Now’s the Time for Thinking About Those Spring Vegetables

By Shirley Barker
Tuesday January 29, 2008

Snow, rain, wind. It’s that time of year when snuggling under an eiderdown, preferably with furry four-pawed friends, seems the only way to keep warm. 

It’s a great time to tuck up the garden, too. A thick layer of mulch and soil amendments placed on the vegetable beds now—stable manure, worm compost, hay, pine shavings—will quickly rot in snow, rain and wind, and be ready to turn under in the hyperactive months ahead, March, April and May, when we expect it to be warm enough above and below ground to plant. 

What to choose? The gardening year starts in fall in California, with winter rains breaking the dormancy of seeds of native flowers. In our climate, between Tilden Park and the Bay, cool-weather vegetables can be grown in fall too, as well as spring, depending on the micro-climate of the garden, except for favas, garlic and celery, which are best grown only in fall, no later than Oct. 15.  

Celery is a marsh plant. If sown as seeds in a pot, put the pot in a shallow dish of water for constant moisture. Commercial six-packs of young plants transplant well. 

Peas can be soaked overnight, to speed germination. Sow seeds where they are to come up, in moist soil, as they dislike being transplanted. Do not water until leaves appear.  

Most of the leafy Brassicas can be started in August or February as seeds. Transplant when true leaves appear. They like heavy soil, plenty of manure, and should be firmly and deeply pressed into the earth to just below their leaves. Do not buy large leggy plants. 

Mustard grows very fast. Sow directly. 

Turnips are sown directly. Protect against an egg-laying moth, whose caterpillars tunnel into turnip globes and ruin them, by covering with screen or by sowing only in fall. 

Carrots, Beets, Chard, Spinach and Onions can be sown directly and thinned later (which tends to uproot all of them) or sown in pots and transplanted later. 

Radishes can be spaced when sown. Keep the bed moist. 

LETTUCE and its relatives can be sown or bought as plants. 

POTATOES are frost tender. Plant between mid February to mid March for early potatoes. The tubers are formed on lateral rhizomes that grow from the stalks, so by mounding the plants with earth and organic material as they grow, more rhizomes and therefore more potatoes can develop. Potatoes will be found just below the surface, so be sure to keep them well mulched. Sunlight turns them green and inedible. 

Remember to defend leafy seedlings (cabbages, lettuce) from slugs, snails and cutworms with a collar of copper strip, sold by the foot in nurseries. Better still, acquire a pair of ducks. You will never again see a snail in your garden. Just be sure to shut the ducks securely into a cosy, well-ventilated coop every night at twilight, or they will be killed by raccoons. Ducks thrive on a daytime routine of snail patrol (and other foodstuffs of course) and nights spent safely on a deep litter bed of clean pine shavings. 

Keep the litter stirred, periodically refresh it, and totally replace it twice a year. Animal Farm on San Pablo at Cedar sells big bags of pine shavings. By year’s end you will have several bags of mulch already fortified with nutrients with which to coddle your vegetable beds when snow, rain and wind come round again in our cycle of local weather. 

Long before that, by Easter probably, you will have enjoyed fresh eggs with your flavor-rich, organically-grown vegetables.