As I write it is wet and snowy out, but I can see the swelling of the buds on the plum trees. There is a lot to do, if you want to be ready for the warm weather. I am a little late in writing this for my area, but for those of you north of me, still timely.
Not too late to prune. See my earlier article on that.
Spray dormant oil spray, which will smother emerging insects with a physical barrier rather than a poison. You will need a sprayer, and there are many kinds. If you have just a small garden you can get a small sprayer which holds a gallon or so, but I find a backpack sprayer frees your hands. You can get one for about $40-60, and 4 gallons is about all I can carry anyway. It has a hand pump on the side which you can work away at while scrambling around the trees. (Definitely prune before spraying.) The spray is sold concentrated, so designate a measuring tablespoon and hang it far from the kitchen. When using a sprayer be sure not to get any grass or dirt in it as this clogs the tip and then you have to stop and clear it. I use my sprayer a lot, primarily for applying a kaolin clay emulsion called Surround which I rave about- totally inert- you can eat it- but that can clog the sprayer occasionally.
With the oil spray- at our hardware store they sell Vollk- just mix in the oil, shake it a bit, pump your sprayer up to pressure, and wet each tree all over. If yo get a breeze- but try for a still day-, stand to windward. A fine spray gives better coverage to the smaller twigs. Do it now, as soon as you have pruned, and again after the buds open but before the blooms open. Then it will be time to stop freaking out about fungicides such as sulfur, copper, bacillus subtilis, and neem. In Maryland that is an issue. Here is the last article I wrote about sprays.
Never mind the garden now- if you planted a fall and winter garden that will soon be giving you delicious greens and salads. You won’t be able to do more than scratch the dirt by hand for a while yet, but you can have seedlings ready to go when it warms up. I seeded onions, leeks, tomatoes and peppers indoors- see articles- in late January. February is still fine but we are going to Ecuador and I want them to be potted out and in the greenhouse before we go.
Since I have an unheated greenhouse we eat greens all winter, but unless you get your lettuce to the eating stage by October, it will just sit there. However once the days lengthen my Egyptian onions, which are kind of perennial, and my broccoli start to take off, followed by the arugula and Chinese cabbages, which are planning to bolt shortly. Now the little lettuces which sat by all winter looking miserable are starting to grow, and I need to seed more. If I have too many I will tuck into the garden, since I noticed not too much of the lettuce I threw at the garden actually came up last fall. I will also seed some red cabbage
since the ones I seeded in the falll are actually heading up in the greenhouse. Brassicas can take a certain amount of frost- it actually sweetens them. Things like that should go in the garden once they are about 6 inches tall and the soil is workable. Here that would normally be late March early April, when it is cool and wet but not bitter, so they actually do some growing and establish their rooots. Be careful seeding too early; in very cool wet weather your seed may rot.
Using mulches to ready the garden for spring planting
I am gone a lot so I have gotten very inventive at avoiding weeding. I lay strips of old carpet between rows, which kills and composts any plants beneath them. Come spring, I simply pull up the strips and lay them on top of whatever I need killed, using the bare strip beneath to plant in. All winter it has been frost heaving so it has somewhat uncompacted itself after being walked on all summer. Now I take a weeding hoe, (favorite tools article) which is a nice little four pronged cultivating rake, scratch up the soil enough to plant seeds, and I’m done. If you rototill wet soil, it turns it to concrete, crushing all soil structure. Likewise with bone dry soil. Hoeing wet soil is difficult and has a similar effect. My solution works pretty well. The carpet strips I have used seem pretty stable as they have not come apart after eight years. Newspaper decays well, and they do use soy inks nowadays so that isn’t a problem, but you must use 3 layers for it to be effective, and it is time consuming and likes to blow away if not very securely weighted down with dirt or pinned down with landscaping pins, which then are lost all over the garden. I mostly tuck it between tomato and pepper plants, between pieces of carpet. Cardboard takes a long time to decay and may have plastic tape on it, so it isn’t a good solution for this purpose. It is however a great way to smother weeds if you are going to build a raised bed on top of it.
Honestly, you really need to seed many wonderful fowers outdoors in the fall or early spring, when seeds would naturally fall. Definitely read the package for each seed you plant.Some actually need to get cold. Many seeds are very tiny and must be pressed into the surface only. I like to fill those plastic salad boxes with soil, seed them, and put the lid back on, writing date and contents with a permanent marker. Later you can punch holes in the bottom and use the lid as a saucer. Check whether they need light to sprout, and what temperature they like. Tiny plants like impatiens and nicotania need constant moisture to sprout and then misting. Really easy ones are zinnias, morning glories, sunflowers, snapdragons, hollyhocks, nasturtiums, sweet peas- all those great cottage garden flowers. Cardinal vines and moonflower vines are easy but you should give them a little scarification (scratch up the seed coat with an emory board, or rub them on concrete with the flat of your finger) and soak overnight in hot water first. If you get them going 6-8 weeks before they go in the garden, you’ll have flowers sooner.
Many herbs are easiest grown from a rooted cutting, but if you want to start a lot, as in for a big bed of thyme, start you seeds now. I use my salad box flats for thyme, lavender, ashwaghanda, and basil. Thyme and basil don’t mild a chill; in fact basil sprouts better when it isn’t too cold, but lavender is not fond of cold, soggy soil, and ashwaghanda likes heat. I usually start fennel, parsley and dill directly in the garden, since I have it in the greenhouse all winter anyway.
I really love artichokes, and with care and good drainage we can grow them in Maryland. Although I have been told that artichoke seed should be put in a bag of potting soil in the fridge for 6 weeks, and they do germinate very well that way, I have also seen them germinate without all that fuss. They have a tap root, so if I could I’d direct seed, but I can’t, because they need a long season. I start them in pots and plant them in my best, sheltered spot with the best drainage and all the honor I can convey. They are gorgeous- architecturally so, like a giant white thistle with brilliant purple chokes, if you let them blossom. One we had up against the house made about 40 buds, which we enjoyed enormously. It came back the next year, but died after that. A lady I know grew one for three years. This year I have one under a peach basket with a carpet over it. It has been a hard winter so I am holding my breath.
As for all the other warm weather stuff, like cucumbers, melons, okras, etc., wait on that. You are going to get a more natural root structure if you direct seed, so do that if you can.