your Wellington boot, which I have done. For larger, persistent infestations, the chemical option of D-Con is available and certainly works, but at the risk of poisoning wildlife, particularly raptors feeding on the affected rodents, or pets. A hard choice. Sometimes I wish there was a team of Jack Russell rat terriers for hire that would patrol my garden on a regular search and destroy mission.
Once warmer weather arrives and the soil temperature is near 50 degrees, you can start laying out the seedbed and lining up the early crops of radishes, lettuces, spinach and other hardy greens. Note: a simple soil thermometer is a vital tool for calculating when to plant, saving a lot of guesswork. The early season sun is quite weak this far north, so wait for the sustained warmth.
Peter Heffelfinger, a Washington State University master gardener, has gardened organically on Fidalgo Island and the Skagit Flats for over 40 years. He has given workshops in year-round gardening for Transition Fidalgo/Eat Your Yard, Christianson’s Nursery, and at the Washington State University County Extension Service. He is a Salish Sea Steward, working on the invasive green crab survey.