Dispatches from the Hollow

Story by Cathy Clary

In spite of weather and climate irregularities – melting ice caps, drought, hotter temperatures, and longer summers (will the gardener’s woes never cease?) – our average last date of frost (LDOF) here in central Virginia remains May 15. In low pockets, like the hollow, as well as higher altitudes, last gusts of winter can still blow. Warm spells tease out flower buds on fruit trees, especially peaches, which succumb to inevitable frosts, plaguing local orchardists who are moving toward later-flowering varieties.

As summer beckons, it’s tempting to jump the gun on planting, but cold ground can rot seeds or plants while they’re waiting around for things to heat up. Some vegetable gardeners go to the trouble of laying sun-absorbing black plastic on top of the soil to nurture along first tomatoes, but in general it’s better to wait for nature’s cycles.

Set tomatoes out after LDOF when nighttime temperatures stay above 45 F and be prepared to cover them in case of  late frosts if you decide to push the envelope. I’ve learned to buy early to get the  best selection and pot them up into larger containers until it’s warm enough for planting.

Summer bedding plants, such as globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa), Nicotiana, Dahlia, and Cleome also perform best put in after frost as transplants, either as cell packs or 4-6-pots. Nurseries and garden centers will have these tempting lovelies displayed well before LDOF, with appropriate warnings about the need for protection, so take heed and have a light sheet or polycloth row cover available to toss over early plantings to see them through nippy nights.

Wait for temperatures to rise before direct seeding heat-loving annuals like Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), which prefers a soil reading over 70 F; marigold (Tagetes spp.), 75 F; and Zinnia, 80 F. Flowers like nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), 60 F; and larkspur (Consolida), 55 F, like it cooler and can be sowed two weeks before last frost, i.e., around the first of May. 

Find a simple soil thermometer, which looks and operates much like a meat thermometer. Old-timers like to wait for the waxing moon (getting bigger like an old candle that accumulates drippings) to plant seeds outside because moisture is drawn up into the soil during this period of the lunar month. The new moon appears on the 15th and achieves fullness on the 29th.

We went into winter here in Albemarle County with a rainfall deficit over 10 inches and, as of this writing, have received negligible rain and snow, though the creek has begun to babble a bit. Going into a dry spring means water conservation this summer. I saw a display of beautiful heirloom tomatoes at the Crozet farmers’ market late last summer when the drought was becoming apparent, and when I complimented the grower, she said she had not used any supplemental water due to no-till agriculture and sheet composting.

The idea of no-till is not to dig the ground at all after the initial bed is prepared; a leap of faith I have not yet been able to take. Depending on the quality of the soil, the bed is double dug or even tilled initially to a depth of 12-18 inches, incorporating generous amounts of organic material, such as compost, leaf mold, sawdust, pine tags, etc. Abundant organic matter is key, as it enhances water- absorbing capacity. Avoid bagged material, such as peat moss (too acidic unless you’re growing blueberries and not native to Virginia). Look for local products – in our area, Black Bear in Crozet or Panorama Farms in Earlysville produce fine compost – or make your own with leaves and garden debris. 

After planting, only mulch is added, including cardboard and newspapers, then more organics. Each layer builds up and serves as the new planting medium. We’ve been using cardboard to smother Chrysanthemum weed or mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) that has been invading the vegetable garden for some years and it’s been working well, but have not taken the next step of building up layers.

Each year challenges the gardener with its own special story of abundance and scarcity. Turning it all over and starting again is what it’s all about. Happy Spring!

Photo: Soil thermometer shows cool temperature ripe for nasturtium and larkspur seeds. Photo by Cathy Clary.

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