Warming up the garden

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(HOST) In spite of the fact that April weather can be unpredictable in northern New England, commentator Henry Homeyer is getting ready to plant the peas.

(HOMEYER) There’s still snow on the mountains, but spring is here. I know it’s spring – and not just because the peepers are singing songs of sex, or because the pussy willows are fuzzy and cute. I know it’s spring because my neighbor Bernie Johnson has planted her spinach, lettuce and peas.

Bernie’s garden is one of those plots with well drained sandy-loam soil. It warms up and dries out early in the spring, allowing her to get started when my garden is still too cold and wet to plant. But those of us who don’t have the ideal garden plot can do things to hasten spring along. Here’s what I do:

First, I make raised beds. Seeds can rot if planted in cold, wet soil, but raised beds help to prevent that. Gravity drains away excess moisture. I didn’t bother with wooden sides when I made my beds; I mounded up the soil from walkways onto the beds, and I add compost every year.

One year, when I was frantic to warm up the soil, I spread some clear plastic over it. This did two things: it allowed the sun’s rays to heat the soil, and it cooked the young weeds that had already popped up. I put soil over the edges of the plastic so the wind wouldn’t lift it up, dispers- ing the heat. Clear plastic works much better than black plastic for this job.

I sold my rototiller a while back and leave my raised beds in place year after year. In the fall I cover them with leaves, but pull off the leaves about now so the sun can warm the soil more easily. Later, after planting, I’ll mulch with those same leaves – supplemented with hay if need be – to keep the soil moist in the heat of summer. The mulch also keeps my garden relatively weed free. I use about six sheets of newspaper under the mulch to help keep weeds from germinating.

I think rototilling is popular because it’s a quick way to create order in a garden. Weeds suddenly disappear, and the ground is fluffy and nice. Unfortunately, it also turns an ecosystem topsy-turvy, moving soil organisms to new homes at different depths and destroying soil structure created last summer. It also brings the colder subsoil to the surface. And after the first rain, that fluffy soil compresses, deflating like a balloon three days after a birthday party.

Bernie’s been gardening in the same place for longer than I’ve been alive, and she knows when it’s ready. But if you’re not sure if your soil is dry enough to work, take a handful of it and give it a squeeze. If it’ll crumble and fall apart with the touch of a finger, you’re ready to go. If, on the other hand, it holds together like modeling clay, you’d best wait some more.

As for me, my soil is just about right, and I’m ready to plant.

This is the Gardening guy Henry Homeyer in Cornish Flat, NH.

Henry Homeyer is a gardening writer and columnist. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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