Although the official no-more-frost date does not arrive until mid-May, March is the ideal time to begin preparing the garden, or prospective garden, for the upcoming growing season. Cold-hardy crops can go in the ground soon, ushering the early promise of fresh produce.
In the spirit of staying ahead of the game, two local garden professionals share their tips. Garden designer Mardi Letson of Gardens by Mardi and organic specialist Ruth Gonzalez say it’s time to get started.
Preparing garden beds
Before doing any actual planting, Letson suggests adding organic matter to garden beds first, such as mushroom compost or composted leaves. “Add compost to native soil and get your soil tested. You can send your soil off for a quick test or contact the local extension.” A soil test will determine what other amendments would best balance the soil, Letson explains. She also suggests creating raised beds for ease and good drainage.
“I add composted cow and chicken manure to my garden annually, along with earthworm castings,” says Gonzalez. “Lime is often an essential addition” — also determined by a soil test, she adds.
“I also use soft rock phosphate, greensand and azomite. In the fall I try to turn leaves into the garden to entice earthworms to work the soil over winter.” Gonzalez also uses cover crops throughout the seasons to increase soil health.
When planting early, both gardeners suggest preparing for cold snaps.
“I use handmade cloth hoop covers,” says Letson, in case the weather turns sharply cold. “So I will plant early, if I’m going to be diligent about covering them, especially in raised beds, which makes it easier.”
Gonzalez does the same by covering tender transplants and sprouts in the event of extreme weather. “I use fiberglass rods with floating row cover to protect early crops from frost.”
Fabric plant covers can be found at most nurseries or agricultural supply stores in long bolts, to protect long garden rows.
“I would prepare my spring garden patch as soon as the ground is not too wet to work and mulch the area until I was ready to plant,” says Gonzalez. “I would sow spinach and pea seeds and plant early-season transplants (plants that have been started indoors in flats or cell packs) with the enticement of eating super-fresh salads and greens as soon as possible.”
Gonzalez begins the season by direct seeding cold-tolerant plants such as peas, spinach, radishes, lettuce, beets, mesclun mix and braising mix. Her transplanting list includes cabbage, lettuce, kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and Asian greens. “If you are growing your own transplants, get started!” says Gonzalez.
Radishes are among the top choices for early planting.
(Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Brownlee)
She also recommends “hardening off” transplants before putting them in the ground. This means bringing seedlings outside for short periods of time, gradually increasing this amount of outdoor time in a protected area, then bringing them in at night until they are tempered to living full-time in the ground.
Letson also begins planting by direct seeding arugula, spinach and sweet peas. When it comes to choosing transplants, Letson suggests choosing varieties that will thrive. “Seek plants that are well-suited to this area and are disease-resistant.”
A variety of lettuces are some of the first on Letson’s early planting list. “I would pick out beautiful lettuces, some that have purple leaves and some that have wispy leaves and some that have rounded leaves, a nice assortment.” she says. “Lettuces are my favorite thing.”
But they're not the only favorite. Brassicas — an assortment of plants from the mustard family including cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts — are prized. “Oh, I always plant brassicas. I love brassicas,” says Letson, “and I love dark leafy greens such as white Russian kale, red Russian kales. I have fabulous luck with not only kale, but Swiss chard and mustard greens.” All are excellent choices for early season planting.
Part of a successful early spring garden includes planting seeds and transplants with a high success rate. After gathering the cold-hardy varieties you would like to plant, you can plan what will go where in your garden space.
“I am a fan of Sow True Seed, High Mowing Organic Seed, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Johnny's Selected Seeds. But there are so many wonderful seed companies out there, especially heirloom seed companies who are truly doing a service of preserving and expanding our palette of seed diversity. I always look for organic seeds,” says Gonzalez.
“I like Sow True Seeds, I love Renee’s Garden seeds — I think the seed packs are so pretty; I’m a sucker for the seed packets — but I like High Mowing Seeds, and you don’t want to forget about your flowers, too,” Letson adds. “You can plant larkspur, poppies, bachelor buttons, nigella.”
Mardi in her garden. (Photo: Courtesy of Katherine Brooks)
Why flowers in the vegetable garden? “Well, first they are beautiful, and for me, I think they draw me out to the garden. If I see something blooming from the house, it kind of gets my attention, but they are great for the pollinators. So flowers are not just beautiful but practical.”
And don’t forget your favorite herbs. Direct seed or transplant cilantro and parsley early. Oregano, thyme and chives are great to transplant now too.
Tips for beginners
When starting out, both gardeners share the same crucial tip: Start small. “After that, keep things simple,” says Gonzalez. “Locate your containers or garden between your car and your main door in full sun. Remember to water. Mulch so you don't have to weed.”
Letsons adds, “To keep things manageable and small, you can even get raised bed kits you can find in catalogs. Start with maybe a four-by-six-foot plot and make it manageable, get all your amendments, make it really nice and luscious in there, and mulch the area.” From here, Letson reiterates Gongalez’s point to keep all the other details close by for optimum success. “Get your watering system all figured out so you aren’t running around wondering where everything is you need.”
Start out with plants you are likely to have the most success with, Letson suggests. “Plant things you like. If you don’t enjoy asparagus for instance, don’t bother growing it.” She reinforces gardening is not an overnight project. “You have to chip away at what needs to be done and remember it’s a process.”
Colorful lettuces grow in Mardi's garden.
Both Gonzalez and Letson say when it comes down to it, go easy on yourself. “When you’re starting out new it’s easy to get frustrated, but gardening is an art and a science and both are needed to make it accessible,” Letson said.
Keep things interesting by continuing the process of learning. Each year is an opportunity to learn.
“For big fun and inspiration, go to the Organic Growers School Spring Conference in early March. And don't be scared — always know that plants want to grow, and every mistake is a lesson learned. Some of them I re-learn every year,” says Gonzalez.
Involve the whole family
Gardening is not only a fun activity for kids, but a great way to educate on the origin of food. Let them help with the tasks and get their hands dirty.
“If the kids are involved with helping me put seeds in, they are much more likely to eat it, and harvest it,” says Letson. “But I really believe having a garden your kids are in when they are little, they understand there isn’t just an apple tree growing behind Ingles, and that it takes work. And when you put work into it, you waste less, you savor it more, you treasure it and appreciate it.”
For early spring fun, experiment with seeds children can enjoy almost immediately.
“Try radishes. They are great for kids and they come up so fast. Kids love them because some of them, for instance, look like watermelons when you slice them open. It’s fun to think about what kids are taken by,” Letson adds.
Radishes are a good choice to plant and harvest with children.
(Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Brownlee)
Check out the vast variety of radishes at your local nursery and try an assortment for early season harvest. Freshly harvested radishes are delicious sliced and served on buttered baguette or straight on their own. They're a great way to introduce children to the excitement of harvesting something hidden under the ground.
Make harvest easy
Part of a successful garden is making sure early efforts are well spent. This often means making harvest a simple task. “When organizing to prepare a bed, one of the things that has helped me is figuring out a way to wash lettuces and vegetables before bringing them into the house,” Letson explains.
Plumbing a reclaimed kitchen sink directly into her garden space serves just this purpose. “I also keep a pair of weatherproof Fiskars scissors hanging from twine out by the garden for easy harvesting.”
Lettuces can be harvested while it's still spring, especially if begun indoors.
(Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Brownlee)
Gonzalez recommends harvesting frequently to take full advantage of your efforts. It is easy to look at a space full of young plants and not realize how much is actually there. “Harvest on a regular basis and before going to the tailgate market or the store, and enjoy your harvest with your family around a table,” Gonzalez suggests.
“It seems like winter would be a slow time, but we are always very, very busy preparing for the coming season,” says Gonzalez, a longtime member of the Reems Creek Nursery staff. She shares a few insider tips and tidbits on what goes on behind the scenes at the nursery early in the season.
“In January, we start planting veggies so transplants will be ready for early season gardeners. Perennials and pansies are being potted up, and plants at our farm are being groomed and fertilized. We are scheduling the deluge of spring plant deliveries and getting our grounds ready for our fresh plant material — which is always inspiring,” says Gonzalez.
She also advises to look for markdowns on perennial plants. “Very early in the season you can sometimes find good deals at nurseries on perennials, trees, shrubs and more. Most local independent garden centers start getting new plants in late February, early March. If you like unusual cultivars, try to be at the nursery regularly as new stock is coming in — before it is gone.
“As far as edibles, by early March look for quality seeds, early season vegetable transplants, fruit trees, small fruits and possibly tropical fruits for growing indoors.” Being a nursery regular comes with perks.
Discussing the difference between store-bought produce and garden fresh, Letson says there is no substitute. “I think the flavor, texture, the look ... I like that my produce doesn’t look like it’s plastic and not all perfectly round like it’s from the store. The variation is important. The character.”
Delicious? Yes. Beautiful? No doubt. But is a home garden worth the effort?
“Oh yes, small gardens are so joyful,” Letson said. She takes a thoughtful pause and smiles, adding, “Small vegetable plots can really enhance your life. The harvest is beautiful; it’s delicious, in the garden and on your plate. A garden makes your heart happy.”
Sautéed pea shoots with grainy mustard vinaigrette
For the vinaigrette:
1/4 cup high quality white vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove
1 heaping Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp Lusty Monk mustard
sea salt and pepper to taste
Blend all ingredients together in a blender. Adjust seasonings to taste. Set aside.
For the sautéed pea shoots:
1/4 cup walnut pieces
4-5 cups loosely packed pea shoots (harvest the top 3-4 inches of vine)
2 garlic cloves, sliced very thin
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
Toast walnut pieces in toaster oven or in a pan placed over medium heat, stirring often. Set aside.
Place butter in a cast iron pan over medium low heat. Add garlic and sauté until aromatic and golden. Add pea shoots. Gently stir to coat in the butter. Allow to wilt before removing from heat, about 1-2 minutes.
Transfer to a serving plate. Drizzle with vinaigrette and toasted walnut pieces. Serve warm.
Note: Pea shoots are a very high source of plant based vitamin A, vitamin C (an important antioxidant) and folic acid.