My south-central section of Connecticut received about 2.5 to 3 inches of rain since Monday evening, so when I head outside for the next day or so of gardening I expect to be greeted with mud … and many buzzing bugs. Planting or amending soils will have to wait. I may even need to tread lightly on the grass until rain water drains or soaks in a bit. But you won’t find me sitting idly by waiting for things to dry.
The weeds trying to take hold between paver and bluestone paths are in for a tea kettle treatment. Boiling water baths rid my paths of weeds better than any purchased organic spray I’ve tried.
Many tomato and pepper seedlings will find themselves moved into larger pots so their roots have room to expand further in preparation for outdoor transplanting in about a month. If temperatures reach the promised 80’s in the day and 50’s at night, the larger tomatoes may find a new temporary home in the portable mini-greenhouse to start their hardening-off process. As long as the newly moved plants are shaded from the sun for a few days, and the temperatures hold, there’s no reason to keep the plants confined to their current lighted indoor home.
Those sweet pea seeds I intended to sow outside before the rains came, will be soaked in water overnight to soften their tough outer shells and carefully poked (insert finger, drop in seed, cover hole, repeat) into the ground to take advantage of the warm moisture that will develop in the soil over the next few days.
The last hard frost date here is about mid-April. Cool-tolerant edibles such as lettuce, peas, radish, spinach and other leafy greens love the cool nights and warm days of mid-spring so I’ll likely plant at least one more group of each. This should insure a steady supply of these veggies until they succumb to the heat of summer.
Zone maps provide gardeners with plant hardiness information. Seasoned gardeners tend to get the nuances of zone hardiness and understand how their yard’s micro-climates might push a small, protected area into a warmer zone where they can over-winter an otherwise non-hardy plant. New gardeners likewise count on zone labeling but may not understand that a zone designation is only a guide, not a guarantee, of survival. Gardeners living near the edge of a zone may find current zone maps particularly confusing.
For example, my Connecticut location is zone 6 or zone 6a (indicating I live in a slightly chillier section of zone 6) according to 2006 or 1990 hardiness maps. Still, I know from experience that some plants listed hardy for zone 6 simply do not over-winter in my garden, though the same plants do well in other zone 6 gardens located just 5 or 6 miles away – but about 350 feet lower in elevation – and closer to the temperature-mediating Connecticut River.
New gardeners perusing seed and plant catalogues might notice slight differences in the zone demarcations they depict. Printing might account for some of the difference, but unless the catalog list which zone map it uses, one can never be sure. Many national gardening magazines additionally list the AHS heat zone map (my area is zone 4) to further clarify a plant, shrub, or tree’s heat tolerance. The best way for gardeners to sort all this out is to ask a seasoned gardener or professional for advice.
But the USDA may ultimately provide a more user-friendly plant hardiness zone map with the forthcoming release of its latest revision (see the Daily Climate article by fellow freelance writer, Jennifer Weeks). This updated map will offer localized zone information according to zip code … a feature I look forward to using. Still, I’ll continue to watch weather trends specific to my area and elevation, and mulch, mulch, mulch to ease even the hardiest plants through our unpredictable winter seasons. Zone maps offer good general guidance, but local observation, backed up by good solid journaling, remains an invaluable tool.
St. Patrick’s Day, in gardening lore is pea planting day. But Connecticut gardeners might better spend time having a cold one rather than trying to plant peas in yet unthawed or too-wet soils where they are likely to rot. In all my years of zone 6a gardening I think I’ve been able to plant peas on March 17 once – that’s once in 30-plus years – and that truly called for a Guinness celebration. But, we do need to begin watching the thaw in our soils so we can get peas, including fragrant ornamental sweet peas, in the ground as early as possible. So for us, jumping Leprechauns might serve as reminders that it’s nearly time to plant.
Peas thrive in the cool temperatures of spring, and must be planted early to get in a good crop before the heat of summer moves in. Anne Raver, gardening columnist at the New York Times, has a wonderful article on planting peas in her area, so there’s no need for me to restate the ins and outs of pea planting. Just don’t plant them until your soil has thawed and dried to the point she describes. Instead, while thoughts of freshly picked peas are dancing in your head, take a look at your garden to choose a nice sunny location to plant your peas. You can follow Anne’s advice for building a trellis using tall posts and plastic netting, or grab pruners and cut thin, low-growing, but sturdy branches from fallen or still growing trees for use as a no-cost pea trellis (I use beech and birch, but willow is great when available). Make sure branches are tall enough to support the variety of peas you’ll plant … some grow very tall while other vines hold at 2-3 feet in length and only need branches about 4 feet tall. Once the soil is adequately thawed, sink the branches into the soil, using the tallest (about a foot taller than the vines they’ll hold), strongest as anchors. Interweave branches so they form a sturdy upright support, and tie with twine to insure they stay together. Hint: if you choose some branches with lots of side shoots you can weave these together to add strength. Alternately, consider making pea teepees here and there. Wind garden twine around the legs of the teepee and pea vines will grab onto the twine and stretch upward. I’ve built and used supports of woven branches, plastic netting, teepee structures of branches or bamboo, and created other bamboo supports by tying horizontal and vertical bamboo rods together into a grid. Any structure works as long as it is strong enough to support the weight of the plants. Peas and other vines with tendrils also like some sort of support about an inch or two above the ground for tendrils to grab onto shortly after emerging. Google ‘pea trellis’ for many examples.
In previous years, when my family was larger and my vegetable garden housed fewer plant eating voles, I planted longer vining snap peas with much success. But now I stick with edible pod peas. I love Carouby de Maussane, a snow pea with dainty lavender to purple flowers that grows only 2-3 feet (available here). This year I’ll also plant Snowflake Pea Pods from Kitchen Garden Seeds, and rather than planting them in the vegetable garden, I’ll choose a couple of spots at the rear of a perennial bed (in a deer-protected fenced area – yes, deer love peas). When the soil warms enough, I’ll sink my pea seeds about an inch into the soil, and about 3 inches apart on either side of a trellis, firm the soil over the seeds, water, and wait – making sure the seeds receive enough water each day to keep the soil moist, but not soggy. This may sound like a lot to do for mere pea pods, but once you pick peas fresh from the garden, you’ll wonder why you didn’t plant more.