By DONNIE JOHNSTON
EACH YEAR I get questions about gardening from readers. I don’t pretend to know all the answers but I offer the best advice I can based on years of working with the soil.
Here are a few of the questions I get from beginning gardeners.
When should I plow my garden?
I plow my garden in the fall, usually in late October or early November. This allows the dirt to freeze and thaw all winter and it is soft and crumbly when I work the garden in spring.
Another advantage to fall plowing is the fact that I am always just 30 minutes away from planting. When the late winter winds blow and the ground is dry enough to work, all I need to do is hook up the disc (or crank up the tiller) and in a few minutes I am ready to put seeds in the ground.
I have a friend, however, who sows a cover crop on his garden each fall and then plows it in the spring. The advantage of this is that the cover crop, when turned under, will help hold the moisture if the season becomes dry.
The dead grass will also add nutrients to the soil.
The disadvantage is that the cover crop will hold moisture in the spring and make the ground too wet to plow. That sometimes prevents you from getting cold weather crops in as early as you might like. And early is important for crops like broccoli that will go to seed when the hot weather hits.
Spring plowing in general is too iffy for me. I’ve seen my grandmother have her garden plowed wet and the dirt ended up as nothing but clods when it was disked. I like plowing in the fall, both for convenience and for soil condition.
How early should I plant cold weather crops?
It all depends on the soil. I have planted peas, potatoes, onions and beets as early as Feb. 20. I like to have all those crops in the ground no later than March 15.
Soil condition is the key factor for me. If I find a day after Feb. 20 when the earth is dry enough to work up well, I plant.
Peas, potatoes and onion don’t need a lot of heat to come up and beet seeds will resist germination until conditions are right.
I plant two crops of potatoes. In late February or early March I plant those I have left over from the previous year, the ones that have shriveled up and sprouted in the basement.
I pull off any long sprouts and plant the potatoes whole.
Before I cover them up I spread a good dose of wood ashes (that I have saved from my winter fires) on them. This both adds fertilizer to the soil and helps cut down on the Colorado potato beetle crop.
I plant a second crop in early April using store-bought potatoes that I cut before planting. Even if I let the potatoes dry for a few days after cutting, they are more likely to rot during a week or cold and wet conditions than the ones I plant whole. Since the weather is usually warmer in April, the cut potatoes then have a better chance of survival.
As for beets, well, just make sure you don’t plant them deep. What I do is smooth out my soil with a rake and drop the seeds on top of the ground. Then I walk on them, allowing only the bottom of the seed to come in contact with the soil. I get an almost perfect stand of beets every year.
What about cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower?
I try to transplant all three of these by March 15 (although I usually don’t plant cauliflower). As I said earlier, you want broccoli in early. Cabbage also does well in the cool weather.
Will cold and snow damage these crops?
Potatoes will take three weeks or so to come up so the weather will be milder by then. Still, there are cold snaps and I’ve seen temperatures drop to 17 or 18 degrees with my potatoes three or four inches tall. Yes, they get burned and turn black but they always come back out and bloom on schedule.
When their roots become established (in four or five days), the temperature will have to get below 20 degrees to harm cabbage. And I’ve had it snow 6 inches deep on my cabbage with no ill effects.
Once they are up, peas seem to withstand anything, short of hail, that nature throws at them.
And the only way to destroy beets is to plant them too deep.
There you have my answers to some gardening questions I get annually. They may not be the right answers for you but they work for me.
If you have questions, email them to me and I’ll do the best I can to get you an answer.
Donnie Johnston is a staff writer and longtime gardener in Culpeper County. He will answer readers’ gardening questions in Farm & Garden, which appears
in The Free Lance–Star the first Friday of each month.