Preparing for this year’s garden

The stack of mail was heavy with seed catalogs throughout December and January. Now it’s noisy with the swish and rattle of seeds. Seductive little envelopes whisper “Plant me” to the winter-weary gardener. Yet it’s still too early for most spring planting, outdoors or in.

Resist those voices. Seedlings sown prematurely grow tall and spindly in their windowsill pots long before the Earth is ready to receive them. Best to pay strict attention to the dates on the packets and count backward from the expected last frost date. (I consider May 15 a reasonable guess for this part of Maine, but I keep a close eye on the long range forecast.)

If a packet says eight weeks, allow eight weeks. If it says four, allow four. With the exception of leeks, artichokes, asparagus and perennial flowers, crops must wait a bit.

Meanwhile, there is plenty for manic planters to do while they are biding their time. Here’s my list of occupational therapies for those in the grip of seed fever.

  1. Reach for the seed trays, but only to take inventory, discard broken ones, and thoroughly clean the rest. Stock up on starting mix, little wooden labels, indelible marking pens. Make a chart of what you’re going to plant and when, leaving space for notes later on about how well each crop performed and tasted.
  2. Go through last year’s seeds and decide which might be usable. Poor keepers like dill and parsley won’t be. Tomatoes will. When in doubt, test germination by sprinkling a pinch of seeds on a damp paper towel.

You can also check the quality of your potting mix by making test sowings of plants with a wide range of soil preferences. Elevated salt levels and other imbalances can inhibit germination and growth. Discard your test subjects; it is too early, remember?

  1. Do all the things that were left out of fall cleanup and will doubtless be neglected once the spring scramble begins. Put away tools, clean them and rub their handles with linseed oil. While you are out there, reorganize the tool shed or garage so that everything has its proper place, even plant stakes and mismatched gloves.
  2. Round up materials for a critter-proof garden fence, tall enough to keep deer out, with fine-meshed rabbit guard at the bottom and, if necessary, a length of electrically charged wire at the top to deter raccoons. Make the gate impregnable. If there’s still frost in the ground, use an iron bar to pound through it and dig fence post holes.
  3. Conceive a superb garden plan, with exactly how much to plant of each crop. Design a rotation scheme for this year’s layout and as a record for next year, to avoid repeating related crops in the same spot. Using little cut-up pieces of paper makes this an absorbing game.
  4. Keep making compost from kitchen scraps and dead houseplants, and scout out local sources of manure and other wastes. If you have a root cellar, compost any stored vegetables that are sprouting, softening and decomposing as we speak. Find a nice way to ask your neighbors for theirs and offer to clean out their cellars in return. Buy some old hay (Surry General Store usually has bales) and layer it between all these treasures.
  5. Tasks like these keep idle hands busy, but symptoms of planting mania may still persist. Redirect them into safe pursuits. Force a few pots of paperwhite narcissus. (I’ll bet Mainescape or Surry Gardens still have some.) There’s still time to bring them into bloom before most outdoor bulbs start flowering.
  6. Sow a flat or two of those old English favorites, mustard and cress (that’s land cress, Lepedium sativum, not watercress). Both will sprout quickly and give you a harvest of spicy little leaves to perk up salads.
  7. Make a terrarium out of an old fish tank or goldfish bowl. If there is a wooded part of your property, dig up a few mosses and other tiny woodland plants and establish them in fertile, humusy soil. Place glass over the top to keep the earth moist, and sniff it periodically to slake the desire to rush out and dig. Even the weeds that sprout will seem interesting to you.
  8. Sow a flat of grass. Seeds of juicing grasses such as wheatgrass will yield an edible treat. But just a bright green rectangle of plain old lawn grass may give you a little thrill. Let your cat nibble it.

Finally, the next time the urge to sow overwhelms you, look for some jasmine-scented tea at John Edwards Market or the Blue Hill Co-op and make a cup. Sit back and sip the perfumed brew. Remind yourself that all too soon you will be too busy to stop and smell the flowers. Now’s the time.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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