Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Digging the Dirt / March in the Garden

This originally appeared in The Two River's Tribune as one of my monthly garden columns. Unfortunately I am not certain which year.

Digging the Dirt / March in the Garden
March is the beginning of the gardening year for many folks. It is time to beginning thinking about where you want to place your new garden or flower beds, do any last minute pruning of roses and perennials, and get ready to start seeds for all the glorious summer flowers and vegetables. One of the hardest things about these beguiling weeks of mild, pre-spring weather is that it can turn freezing cold at the snap of a finger. Fortunately, there are plants that can be planted right now and take a freeze; but first, you might want to prepare new planting beds.
New Beds with Less Work
The easiest technique for starting new beds comes to us from the proponents of no till gardening. All you have to do is mark out where your new beds will be placed, mow, cut, or pull any weeds, smooth any displaced soil, cover with any soil amendment(s) of your choice (compost, composted manure, coffee ground; or kelp, bone, or blood meal, etc.), cover the beds with newspaper or cardboard, and lastly cover with a layer of mulch. Your mulch can be shredded plant material from your garden, from the local tree service, sawdust from one of our local mills, or fluffed up straw from a local feed, garden, or hardware store. Shredded bark or bark chips also work well and can last a long time, but they will cost you a bit more to start with.
When you get ready to plant your home grown or nursery purchased seedlings, simply pull back the mulch, cut through the card board or newspaper, use a trowel to make a small planting hole, tuck in your seedling, and scrunch the mulch back over the newspaper or cardboard.
Reduce Slugs before they Reduce Your Seedlings
Before planting your seedlings, you might want to take a few slug reduction measures. Flat beer, placed in repurposed wide mouth plastic bottles, works wonders. Just pour a few of inches of beer into your bottle and use some mulch to prop them up on their sides. The slugs crawl in and they don’t crawl out. When there is no more room in the tavern, you can pull back your mulch and pour the stale beer and slugs out on the ground. Give them a decent burial under your mulch, and get the tavern open for business as soon as possible.
Magazines and slick newspaper inserts make handy slug traps. For each trap you want one or two pages of slick paper. Simply fold the sheets in quarters, make a hole in one corner, and poke a small stick through one corner to hold them in place. Place them strategically around your garden in the afternoon or evening. In the morning check, and collect any slug filled traps. You should find the slimy guys hiding on the bottom or in between the pages. You can toss the traps, slugs and all--in the wood stove, in a bucket of water, or place the traps on something solid and stomp them flat and throw them in the compost pile. Those of you who keep poultry, other birds, or who have pet reptiles and amphibians can see if your animals will enjoy a slug snack. Ducks and chickens usually love them, but not all birds do. I once gave some slugs to a neighbor’s emu and got them spit right back in my face. You should have seen the look on that birds face. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts, right?
Time to Plant Outside:
Cabbage, kale, mustards, collards, lettuce, corn salad, arugula, endive, escarole, and many other tasty and healthful “greens” can be planted right now, either from seeds or starts. Keep in mind, that all plants referred to as greens may not actually be green colored; however, the part most often consumed is the leaves. One of my new favorites has such dark leaves that they are sometimes described as black.
Homegrown cabbage!  Imperfect but oh so crisp and tasty.
Tuscan Kale is also called dinosaur kale and black kale. It has long narrow crinkly leaves, grows into a large striking plant up to three or four feet tall, and can live for several years. It can be planted along the edges of the vegetable garden or in mixed perennial borders. Check your local nurseries or favorite catalogs for starts and seeds. Once you get some Tuscan Kale going, you will be glad you did. Not only are the leaves attractive and tasty, the immature flower heads are absolutely the best. Snap them off with a couple inches of the thick juicy stem and the small terminal leaves. If you take a bite from the stem end, you are going to have problems getting them into the kitchen, they are that good. Imagine some sweet, tender, and juicy broccoli and you have a pretty good idea what Tuscan kale “bolts” are all about.
Tuscan kale can be started indoors or out, right now. It can take a light frost or even a sprinkling of snow, but if your ground is frozen or covered in a deep snow, either wait for spring or get it started inside. If you live above the snow line, you might want to keep one Tuscan kale plant in a large container, so you can shelter it over the winter and hope for those delicious bolting flower heads next spring.
Start Summer Veggies Indoors:
Winter squash, watermelons, edible and ornamental gourds, as well as eggplants and tomatoes can be started indoors this month. They will need a warm bright window, or special lights and a heating mat to thrive. If starting seeds indoors is not your idea of a good time, be reassured that our local nurseries will be stocked with all kinds of vegetable plants in the next few months.
Produce in the Kitchen
Tuscan Kale is the star in my garden right now, the dark green leaves add lots of flavor to soups, stews, and one of my favorite dishes—Dirty Rice. Any greens that you happen to have growing can be used; red or green cabbage leaves, mustard, collards, and spinach are all likely to be found in the garden this time of year, and they will work just fine. First, put half a cup of black beans in a medium sized sauce pan or a rice cooker with two cups of water. Bring to a boil and then simmer the beans for about two hours, checking frequently and adding more water if necessary. Then add a cup of brown rice, a sliced carrot or two, some diced onion, and one or two large or several small diced leaves from Tuscan kale or other greens. Add two more cups of water, any seasonings you are hankering for, and let it cook for another hour, checking occasionally. If you have a rice cooker of an old fashioned pot with a double decker steamer basket, add some more veggies and/or shrimp to the basket and check frequently. Remove the veggies as they become tender. The dirty rice is ready to serve as soon as the rice is tender.

For Rose Lovers
“Complete Roses” from the Creative Homeowner series might be just the book you have been waiting for. Lavishly illustrated from the front cover through nearly every page of the text, you are sure to find the perfect rose for that certain corner of your landscape. Unlike most rose tomes, this one advocates natural and nontoxic solutions for rose problems. You will find chapters on: types and uses of roses, how to improve your soil, selecting the right rose for your needs, companion plants for roses, caring for roses, controlling pests and disease, propagating your rose plants, as well as a gallery of easy care roses. The gallery includes the history of the various groups of roses, so even if you have plenty and are expert in their care, you might learn some great stories about where they originated and who developed them. “Complete Roses” would make a great coffee table book or a great gift; available from most on-line book sellers or by request from your favorite book stores. “Complete Roses,” by Field Roebuck, published by Creative Homeowner, 2007, ISBN 978-1-58011-372-4.
If you enjoy this article and want to see the one for April, add me on facebook, Harvest McCampbell, and give me a reminder near the end of March. Questions, comments, and tips are always welcome.

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