3 Easy Steps To Get Gardening in April
Congratulations Richmond! We’ve made it to spring and it is a great time get your garden up and running. Finally after a long, cold winter we’re about to get gardening.
I’m going to outline 3 easy steps you can try out in your garden this weekend so you can grow lots of delicious, healthy, happy plants and feed yourself through by mid-to-late May.
The key to kickstarting your garden is soil. What’s the difference between conventional and organic gardening? In a very basic sense, conventional gardening feeds the plants, organic gardening feeds the soil.
We organic gardeners know that healthy soil makes healthy plants so that’s where we focus our energy. Here are the three steps to getting your garden up and running after a long winter of nothingness.
- Turn your cover crop
- Replenish your soil
- Get seeds in the ground
Step 1) Turn your cover crop
For those who cover cropped over the winter (Winter Rye, Field Peas, Vetch, Crimson Clover) now is the perfect time to till everything under.
Cover crops help maintain a happy home for worms, microbes, and bacteria so your soil should be in good shape if you covered throughout the winter. The reason we turn our cover crops is simple: it removes any competition for the seeds you’re about to plant and it adds a huge boost of nitrogen and organic matter directly to the top soil.
Simply take a pitchfork or shovel and simply turn over every clump of cover you can find. It helps to add a layer of compost on top to ensure that all cover crops are down for the count. Let this mellow for at least three weeks to allow the nitrogen level to drop a bit and you’re ready to plant.
Step 2) Replenish your soil
The success of your garden begins and ends at soil quality. There are some easy ways to determine how you’re soil is doing: Ideal soil is going to hit the following marks:
- Color: We’re looking for a dark, dark brown or black soil. This indicates a healthy balance of sand, silt, and clay grounded by a hefty amount of decomposed organic matter. Gardeners describe a dark, balanced soil as “loamy.” Aim for loamy.
- Consistency: We want rich but fluffy soil. Too much clay will make it hard for roots to dig through. Too much sand will mean not enough nutrients. If you can easily run your fingers through the soil the plants will have an easier time putting down roots so we again we’re aiming for balance. You’ll know it when you see it.
- Drainage: As with consistency, a soil that drains well is going to be ideal for plants to grow and thrive . A balanced, loamy soil will drain well because the particles are not too big (sand) and not too small (clay.) We want drainage because we don’t want the soil to become waterlogged which can breed mold and root rot. We want soil that keeps some moisture but dries out to create easy passage for new roots.
A well balanced soil is going to be dark in color, fluffy but rich in consistency, contain a blend of different textures and grits, hold plenty of minerals and nutrients, and create an ideal home for worms, insects, microbes, and bacteria.
What can you do if your soil needs some help? Amend it!
- Adding compost, manure, or worm castings will add organic matter to your soil improving nutrient levels, soil composition, and drainage. This will also make your soil a more inviting place to bacteria and microbes and get us towards that loamy happy place we’re aiming for.
- Compost – home compost is great but can be a challenge for new garderners. You can easily buy bags from any garden or home improvement store and just add directly to your beds. (Keep your money local and go with Sneed’s, Strange’s, or the Great Big Greenhouse.)
- Manure – Black Kow is a great brand. Same as with compost, add to your beds and allow to mellow for a couple of weeks. If you need to buy more, just call up some local farms. For real. We’re looking for cow, horse, rabbit, or chicken manure that has been fed organic feed and had time to mellow.
- Worm Castings – Castings is a fancy word for worm poop. This is one of the richest, organic amendments around but it can get expensive if you need a lot. A homemade worm composter will create plenty but takes a while (we’ll get into that another time.) Owenby Organics is a great local option for worm castings. Check em out.
Note: Adding organic fertilizers will boost available nutrients in your soil. It won’t improve composition like compost or manure but it will add a bunch of good things like Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. I subscribe to the belief that if your cover cropping, amending with compost and manure, tilling under and old mulch, and creating a good home for critters you won’t need to fertilize much at all. That being said there are some awesome natural and organic fertilizers that will help you care for different types of plants.
- Bone meal / Shell meal / Fish emulsion – a fantastic, organic way to add calcium, nitrogen, and phosphorus. All garden stores will have this. Broadcast (sprinkle) evenly over your soil.
- Kelp meal – another fantastic natural fertilizer made from dried ocean seaweed. Try to source organic and sustainable companies.
- Any organic slow-release pellets – this should be lowest on your list but it’s still a viable option. Organic gardeners think in terms of feeding the soil not the plants. But this will do in a pinch.
One last soil consideration: Is there enough activity in your soil? Are there worms and insects or does it look pretty quiet and boring down there. Ideally if you dig into the soil a bit you’ll find some happy worms doing happy worm things.
If your soil is looking somewhat sterile and devoid of life we want to remedy that ASAP. Easiest way is to go to a bait and tackle shop and buy a few containers of Red Wigglers. Don’t just dump the container in the bed, leave the tub in the soil and allow the worms to wiggle out on their own. You must let them go at their own pace.
Worms are amazing. They will live their whole lives in your raised beds breaking down organic matter, pooping all over the damn place, creating tunnels for plant roots to follow, and inviting a whole host of smaller microbes and bacteria. They help to break up hardpan (compacted soil) and crunch down larger particulates like sand and grit before laying eggs and starting a whole new generation.
When gardeners geek out about worms, there’s a reason. Worms mean a good garden.
Step 3) Get some stuff in the ground already!
There are plenty of plants that can tolerate colder soil temperatures. There are certainly a few cold nights ahead of us yet, but if you’re looking to get a jump on those chilly nights you put down seeds in the following families:
- Brassicae – kale, collard, mustards, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, brussel sprouts
- Umbellifers – carrots, dill, fennel, parsley, celery, parsnips
- Beta vulgaris – beets, chard, turnips, spinach
- Alliums – onions, garlic, shallots, leeks
You can start sowing successions or planting seedling starts from any of those plant families without too much concern for soil temperature at this point. You can also begin sowing flowers in and around your garden so grab a pack of nasturtiums and marigolds and get going.
If you follow those 3 basic steps you’re garden will be in a perfect place to officially start the season come mid-April. For the cold hearty seeds you’ll want to get as early a start as possible so go outside right now and get gardening. Right now!