Nights are really cold, rainy and wintery weather is definitely still with us, but you can tell the days are getting longer. Plum and flowering quince are blooming or budding up, and the earliest spring weeds are starting to grow. Around Valentine’s Day, you might start sneaking in a few hardy spring vegetables.
If you were really clever last fall, you dug and fertilized an area in your garden and mulched it very heavily with leaves, compost or manure. This forward thinking in the fall gave you a jump on things in the spring. Now, after a few days of no rain, you can rake the cover aside and you’ll have soil soft enough to plant in without turning it over. Otherwise, wait until the soil isn’t muddy and loosen the soil a few inches down. Mark a few short furrows about an inch deep and sow seeds of leafy greens – spinach, salad mixes, chard, kale, arugula, and spicy Asian greens like mizuna or mustard; green onions, beets and radishes can also survive the chilly temperatures. Wait until later in March for snap and snow peas, carrots, lettuce, cilantro and parsley as they need soil to be a bit warmer. Covering the seed in the rows with sterilized bagged potting soil keeps the surface friable and also gives the emerging seedlings a head start from weeds.
Planting an inch or so apart, you’ll have little leaves in about a month. As soon as you can handle the seedlings, thin every other one and use the tender thinnings in earliest spring salads. Every week you should be able to thin every other one again until plants stand at their eventual spacing of 4-6 inches apart when they grow to their mature size without being cramped.
Always try to do any digging when rain isn’t forecast, or you end up with a muddy bog. Better to wait than to compact your soil structure by digging too soon. It is always a gamble in the San Lorenzo Valley, but sometimes an appetite for tasty young leaves will inspire you to try and succeed.
Seeds of heat lovers like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants should be started inside soon, so plants will be sturdy and ready to bloom when they are planted out in early May. It’s worth investing in a grow light and a good heating mat if you love to start things from seed indoors. Few homes have a place inside with enough light from a window so that seedlings don’t stretch and get scrawny.
There is still time to plant sweet peas and hardy spring blooming annuals like poppies, cornflowers, larkspur, agrostemma, godetia and California wildflower varieties that like to make growth before the weather gets too hot. Planting them in the fall means they’ll be up already with good sturdy roots, and just starting to show new fresh leaves as the days length increases, but sowing seeds now will have fine results for bloom in late April and early May.
Watch carefully for slugs and snails and hand pick them in evening or early morning. Birds can become a problem, usually at the time of the equinoxes, so using bird tape to keep them off is a good strategy. Use floating row cover, like Agrifabric or Reemay, to loosely cover the bed after sowing. Weight down the edges with stakes or stones and leave it on; the fabric will warm up the soil a bit, protect the plants from birds, flea beetles and other flying pests, and allow water to permeate right through it.
Get roses pruned as soon as possible, and start pruning of fruit trees before buds swell, although it is wonderful to leave a few branches on the tree to cut when buds are well formed to bring inside for elegant spring bloom. Sprays of plum and forsythia can be cut soon. Take advantage of sunny days to weed around perennials before the weeds take off, but be careful not to stand too close to the roots of the plants while you work.
The most important thing about this season’s gardening is to try and protect the texture of the soil by keeping it as covered as you can while you get some early food and flowers started.