Tuesday, April 15, 2014

How to garden in Virginia

Every climate is different.  I even have different results here, in my low-lying garden on a ridge, than a friend might have across town.  So when people from far away ask me "How do I garden?" I feel a little at a loss.  I'd rather have them ask their neighbors, or a local blog.  My next-door neighbor and I consult about when to plant stuff, and that helps.  I also like reading blogs of other gardeners in the area .... though unfortunately most of them are like me and don't blog every detail of their gardens.

Virginia is a great place to garden because of our long growing season and abundant rain.  I rarely have to water, but at the same time we also get plenty of sun.

It's an awful place to garden because of the soil, which is heavy and sticky -- especially gardening on a suburban lot, where the soil is just subsoil shoved into place when the house was built.  You can't work clay soil when it's wet, or you'll destroy the structure, compact it, and it will turn into brick the moment it dries.  But you also can't work it when it's dry because it's hard as a rock.  There might be one perfect day to work it -- and odds are, you're busy that day!

I deal with the soil issue by not digging in the garden at all.  In the fall I lay as much mulch as I can get -- leaves, usually, but hay or straw is fine, or grass clippings.  (If you are building a new bed, you might want to cut off the sod first.  Whether you do or not, that sod will try to come back for the next decade because that's what sod does.  Ugh.)  Manure is nice if you have it, under the mulch, to feed the microbes and worms.

In the spring, I pull back the mulch to let the soil dry out and warm up.  Clay is the slowest soil to warm up, and under mulch it stays cold and wet practically forever.  Pulling back the mulch gives me a huge thrill -- the soil is always soft and fluffy, due to worm action and frost heaving, and there are tons of worms and bugs eating up the decaying plant matter.  Who knew rot could be so exciting?

Every year is different, but in the years I've lived here, I've noticed a pattern to spring.  The dates aren't predictable, but the pattern is always the same.  First it's cold, cold, cold, with occasional warmer days that leave us all saying "maybe this is spring?"  But it isn't spring for a long time yet.  I start some broccoli inside as an act of faith.

There's usually a really warm week which gets you really excited.  That's when I get everything ready, pulling back mulch, yanking out weeds, and repairing the beds.  Then for awhile it's warmer and wet .... highs in the forties and fifties, lows in the thirties.  This isn't real spring either, because the plants know to hold back.  You do see some weeds starting to grow, though, and the grass starts to get green.  I start harvesting dandelions.

Ideally, I plant my first seeds on the last warm day before the wet spell.  That wet spell is sprouting weather!  I plant peas, lettuce, radish, spinach, beets, and chard.  Potatoes should also go in about now.  This year this time came right around the last week of March.  I wait till the whole ten-day forecast has lows above 30; that's my general rule.  Also the daffodils will have come up.

Because the soil here is so heavy, I don't actually bury the seeds -- not if the weather is damp.  At least, the lettuce just gets patted into place.  The peas get poked in and covered, but not deeply.  Carrots are the toughest, because they take so long to sprout.  I failed three years running to sprout a one!  But finally I tried this, which worked: I laid the seed on top of the soil, in a little groove I made with my rake.  Then I covered it with sand.  The sand keeps the seed from washing away and keeps it damp, but it doesn't crust over like the clay soil does.  I imagine peat moss or potting soil would do the same thing.

I transplant the broccoli a little later, but since it always grows so badly indoors, it's never really ready.  I try for maybe the second warm, damp spell of spring.  Transplants like overcast weather with light rain when they first go in.

To plant warm weather crops like tomatoes and peppers (from transplants), cucumbers, squash, beans, etc., you have to wait through several more damp spells.  You wait till the cool-weather crops come up.  You wait through one very hot week (we just finished it) where you just cannot beLIEVE it's not time.  (But it isn't, there's at least one more frost ahead.  Check the ten-day forecast; it's almost always on there.)  Then suddenly spring starts showing up in earnest -- redbud and dogwood appear; the trees all look covered with a green mist; cherry blossoms and magnolia flowers fly on the wind.  At that point we usually get another wet week.  It's amazing how it goes.  One day the trees have teeny little buds on them -- the next it's pouring rain so you don't go out -- and then as soon as you look outside again, everything has leaves!  It's an intense growing time; so easy to miss.  At Christendom it always happened over spring break, it seemed.  I'd leave on Friday with all the trees bare, and come back ten days later to find it now looked like summer.

And that's when you plant the warm stuff -- as soon as that rainy period ends and there aren't any frosts on the ten-day forecast.  (There may still be a frost yet; you just have to hope, and keep something handy to cover your transplants with like a row cover or mason jars or whatever you can find.)  Again, a day with rain predicted soon is a good choice.  You can plant seeds on a hot day and wait for the rain to activate them -- the transplants you want to do when it isn't too sunny, like when it's overcast.  Failing that, do them in the afternoon and water them well.  You don't want them to wilt in their first full day of sun.

Clay holds water so well, especially mulched, that you don't really have to water during the summer unless there's a drought.  BUT, during this first bit of spring when you've got fragile transplants and seeds, you do have to water.  Where you have seeds, you want the soil to be visibly damp.  If it isn't dark with dampness, water it (with a light spray so you don't wash away your seeds).  On some of these hot days, that might be twice a day or more!  The transplants can take a little more dryness, but not much -- there should be moisture right below the surface.

When the seeds have sprouted and the transplants have been in place about a week, you can stop worrying and let the plants grow deeper roots if they want water.  If you keep them waterlogged now, they'll never grow the kind of roots they should and they'll be fragile forever.  Especially considering the sort of wind and storm we get in the summertime, you want your plants to have deep roots so they don't get uprooted (as my tomatoes have!).  The crust that forms on the surface of the soil is now your friend -- it will stymie a lot of the weeds that try to grow.  You'll have to pull the rest, though.

Once the plants are big enough not to be lost in it, you can replace your mulch.  That will do several things: it will keep moisture in the soil in hot weather; it will keep the soil from washing away and compacting in dry weather; it will add organic matter to the soil (which, in a suburban lot, you desperately need); and it will block all but the toughest weeds from coming up.  Keep that mulch on there, and add more if you have it!  Every time I mow, I throw the clippings on the garden.

After that, there's not much to say.  If I don't get a good rainstorm every week, I call it a drought and start watering.  You want to really soak the garden when you do water, so that the water actually penetrates.  Five minutes of sprinkling ain't gonna cut it.  I move the hose from bed to bed as each starts looking really flooded and puddly.  And then if I've gone through them all and the first one's puddles have dried up, I do them again.  Even so I never seem to water as well as the rain does, so I might need to water every day or two until we get rain again.

Stake the tomatoes, because the storms will rip them right up if you don't.  You might want to hill the soil around their stems too, especially when a storm is predicted.  Your bean trellises had better be sturdy.  I've had lots of things break.

Expect the growing season to go clear through October.  Around Halloween we get the frost that kills my tomatoes.  When it's predicted, you go through and pick all the green tomatoes to ripen inside, because if you leave them out, they'll be ruined.  (Or drape the plants with old sheets -- that sometimes works!  I actually had plants survive under snow if they were mulched.)  The hardy plants will keep going right through November -- I had broccoli still alive (though not really producing) till Christmas.  One year, lettuce that was up against the house lived all winter long.  But lettuce does not survive well here in summer, even the supposedly heat-tolerant kinds.  If you have a way to shade yours, you might have better luck.

My big successes here in Virginia are tomatoes, squash, and beans.  My big failures are peas ... they like cool spring weather, which we rarely have much of before it gets hot.  I keep trying, though, because I love them.  Bugs can be a real menace some summers.  All you can do is study up on common pests and pick them off.  I've suffered from Mexican bean beetles, squash borers, squash bugs, and cabbage moths.  But it really depends on the year.  I'm hoping for a mild bug year because our winter was so cold.

Does anyone else here garden in Virginia?  For those who garden elsewhere, is it very different?

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