Just as the sap starts to rise in trees at this time of year, so the excitement starts to rise in the hearts of gardeners and farmers. Whether or not it's time to start planting outside, it definitely is time to get ready for the season ahead. In this issue of JSS Advantage, we'll suggest ways to use your pent-up gardening energy so that you will be well-prepared to fly into action as the weather warms.
Quick crops for early markets
Don't start your markets with a skimpy selection of produce; with careful variety selection, you can offer a wide menu of fresh spring vegetables at your earliest markets.
The key is to count back from opening day with the number of days to maturity for multiple cool-loving crops. If your market opens in May, you still have time to grow at least 18 kinds of early spring vegetables! In most parts of the U.S. and Canada, you need to grow these vegetables in a protected environment such as a hoophouse, under row cover, or in a Quick Hoops tunnel. In the South, you may be able to grow without protection. In case of cold, cloudy weather, the crops may take a little longer than the days to maturity stated in the catalog, so this list gives you an extra 10 days of growing time.
Direct seed 55-65 days before your first market:
Beets The earliest varieties, at 45-46 days, are 'Early Wonder Tall Top' and the monogerm variety 'Moneta', which doesn't need to be thinned. Other varieties, such as golden and Chiogga beets, take 55 days-plus but can be sold sooner as baby beets.
Broccoli 'Happy Rich' and 'Green Lance' produce florets that look like mini heads of broccoli. Popular in Asian cooking or salads.
Carrots Grow the early varieties 'Mokum', 'Nelson' and the organic variety 'Yaya' for slender, sweet carrots 54-56 days from seeding.
Chicories, Endive, Escarole and Italian Dandelion 55 to 58 days to harvest when direct seeded.
Corn salad/mache It takes 10-14 days to germinate, but grows to full size in 50 days. It's a salad delicacy.
Mustard greens Johnny's has a great selection of colors and shapes for making gorgeous mixed bunches in 45-50 days. Or, you can pick them smaller for salad mix.
Kale and collards Better as a fall crop, but can be grown early in places where spring is cool. 50 days to full size, or it can be picked earlier for salad mixes.
Kohlrabi Can be grown early in the North, but is better as a fall crop in the South.
Lettuce Nearly all full-size lettuces will be ready 50 days from direct seeding, or 35-40 days from transplanting.
Bunching onions/scallions 'Guardsman' is the earliest variety at just 50 days from seeding.
Peas, snap 'Sugar Sprint' doesn't need stringing, and is ready in 58 days.
Swiss chard Full bunching size in 50-59 days, but delicious younger as a salad ingredient.
Direct seed 45-55 days before your first market:
Broccoli 'Spring Raab' is ready in just 42 days, and will hold up well as the weather warms.
Greens Arugula matures to full size for bunching in just 40 days, or can be picked sooner as a salad green. Asian greens such as Mizuna, Shungiku, and Pac Choi, also can be grown to full size in about 45 days.
Spinach Among the smooth leaf types, 'Emu' is the slowest to bolt as the weather warms; among the savoy types 'Tyee' is slowest to bolt. They take about 40 days from direct seeding to full size, or can be picked younger as baby spinach. Faster varieties can be planted if the weather will remain cool for the next six weeks or so.
Direct seed 35-45 days ahead:
Radish Varieties range from 21 to 30 days to maturity.
Salad mix Lettuces take about 28 days from direct seeding to harvest at the baby stage. Other greens can be ready in 21 days.
Get your tools ready
Ideally, tools should be cleaned, sharpened, oiled, and put away in the fall. But if you didn't get to it, there's no time like the present. You do not want to start a new season with rough, splintery handles or dull blades. Johnny's has the supplies you need to maintain and revitalize your hand tools.
Wooden handles will last for many years if you treat the wood annually. We recommend that you rub a new coat of Tried & True Danish Oil into the handles. This product, available from johnnyseeds.com, is the same finish that is applied to our tool handles when new. Tried & True finishes are 100% linseed oil, and have none of the solvents or chemical drying agents found in "boiled linseed" products available in most hardware stores.
Tried & True oil should be applied at a temperature between 70F/2C and 120F/49C, which can be accomplished by warming the can in a container of hot water not by holding it over a flame. Use a cloth or sponge to apply a thin coat of the oil to the tool handle and allow the finish to soak in for five minutes. Wipe off until dry, and allow to cure 8 to 10 hours. Additional coats can be applied the same way and with the same curing times. After the final coat has cured, buff the wood. The finish becomes harder and more durable as it ages.
Sharpening tools is quick and easy with the new Rotary Tool Sharpener. The aluminum oxide angled wheel fits any electric drill. A non-turning back plate holds the stone on the blade at the correct grinding angle to sharpen all kinds of hoes, wheel hoes, shovels, spades, and mower blades. For sharpening smaller tools, such as pruners and harvest knives, use our diamond hone.
If you have a broken tool, don't consign it to the scrap heap before you check for replacement parts at Johnny's. We have wooden handles for hoes and wheel hoes, and replacement blades for most of the hoes we sell. See our 'Sharpening and Caring for Tools video.
Do a soil test
Soil tests can be done once the soil has thawed, provided it isn't too wet. For vegetables and flowers, soil samples need to be taken to a depth of 6" to 8". The annual soil test should analyze your soil for pH, nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. For vegetables, the soil pH should be between 6.1 and 6.9. Most soil nutrients are available at a pH of 6.5, but when the pH rises above this value, nutrient elements such as phosphorus, iron, manganese, copper, and zinc will become less available. When soil pH is below 6.5, manganese can reach a toxic level for some sensitive plants.
Soil testing is an inexpensive way to determine what kinds and amounts of soil amendments you need to apply. Not only will it save you money on fertilizers, it also can prevent over-fertilization that results in runoff and water contamination.
Soil tests can be done by your Cooperative Extension service, or you can purchase a kit to do your own testing. Johnny's has pH test kits and N-P-K plus pH kits. Separate tests should be done on soils that look different or have been used differently. Areas where plant growth has been poor also should be tested separately.
The results of the soil test will tell you the major nutrients that need to be added to your soil. Even when those amendments have been made, you still need to provide a shot of fertilizer when transplanting seedlings. Most growers rely on a solution of seaweed/kelp or fish emulsion to water in transplants. The readily accessible nutrients in these products give plants a nutrient boost until their roots get established, thus avoiding transplant shock.
Be prepared for frost
Your meticulous planning and preparation can be laid to waste with one night of unexpectedly low temperatures. Don't let an untimely frost ruin your young crops. Have a supply of row cover that you can pull over the plants when frost threatens. If the night is still and the plants are small, you can probably lay the row cover flat on top of them. If plants are taller or if the evening is breezy, row cover can abrade the plants' growing tips if it is laid directly on top of them. In that case, the row cover needs to be held above the plants on wire hoops or wickets.
In areas where temperature fluctuations are the norm in spring, you should consider planting early crops under Quick Hoops covered with row cover. These low tunnels provide a warm and stable environment where young plants thrive. Learn more about making Quick Hoops.