April: Timing in the Garden
I. GARDEN PLANNING
If you haven’t already done it, sit down and make some rough plans for what you want to do in your vegetable patch this year.
1) Make a list of what you want to grow based on both what you like and what you are curious to try.
2) Make a sketch that is at least roughly to scale, just to help ‘keep it real’. Even experienced gardeners misjudge and plant things too close together, so look at seed packages for the needed spacing.
3) Plant incrementally rather than all at once. See below for a few techniques.
4) Find a regional planting chart (see sources below) so you are planting at the right times for our area.
5) Get out there! Make a “planting appointment calendar,” or develop your own system to remind you when to get out and get planting.
II. TECHNIQUES FOR STRETCHING THE HARVEST
A little planning and good timing provides a variety of delicious vegetables over a longer period of time. Here are some methods that will keep your garden pumping out something delicious right up through the fall, and maybe longer!
1) Successive or interval sowing: In lieu of planting a whole row of the same vegetable at once, perform several smaller sowings, each of the same vegetable, at 2-3 week intervals. Do this with lettuce for instance, and assure yourself of a steady supply of crunchy greens for your salad bowl each week. Otherwise, your overabundant crop gets bitter before you can pick and use it (or you use up a lot of space growing lettuce for your friends and neighbors). Another reason for interval sowing is that some vegetables crop several flushes (bush beans for instance). Most varieties of bush beans initially crop heavily, but later start to bear more lightly with each flush. If you’ve sown at 3-4 intervals you won’t mind because as the first planting slows down, the second and then the third interval plantings start coming on to keep you in steady supply.
2) Sowing different varieties of the same vegetable: Another way to have a staggered harvest is to sow small amounts of the same veggie at the same time, but use several varieties. Choose varieties that will mature at different times. Back to lettuce as an example; Territorial Seed Catalog lists their leaf lettuce “New Red Fire” as maturing at 29 days, while their “Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed” butter head lettuce may not be ready for 55 days. If you plant these two varieties and a couple of others with differing maturity dates, you may be able to achieve a staggered harvest. (Note: Some seed companies sell blends of several varieties in one packet. If you like broccoli try Territorial’s Hybrid Broccoli blend. Make a spring sowing, then another in late May or early June, and you can stretch your broccoli harvest through until fall.)
3) Succession planting: Different than successive sowings, this just means that you follow one crop with another, usually a different one, in the same place during the same season. This can be done because there are short season and long season crops. In one spot you might start in early spring with some radishes and arugula, which prefer cool weather and grow to maturity quickly. Follow those with tomatoes in May or June (depending on weather and methods) and occupy their space into late summer or early fall. As their fruiting and ripening slows with the waning days of summer you may want to pull the ‘maters out and plant something ultimately more productive for the space taken up; e.g., garlic, overwintering onions, or maybe a cover crop that will rebuild fertility or protect the soil from winter rains.
Care should be taken to replenish nutrients as needed after each crop.
4) Summer planting for winter eating: Yes it’s possible. Here, a planting calendar is even more crucial than early in the season. Plantings need to be timed to allow enough growth to hold the plant at a harvestable size through the winter, when things typically quit growing much. For planning purposes, it pays to take a look now at what you’ll need to be doing during the summer for fall and winter eating. (Another element of planning; some of these crops won’t survive without winter protection from our incessant rain! Better to learn how to make supported row covers during nice weather.)
III. PLANTING CALENDARS
Even in our mild climate, putting crops in too early or too late can result in seed or seedling loss, stunted growth, failure to mature, or a reduction in harvest. Avoid disappointing failures by hunting up a planting calendar. Some are quite simple and easy to follow, such as Steve Solomon’s “Year-Round Planting Calendar” in his invaluable gardening advice book, Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, 6th edition. I keep a copy of his chart with my seeds at all times.
There are also some good planting calendars accessible online.
Oregon State University’s Planting Calendar. Based on this chart we are Zone 2 (not to be confused with hardiness zones).
Oregon Tilth’s Planting and Harvest Calendar. Squares with dots indicate when to plant; blue squares show the approximate range for the harvest season. (While you’re there, be sure to check out Oregon Tilth’s Toolshed page, which offers Vegetable Fact Sheets, Garden Planning Worksheets, and other useful planning and tracking tools.)
IV. MAKE A SOWING APPOINTMENT CALENDAR
Garden planning and planting calendars will enhance your gardening success, but if you’re like me, you may need a system to remind you when to get out into the garden and get planting. To this end, Steve Solomon suggests a “sowing appointment calendar.“ In the most recent edition of Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, he outlined his technique of using a dozen or so wide mouth mason jars into which he organized his seed packets. He labels the jars with planting dates, stores them in an old refrigerator (with a desiccant package to draw off moisture) and checks on them so he knows when it’s time to make the plantings.
I don’t always get all my seeds lined up right away, but I try to do at least 4-5 weeks at a time. Since I’m starting to use my fruit jars for food storage (in place of plastics), I’ve begun seed organizing in date-marked quart sized clear plastic containers rescued from the recycling bin. Not lining up the whole season at once requires me to review my containers and “reload” 4-5 times over the season which is okay since planning always seems to need some fine tuning. (After a sowing session, seeds for successive sowings are moved forward to a container dated for 2-3 weeks out.)