The Block Island Times
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Gardening Times: Time to prep your gardens

By Fred Nelson | Mar 19, 2012

The weather this winter certainly has been exceptional, with so many mild days when compared with a normal winter. This occurred not only on the island but throughout the country, including the South.

It will be interesting to see if it has any appreciable effect on plants in general. One effect that has already been noted is that with the mild temperatures, many insects that would normally be killed by cold temperatures are surviving and may cause an unusual problem, particularly in commercial agricultural crops such as vegetable and fruit production.

Notwithstanding these summer-like days, don’t get too excited and try to rush into gardening. The weather is uncontrollable and we still could receive an unusual extra cold snap before spring gardening season arrives.

Before tilling the garden, it is a good idea to check the soil moisture. The old saying holds that if you take a handful of soil and squeeze it together and it remains a ball, then it is too wet to till. Ideally the “ball” should crumble in your hand — then the soil may be tilled with less effort and any soil additives such as limestone, fertilizer or organic matter will be more thoroughly incorporated.

Another precaution before tilling is to ensure that any leftover plant debris such as diseased plants from the previous season should be raked out and discarded. Actually, the best time to do this is at the conclusion of the fall season. It goes without saying that diseased plant residue should either be burned or packed off to the transfer station to minimize the potential of infecting new plants.

Soil temperature determines when seeded crops germinate. Thus, cool weather plants such as lettuce, peas and spinach will readily germinate in cool temperatures, and can be planted as soon as the ground is workable. Warm weather crops such as beans, cucumbers and squash, on the other hand, will likely rot before germinating if planted in cool, wet soil. And finally transplants such as tomatoes, eggplants or peppers will not grow until the soil temperature tops 50 degrees. Therefore, it is better to keep transplants in a cold frame until the weather, and soil, warm.

A practice that I have previously noted that works well for me is to pot small tomato plants in one-gallon nursery pots and set them in a cold frame. Here, the pots are above ground and the soil is warmed by the sun during the day. The cold frame is closed in the evening, which helps to hold the temperature through the night. After two to three weeks, the plants are up to 12 inches in height and the roots have developed throughout the pot. Around Memorial Day they are then transplanted into the garden, where they become well established in a matter of days.

While there won’t be any lawn mowing for another few weeks, now would be a good time to check the battery of your mower to make sure that it is well charged. There is nothing more frustrating than to get on a mower and find that the battery is either dead or needs charging. The same forethought should go to the condition of the mower blades. If the blades are full of nicks and are generally dull, the grass blade is torn rather than cut. This leaves the lawn with a less attractive appearance. In addition, research has shown that sharp blades require less energy to mow. With the cost of gasoline, here is an opportunity to save at least a few dollars by sharpening the blades now.

Personally, I have two sets of blades so that when I think it would be well to change the blades, I can do so without having to make time to sharpen them right away. If you sharpen your own blades, make sure the blades are balanced before putting them back on the mower. One other necessary chore: replacing the spark plug in your mower, or at least cleaning it before you try to start the engine.

We may see on a spring day in one place more beauty in a wood than in any garden.

—William Robinson, “The Garden Beautiful’ (1907)

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