Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Happy Equinox: Time to Plant Lettuce, Spinach, & Kale

Deb and I have had a busy travel schedule this Winter, with trips to Mexico, Aspen, Orlando, and Chicago for both business and pleasure.  Normally, we are on top of our early-season planting for tomatoes and peppers indoors, but we are just at the point where we are gathering our seeds.

Last year, we had tomatoes planted outdoors on March 26 (store bought), and while the weather looks great for doing that, we have some major plans to improve the drainage and soil over there this year, so we might be delayed a week or two.

In the meantime, one of our gardening friends in Fort Collins reported having a harvest of things like lettuce and spinach already, gambling on the unbelievably warm weather we have had since February.  It paid off.

So, with that motivation, we set out on St. Patrick's Day to jump start our garden and kick off the 2012 season.  We decided to move some greens over to the Berry Garden, which is on the opposite side of the original OctoGarden.  Here's what it looked like after clearing out the dead stuff.

Greens Box for 2012
One of the reasons for the move is to start doing something we are very poor at: crop rotation.  While some say we have this "huge" garden, in reality, we feel quite constrained about where we can put things.  While the OctoGarden has as much "full sun" as anyone could ever expect (12+ hours in summer), this actually is an issue for plants that like cooler weather and are susceptible to bolting.  We do great until June or so, when things like lettuce and spinach go bad as they sprout their flowering stems.

So, we are giving the other side of the house a try, as it is somewhat shielded from the sun during early morning and mid-day sun (at least the next couple weeks) while it is lower in the sky.  It's on the North side of the house, but the garage is only one-story tall, so by June it will clear the height by 9-10am.  That said, on the OctoGarden side, which faces South, they are blazing in the sun often by 7am!

After clearing out the root balls from last year's crop of Zucchini and Nasturtium, we then break up all large clumps of soil by hand, and then mix in some compost.  Next, we lay out the area to handle not only our first planting, but also our next planting in a few weeks.  Planting in succession is a strategy to give yourself continual fresh produce, so that you don't just have abundance all at once, then rotting veggies weeks later.  

This box is about 6 feet long, and has an irregular shape due to the angular edge of the property.  If you'll notice in the pictures above, the far side (middle of box, where you see the divider) is wider than the near side.  So, we divided the box approximately in half, and then subdivided each half once again to create 4 sections.  We had 2 types of Kale, 2 types of Spinach, and 4 types of Lettuce to plant this day.

As you can see above, we then used 2 alternating strips to plant the seeds, and then "x'ed out" two strips, where we will plant again in a few weeks, depending on how this crop goes.  We used landscaping rocks to mark off the sections because the lines we drew in the soil will disappear quickly after watering.  This will more or less define the boundaries between different plants.

The seeds are simply sprinkled onto the top of the soil, and then we just rub them in, and top off the area with a light dusting of compost again.

After watering, you can see that the drawn lines are mostly invisible, with only the rocks showing the divisions between sections.  It's always a good idea to use markers as soon as you plant, as it's much more difficult to identify what you've planted after you've put the seeds down.  Well, at least for those of us who have issues with short-term memory and overthinking!

The final tip is for early-season sprouting.  One of the challenges of planting in Colorado in March is that the soil temperatures are often still a bit too chilly to guarantee germination.  In addition, we've had a particularly dry winter, so keeping the soil moist is yet another issue.  So, my trick is to tack down clear plastic over the planted area which both increases the soil temperature, and keeps the moisture from evaporating off quickly.  It's quite effective, but you must remember to remove the plastic once you have established sprouts - as the plastic can damage or kill the young seedlings.

Who likes the "vivid" setting on our new camera?

I use landscaping staples to hold the plastic in place, and this one even survived 40mph winds the day after I put it down.  You can see that it's working when the soil remains moist, and there is moisture building up on the underside of the plastic - it kind of rains back down on the soil.

The plastic is 3-4mm thick (3-4 "mils"), and was purchased from Home Depot.  Here's a link to a larger roll.  You can work with thinner plastic, but I find that it would not survive our Colorado winds very long, and I often re-use the plastic.

I hope that this helps you all get some greens going early as long as we appear to be on the path for a warm Spring!

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