It’s been chilly and rainy here in Oregon, but be warned: as of this writing, the official start of spring is just 28 days away! Leaves are emerging from willow trees, and frogs are sounding their mating alarms in the evenings. With a little bit of planning now, you could have some wonderful plants growing in your garden in as little as 6 weeks.
- Start Seeds. Rather than buy vegetable starts later in April, seeds such as tomatoes and peppers can be started easily and economically indoors to get a head start on the season. You don’t need to have an expensive greenhouse, a seed starting kit with clear cover will do. The germinating seeds can be started in the classroom, where they can be measured daily, and be the subject of germination journals, measurements, and graphs. Giant sunflowers can be engaging for students; they are easily started indoors and transplanted into beds, and the Mammoth variety can easily grow ten feet tall. Now that makes for an interesting graphing lesson! Sunflowers also attract native bees with their nectar, and the seeds provide favorite oil-rich foods of many insect-eatingbirds. Note: some crops do NOT transplant well and should be direct sown, such as root crops, peas, beans, corn, cucumbers, squashes, and salad greens. If you’d like to grow potatoes and onions, it’s best to plant them from seed potatoes and onion “sets” (immature onion starts). For an excellent seed starting how-to article, complete with photos and troubleshooting, read this article from gardeners.com. Many AITC Free Loan Library kids start seeds indoors, such as Living Necklace, Seed Soil Sun, and Garden in a Glove.
- Amend soil. It’s been a long winter, and rain may have leached nutrients out of your garden beds. One of the benefits of planting in a raised bed is that the soil is looser than the compacted soil underneath. However, raised bed soil should be amended each winter or spring by applying a good all slow-release fertilizer, measuring amounts and applying according to the label. Organic matter is continually decomposing and being used by plants; so next, apply a few inches of
quality compost over top of fertilizers to add valuable organic matter to retain moisture and replenish important soil organisms. If you’ve planted any to cover crops, till them into the beds a few weeks before planting time. Remember that mulching helps increase organic matter, so mulching is always a good idea once plants have started growing to mediate soil water and temperature extremes, and also to prevent weeds.
- Plan for appropriate summer vegetables. Summer vegetables should be tasty, and easy to incorporate into tasting tables in the school cafeteria. Radishes are fast-growing, but may not be as enjoyable to students. Try mache, a mild type of lettuce, as well as spinach, peas, and other cold weather crops. These should be sown directly in the garden beds, as they don’t like being transplanted. Lettuce and spinach are easy to grow, and easy for even the pickiest of eaters to enjoy! Snap peas are too, but keep in mind they will soon require a teepee or simple post-and-string structure to climb upon. Somewhere around six weeks after sowing seed, you should have a crop that you can selectively harvest: have students pick just a couple leaves from each growing plant. If you don’t have quite enough for a salad, mix with other greens, or add to tortillas, turkey, and tomatoes for an easy and delicious snack.
- Invite wildlife and beneficial insects. Now is the time to set up invitations to birds and beneficial insects so they can help you keep pests at bay all summer. Shrubs, fruit trees, and native trees can be planted either along a garden boundary, or in an area of your garden that won’t block sunlight from the sun-loving herbs and vegetables. Bare root trees are the least expensive option, and many areas have native plant sales in order to promote
helping pollinators and beneficial insects. Choose flowering shrubs and native plants that will provide both nectar and pollen at varying times. In the Willamette Valley, early blooming native plants include vine and big leaf maple, kinnikinnik, wood strawberry, hazelnut, and Indian plum are wonderful for inviting in native birds. Keep in mind that throughout the growing season, plants from the umbel family (parsley, celery, coriander) to attract beneficial Braconid wasps that love to eat caterpillars, aphids and other pests. NOTE: Beneficial wasps do not sting, and are different from yellow jackets. If you have problems with yellow jackets, March is the time to set pheromone traps for the queens, as each queen will produce around 5000 drones later in the summer.
5. Help Students Give Back. Spring bulbs can be planted now, and students can grow their own cut flowers for Mothers Day or end of school celebrations! Here in the Willamette Valley (USDA Hardiness Zone 8), we can grow spring-planted bulbs such as gladiolus, ranunculus, begonias and dahlias. Or if you’d rather, you can dedicate a section of your garden to herbs. Fresh herbs are deer resistant, add delicious flavor to homemade salad dressings, breads, roasted vegetables…almost any meal you can think of. The local garden I volunteer in has an herb bed that supplements the local food pantry, giving back fresh tasting foods to the community.