Thinking, planning and dreaming days come often in February, since many of them are cold, damp and dreary. It’s already the second month of a new year, and just when you can use a little inspiration and a breath of spring, the Antiques and Garden Show of Nashville shows up in the beautiful new Music City Center in downtown Nashville. This show has been going on for 24 years, is volunteer managed and is a charity event that raises funds for Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art. What a place for inspiration and dreaming that is! I always ooh and ahh there for hours.
March 5-8, 2015 the Nashville Lawn and Garden Show comes to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds and brings all kinds of ideas, garden plants, garden art, garden gadgets and awesome gardens to inspire and get you dreaming and planning. That will get you even more ready for spring! This year’s theme is Gardens of Eden, and I can hardly wait. I always take a lot of pictures at both shows and get some good information from vendors. The Antiques and Garden Show tends to have more antiques, so if I had to choose one to attend, it would be the Nashville Lawn and Garden show. So if you can attend one or both shows, they are delightful inspirations for gardeners, especially this time of year.
It’s a good time to look at your garden and consider any structures, trellises, gazebos, pieces of garden furniture, art and of course any new, unusual or maybe heirloom plants you may want or need in the garden. It is also a good time to consider where you might want to add to or enhance the winter garden with colors and textures. You will see all those types of things and more at the gardens shows, so if you can go, get ready to be inspired!
Let’s Get it Growing Good
Planning and preparing for our spring gardens will get us off to a really good start. Probably the most important thing to work on would be the condition of the soil we plan to plant in. For a gardener, healthy soil is the most important thing to have, so understanding some of the characteristics of healthy soil and also knowing what to do to keep it healthy is important. Simply looking at how this complex system of soil that feeds and nurtures plants, which feed and nurture us, fills you with wonder about the miracles that go on all around us, even in the very dirt we walk on. As gardeners, what we want our soil to be is fertile, crumbly, soft and loosely packed. A quote from J. I. Rodale is “Healthy Soil, Healthy Food, Healthy People.” I do believe having an organic garden can be one of the best things you can do for your health.
You often see in planting instructions to plant in well drained soil. Just what does that mean? Why is good drainage important? If you have poor draining soil, just what can you do about it?
Good soil structure equals good drainage. The definition of structure is “an arrangement of the elements of something complex.” The ideal soil structure is soil which has enough spaces between soil particles to let water and air flow freely. The best soil is where the sand, silt and clay particles take up 50 percent of the space and the other half is pore space which holds water. Well drained soil allows the rain to flow easily through the soil and the plant roots can receive enough air and water. When soil retains more water than air, it will stay waterlogged, and the plant roots do not get enough air and can suffocate. There is an exception to that, which would be wetland plants, which prefer to have their roots wet.
Some soils have high clay content and will contain smaller pore spaces. They will release water more slowly.
There are several things that can contribute to and cause soil to drain poorly. When construction is done on a site many times, the top soil is taken off, leaving the subsoil. Heavy equipment running over it compacts and reduces the pore space creating a hard pan. In some cases, a swale, or contoured depressions that divert excess water away from planting areas, can solve some drainage issues. In some cases, french drains or a gravel filled trench can also work to carry water away. By adding organic matter to your soil, you can improve the water holding capacity. Cover crops such as daikon radish, vetch, clover and buckwheat can improve drainage both by helping to break up heavy compacted soil with their roots and then, as they decompose, adding organic matter to the soil.
When the soil is tilled, the soil particles are exposed to wind and water. This soil is more easily compacted and eroded and is more likely to lose organic matter. Other things that can cause the soil to drain poorly could be improper landscaping that can create low areas where water may pool. Further adding to the problem can also be run off water from downspouts, roofs and streets.
One of the easiest ways to improve drainage is to make raised beds filled with good porous top soil. This will keep the roots above the soggy soil.
There are several advantages to raised beds. If you have permanent raised beds and paths, you never walk on the soil you plant in and compact it. The soil in these beds will heat up sooner in the spring for earlier planting. By keeping these beds mulched and improved with compost, worm castings and other natural amendments, weeds are not a big problem.
In an old organic gardening magazine, there was a tip from Mary Gost of Van Nuys, California back in 1983 about a way to find out what kind of soil texture you have by filling a jar with two-thirds water and one-third soil, then giving it a good shake. Put the jar in a window so you can see it without disturbing it. The heavy sand particles will settle first, followed by the silt, then clay. The organic matter will float. In a few days, all the clay particles will have settled and you can make your analysis. Good loam contains about 45 percent sand, 35 percent silt and 20 percent clay. If more than 70 percent of your soil sample settles in the bottom layer, your soil is sandy. If a third or more remains on top, you have clay. You can use this test to improve your soil and also to see how far you’ve come.
If you want to test how well your soil drains, dig a square hole one foot deep and wide. Fill it with water and let it drain completely. Immediately fill with more water and place a ruler in it to measure the water’s depth. After 15 minutes, measure how much water has fallen and multiply this by four, which will let you know how much the water will drain in one hour. An hourly drop of less than one inch indicates poor drainage. In well drained soil, it will drop one to six inches per hour. Soil that is considered dry and droughty would drain more than six inches per hour. It could be fun to get children or grandchildren involved in these tests.
When it comes to building up and maintaining the soil, I use compost and worm castings on all my garden beds. So keeping the compost going is high on the list of things to do to have healthy soil.
*Apply dormant spray to fruit trees on a day that is not windy and above 40 degrees.
*Remove old woody canes from roses that did not produce well last year. Healthy canes can be cut by one-third.
*Take the opportunity on some of the cold and dreary days to get tools and mowers in good working condition now, because as spring gets closer, there will be many things to be doing out in the garden. Everything working well can save time then.
*Keep adding to the compost and turning it.
*Look for winter damage to trees. Saw off cleanly any broken branches with uneven wounds to protect the tree from disease and
*Prune deciduous trees and shrubs.
*Do not prune tree flowers or shrubs that flower in the spring.
*Tip prune summer fruiting blackberries and raspberries.
*Cut back ornamental grasses around the end of February or before loose blades begin to blow all around.
*While trees and shrubs are dormant, they can be removed or transplanted if the ground is not frozen.
*Trees, vines, fruits and shrubs growing in containers or burlap can be planted if the ground is not frozen.
*Around the end of February or first part of March, start preparing for and planting snow peas, sugar snap peas and English peas. Sow them directly in the soil one month to one and a half months before last frost date. The soil temperature should be 40 degrees. Add compost to the planting bed. If you add any dried manure, do it sparingly, since additional nitrogen will make the plants lush with leaves but they will have fewer and smaller pea pods. Peas like a higher pH and are slightly alkaline. Add lime if needed. You’ll also need to give them something to climb and grow on. Remember, you’ll not only be doing yourself good by growing these delicious green gems but also your soil. Peas fix nitrogen in the soil and make it available for other plants. The roots loosen the soil and make it beneficial for other plants in the area.
*Other cool season vegetables to plant between February and the end of March are beets, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, collards, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, butter crunch lettuce, iceberg lettuce, mustard greens, bunch onions, sweet onions, radishes, spinach, swiss chard, rhubarb, turnips and potatoes.
Preparing New Beds
If you want to get some new beds ready for spring, when the ground isn’t frozen, you can make new beds or borders. To make the shape, you can lay out a water hose or trickle sand out of a bottle. If you’re making a bed in the lawn, remove the turf and stack it upside down out of the way, and in a year or two, you’ll have some wonderful compost. You can also chop it up and bury it upside down at least a shovel depth in the planting hole. Oh, but beware of just digging it in–buried grass will regrow, regrow and regrow some more!
A great method for making a new bed is the organic layering method called lasagna gardening. No removing sod, no digging and no tilling. Now, notice I didn’t say no work. There is work involved, but this method can save a lot of work. Basic lasagna layers over sod might be newspaper or cardboard, peat moss, barn litter, peat moss, compost, peat moss, grass clippings, peat moss, chopped leaves, peat moss, wood ashes, straw or hay, kitchen scraps, worm castings, peat moss and compost. The layers should be four to six inches each, adding a sprinkle (about like you would sprinkle Parmesan cheese on lasagna) of organic supplements, such as bone meal, lime, wood ashes or sulfur. Put four times as much brown material as you do green, and make layers until you have a depth of 18-24 inches. You can cover this with black plastic and let sit and cook for six weeks. If you don’t have time to wait, you can plant these beds immediately. As with any bed, keep it well mulched.
If you plan to do garden boxes in table top height, you need a good lightweight soil mix to fill them. Following is a recipe for Mel’s Mix for square foot gardening (All New Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew). The soil in a box needs to be six inches deep. A 4×4 box will need eight cubic feet, a 4×8 needs sixteen cubic feet, 4×12 needs 24 cubic feet. Suppose you had three 4×4 boxes (24 cubic feet total), then you would need:
*Two 4-cubic foot bags of coarse vermiculite to equal 8 cubic feet.
*One 3.9-cubic foot bale of peat moss–this expands to 8 cubic feet.
*8 cubic feet from at least five different compost bags.
On a day that is not windy, put these items on a big tarp, compost first, mixing them by taking the two corners of the tarp and folding over until the pile rolls to the edge of the tarp and repeat till well mixed (two people make this easier). Once mixed, add the vermiculite then the peat moss. The ingredients will be dusty, so you need to lightly water before mixing with a fine mist spray. Don’t wet it too much at this point, but just enough to wet down any dust. Fill your boxes with this mixture, wetting it down as you fill the box to the top. Level it off but don’t pack it. The great thing about this is you have soft, crumbly, rich soil and no weed seed! Yeah!
Who knows what February’s cold winds will blow in, but maybe some gardening inspiration will come your way. So, keep warm for now, and dream on. Hope all your garden plans and dreams come true.