Alas, gardening season has arrived!

By Roger Erpelding
Contributing Writer 

When we begin to visit greenhouses and plant garden, the season has indeed arrived. So it did this weekend.

Despite cloudy and blustery weather, Beth and I ventured out to Groth Greenhouse near Winterset on Saturday afternoon. After all, we had 10 percent-off coupons for this weekend, and we just had to use them. My perennial beds are almost full, so I bought sparingly. I did find some sweet williams for the apple tree garden. They are in the dianthus genus, due to their flower fragrance, I suppose. Mom used to raise them on the farm, so their leaf and flower form is very familiar to my touch.  I bought two small plants, and placed them in the perennial bed Sunday morning.

But the biggest find were two beautiful specimens of Martha Washington geraniums. Mom always talked about them, and wondered why they didn’t bloom. We found out in our Master Gardener courses that they only bloom once each year. Flowering or not, the plants were in excellent shape at an excellent price–a Mother’s Day gift for Mom, and an additional plant as a gift for me. These are supposed to be hybrids that bloom more often–we’ll see. Their leaves have a unique wrinkled form, with a different type of fragrance. They will remain in the sun room for the short term.

Sunday was to be a cloudy and dreary day. However, it dawned sunny and remained so until mid-afternoon. At about 1 p.m. we went outside, and sure enough, the garden had a dry crust on it–time to get to work! I brought several stakes and a ball of string. Beth lined up a row on the east end of the garden near the wood fence. This is a task that I have done myself on occasion, but it goes faster if you have help. “Straight” is the operative word in this respect. She also prepared a short row for me where the potatoes were to be planted. I used Lucy (my Braille yardstick) to mark where I wanted the row to begin. Since no garden has perfect edges, some rows will be a bit longer than others, or even a little crooked. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter all that much. Where the rows are a bit longer, and the string becomes slack, I just twirl it around one of the stakes to tighten it up.

Now came planting. I planted several cool season crops, all by myself, as Beth did an assessment of weeds growing in the lawn, and disposed of them to a grocery sack. My seeds were in order with Braille labels. The Braille labels were at the bottom of the packet, so when I opened them from the top, they remained. I also kept the order of planting in my pocket, and immediately after I got cleaned up, I made a Braille list of the order of planting. I will discuss each crop as planted, and any special techniques I used to assist me.

1. Onions. This was an easy one. Between Row 1 and the fence, I placed a variety of the tiniest bulbs between the row and the fence, pointed end up. I placed the largest bulbs under the string, spacing between 4 to 6 inches apart. Lucy assisted me in this endeavor. Since this was the first row, I think it’ll be quite straight. I planted all rows from north to south, moving from east to west. One row of onions for harvesting was enough; I will eat the smaller ones placed too thickly near the fence for green onions in May. When I reached the south end of the row, I placed Lucy one foot to the west, and moved the stake. I walked north along the fence each time to minimize compaction and to remain oriented. When I reached the north east corner, I moved the north stake 1 foot to the west as well.

2. Lettuce. I purchased three kinds of lettuce–black seeded Simpson, lettuce blend, and red sails. They were planted in that order. I moved south along the row, digging a shallow furrow with a hoe without a handle. Keep in mind that I did not limit a certain crop to just one row. If it overlapped, I began the new row with that crop. For example, all of row 2 could be lettuce, and part of row 3 would be if seeds remain. This was the case sometimes, and that is why I made my Braille list by order, not by row. As I moved south along the row, the string was just high enough to tickle my nose–a good way to keep oriented. The string will flex due to the wind and my head, so the row might not be perfectly straight; the seeds don’t care.

3. Beets. These are composite seeds, which means that each seed can produce several plants. The challenge here is to plant them sparingly so they aren’t too thick. If they do get thick, I’ll let them grow for awhile, as beet greens are a tasty addition to a salad. The planting method is similar to lettuce, and this row is 1 foot west of the lettuce.

4. Kohlrabe. This is one of Beth’s favorite. We raised them growing up, so I like them as well. But due to limited space, and to other crops I like better, I probably wouldn’t raise it ordinarily; but for Beth, to plant this is a pleasure.

5. Carrots. Now here is the real challenge. I planted three kinds this year–tender sweet, rainbow and sugar snap carrots. They are not hard to plant, and again, just a foot west of the previous row. They present three challenges–their long germination time, their propensity to not germinate well, and their fine feathery leaf appearance. They are hard to feel until they are quite far along in their growth; the problem is, by that time the weeds and grass have grown up among them as well. I once asked my Mother for a tip to know when they are up. “You tell me and we’ll both know,” a life long gardener replied. So, they are a challenge for sighted folks as well. I have heard to plant them with radishes, but I have never tried this.

6. Radishes. Easy to plant, quick to germinate, again just one foot west of the previous row. Planting them too thick is a temptation which I never seem to avoid. Therefore, my crop is not as productive as it could and should be. A very easy crop for beginners. Hawkeye Bob, my reader, is a radish fanatic, so this is primarily his row. Beth and I like them as well, but due to our small space, probably would not plant them ordinarily. But I must admit that this is such an easy crop to grow and such fun to harvest that it is tough to resist.

7. Spinach. Corvair and Tyee were my picks for this year. I’ve never raised Corvair, so the jury is still out. I was disappointed that there were far fewer Tyee seeds. Again, an easy crop to plant, and I am prone to plant it too thickly. But no problem–baby spinach leaves can’t be beat! The rabbits agree, and this is why we have a fence around the garden. This was my last row in this area, so I moved both stakes a foot to the west. This  western end section of garden will be planted in green beans in May.

8. Potatoes. Our garden is almost a U shape. The east leg of the U, as described above, is almost planted. The west leg of the U is primarily in perennials, but the eastern portion of this western leg is vacant for the time being. The south end, or bottom of the U, will be planted in potatoes this year.

Planting potatoes is easy and fun. I first found an old bucket, and a sharp paring knife. I had earlier purchased a 10 pound bag of Norland seed potatoes from Earl May, and stored them in a dark cabinet in the garage. They had sprouted nicely for me. The tiny potatoes were placed in the bucket whole. The medium ones were cut in half, and where possible, sprouts were kept on each cut piece. These are easy to feel. The large ones were cut in thirds or fourths, and again I was careful to make sure each piece had sprouts. I have a small patio table which made the sorting and cutting easy.

Off to the garden with my bucket, Lucy, and a large trowel. Some years, when the ground has been especially mellow,  I have used my hands to dig holes for the potato pieces. Although the ground was dry on top, a couple of inches down it was still plenty wet, so the trowel was more efficient. I used Lucy to space the potatoes, and when I finished the row, I went 18 inches between each row. The area between Beth’s rocks on the north and the fence on the south are now planted in potatoes. And what did it do while I was planting them? Rained, of course. Not much, just enough to get my back wet.

It rained more later on that evening, and I was glad I got that portion of the garden planted. A cold and rainy week is forecast, but these are cool season crops, so it’ll just slow them down, not kill them. Peas, cabbage, broccoli, Brussel Sprouts and cauliflower could have also been planted yesterday, but it is likely I’ll forgo those crops this year.

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