Story last updated at 3/20/2013 - 11:05 am
What a great time of year! Signs of an early spring are popping up everywhere; clearly gardening weather is just around the corner. Robins arrived the in the first week of March, rhubarb is already five inches tall, and skunk cabbage, the customary harbinger of spring, has shot up from its murky depths about a month early.
In Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island, my neighbors have been commenting that it hasn't seemed like winter at all this year. Temperatures have soared to nearly 50 degrees Fahrenheit on many days with nighttime averages rarely below freezing. After last year's abundant snowfall, the few brief cameos this year have been quite underwhelming.
The uncommonly warm weather has triggered pussy willow into bloom, and just yesterday I noticed hints of green on salmonberry buds as they begin to unfurl. The timing seems a bit early but the official start of spring, the vernal equinox, is not far off. After March 20, we'll finally be in the right hemisphere for a bigger share of daylight hours. I figure the plants know what they are doing.
At any rate, it's high time to start planning this year's vegetable, herb, and flower gardens. Since I like to experiment with, and hopefully improve, each new growing season requires a complete garden re-design. Luckily, I kept pretty fair records last year of seed starting/transplant dates, direct sow dates and pest problems so can reminisce clearly about aphids, spittlebugs and mysterious yellowing leaves as well as a few questionable choices of crops I selected to grow.
For instance, it was fun growing corn in containers last summer, but probably not a real good use of the limited space in my solarium porch. I'm sure with a little more effort I could eventually harvest ears more than four or five inches long but on a square foot basis, it doesn't seem practical.
My biggest problem on the porch is overcrowding. I simply can't adhere to proper spacing. To my way of thinking, there's limitless room since all the plants are in different sized containers that can be shuffled around. I also suffer from a condition that prevents just giving away enough of the "extras" because how do you decide which ones to part with? After raising them from tiny seeds, I love them all so I just make room for them.
I struggle to decide whether to keep planting broccoli in the greenhouse where it does very well in chilly, wet summers or move it outside to be drenched and demolished by slugs. If it's another relatively sunny, hot summer like last year, the broccoli will bolt (like last year) in the greenhouse, leaving only small, frustrated heads. I believe this year I'll plant in both locations for better odds.
In recent research regarding companion planting, it was pointed out that many of the usual recommendations on traditional planting charts offer ideas handed down through the years that are not necessarily supported by actual scientific study. Many of the intercropping suggestions may very well work for repelling or attracting insects, supplying nutrients or increasing flavor in nearby plants but much of the information is too general.
When my French marigolds, interplanted all over the greenhouse, were covered with slugs I thought I was cleverly keeping them off the zucchini. More research, however, revealed that marigolds also attract tiny spider mites, which may hide in the marigolds while building forces before spreading to the cucumbers or whatever else. I may be attracting trouble with one garden pest while trying to bait another. It's also important to learn which insects are destructive and which are beneficial. Some are both, like the earwig, an important predator of aphids along with other small insects and their eggs, who also love to eat zinnia, dahlia, and marigold flowers.
In general, it's suggested that a diverse crop of aromatic herbs and flowers mixed into the vegetable beds has a tendency to confuse and waste the time of insects looking for the right species to devour and/or lay eggs on. Flowers may attract beneficial insects and certainly many plants share root system connections, primarily through mycorrhizal relationships.
I plan to scatter the usual marigolds, zinnias, nasturtiums and herbs throughout my vegetables, then keep a vigilant watch for any scheming insects. The interplantings might just help and they always look pretty.
Carla Petersen writes from Thorne Bay. She is a freelance writer and artist. View her work at whalepassoriginals.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.