Plant Early–and Often

When I start blogging and talking about March planting in South Dakota (even in the extreme southeastern area where I live and farm), I often get comments and looks of wonderment and surprise–as if I’m performing some garden miracle by getting crops in the ground before mere mortals begin to think of doing so.

Well, I’m no saint, and after a long winter, working even vigorous half days in the gardens reminds me of my mortality in ways difficult to ignore.  But I am doing something I fervently pray others will begin to do, if only, in this case,  to provide our market with a better selection of early produce.

On the one hand, being one of the few vendors with an abundance of early produce benefits me–I don’t worry about going home with leftovers from the first month or so of market sales.  On the other hand, it’s always the person who actually has the early produce and sells out quickly that gets blamed for not having enough.

If it’s a kind of martyrdom, at least it’s a profitable one.

The “miracle” of early planting and early produce is not so miraculous at all–it’s mostly related to the siting of a large portion of my garden space–a sunny and well-drained southwestern slope–that I had nothing whatsoever to do with.  Much of the space I’m working with was tilled up (and before that, rooted up by hogs) years before I started growing there.

The second part is my doing–I spent the end of last season cleaning and readying the space for spring planting–composting and burning plant debris, turning loads of manure into the beds, and making a goodly part of the gardens spring seed-ready–with no further cultivation required other than breaking up the top inch or two.

It’s a fine meditation to do this in the fall–to end one season with a promise for the next.

It’s also a necessary process because when March planting time comes, I’m enmeshed in a variety of other projects that do not let up until the middle of May–at which point our farmers market season begins, the CSA deliveries start, and I’m also starting my summer teaching load while simultaneously finishing up grading for the spring semester that just ended.

In short, the first two months of the farm season are a balancing act of ridiculous proportions.

Balancing on the Broadfork

But I don’t put those first seeds in just on a hope that they’ll produce.  Maybe the most important lesson in growing vegetables is knowing that they don’t all want the same thing, and the most important part of being successful at it is planning out the season and the space to give each crop what it wants.

So many newbies till and plant their entire garden in the first couple of weeks in May, then wonder why their peas came up, produced a single crop, then collapsed, or why their spinach never germinated at all, or why their radishes got woody and sent up seed stalks before forming decent-sized roots.

If you read the seed pack for radishes or peas or spinach, it typically says, “plant as soon as the ground can be worked.”  That may not be now if you live in the northern tier and your garden space is in a low spot that’s either still frozen or recently flooded from the thaw.  But typically, it’s a lot earlier than most people think to get out and plant.

To be honest, I could not have predicted such an early planting date in my gardens this year–with a thicker snow pack than we’ve had for ages, there’s no way I would have thought I’d be out planting the first peas on March 18, or that I would get spinach and radishes in less than a week later.

I don’t make the thaw–I just take advantage of it when it comes by planting the crops that enjoy these first chilly weeks of spring as soon as I can poke a seed into the soil.

Now that those crops are in, I can turn my attention to the early-sown brassicas–the rapini and bok choy, and then there are turnips and salad mix and potatoes, then leaf lettuce and carrots and beets sown under covers to protect from big temperature swings and critter invasions.

Leeks and onions sown inside in mid-February can also start their hardening-off process so that precious shelf space can be made for fast-growing cabbage, broccoli, and head lettuce transplants.

Balance in the gardens also means putting in crops for the short-term and crops for the long-term, fruit crops and root crops and leaf crops–spinach and radishes will be in the first CSA deliveries, but I won’t harvest the potatoes ’til August or September; the leeks won’t come out ’til September or October though I sowed them first of all.

Tomatoes need starting soon, so they’ll be big enough (but not too big) to get out in the gardens when the weather settles into summer.

For all my so-called early planting, I’ve given up on having the first ripe tomato of the season–I’d rather have the most than the first, despite a continual ribbing from a local restaurant owner and gardener, with whom I had a couple year’s competition for early fruits (which, admittedly, I never won).

Really, it’s not about planting “early”–not in the sense that the crop won’t like the conditions into which it’s been placed.  Putting off planting my cucumbers until mid-June last year (late for this area), I harvested the best crop I’d had in years because it’d finally warmed up and the cuke beetles had emerged and then deserted, finding nothing tasty to eat.

It’s more about preparation for planting often–so you don’t have to till or break new ground when the ground’s too wet–so you can simply press those first seeds into the moist soil and work what ground you have when it’s ready to be worked–plant what crops you have when they’re ready to be planted.


3 responses to this post.

  1. On a related note, don’t order 200 broiler chicks too early, or the gods of winter will spite you with a rash of cold weather and wipe out 50% of the little dudes. 😦

  2. Posted by joelie hicks on March 24, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Around here it is not unusual to plant potatoes on the traditional Good Friday, and I agree that you have to have a feel for the conditions and match it w/the seed or plant, and be prepared to be wrong once in a while.
    Last year i barely harvested my crop, much less prepare my garden for the next year. It matches w/ most farmers around here still having part of their crop in the field too.
    It began to rain and the soil never did dry out.
    During a dry cycle, i am happy my garden is out of the wind and in a slightly low spot.
    I think most people plant their potatoes to deep and their tomatoes too shallow .

  3. Posted by flyingtomato on March 24, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    Yeah, you can’t really blame anyone for not planting early if there garden’s still covered with snow (or flooded). I’m waiting for my potatoes to come in since I had to dump mine, and I’m waiting for a new batch of row cover to protect my brassicas. But there’s plenty of other prep to do in the meantime!

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