Tips From the Potting Bench (Time to Till?)

Time to Till?

By Rita Jacinto, Two Rivers Tribune Contributing Writer

Is it time? That’s the big question in the spring garden. Is it time to rototill, is it time to plant this or that? These are the burning existential questions on every gardener’s mind these days. I’m not one to jump the gun and in most years I caution folks to wait until at least Mother’s Day if not Memorial Day before putting in their precious tomatoes and peppers, melons, summer and winter squashes, cukes, beans and corn. This years feels different though, I can’t explain it in any rational terms I just get the feeling the time is now.

What really tipped it for me was seeing the old guy down the street tilling up his little garden plot a few days ago. That signaled to me that the game is on and it’s time. Now, if you are a cautious gardener and need more rational proof than a gut feeling and the old guy down the street you could take your soil’s temperature.

That’s right, stick a thermometer in the ground and take its temperature. They make special soil thermometers that you can get at any nursery for around $10. Pick a place in the garden and stick the probe into the ground down about 6 inches and wait about 5 minuets then read the temperature. Do this in the early morning then again in mid to late afternoon and average the temps. Do this for three or four days. You can find charts of optimum soil temps for each veggie variety on line or in a good gardening book. In general, radish and peas can do ok at about 45 degrees, carrots, beets, parsnips and lettuce, all the leafy greens and brassicas are in the 50 degree area and the warm weather veggies like summer squash, tomatoes and cukes like 60 degrees, peppers, eggplant and melons do best a 70 degrees.

Knowing the soil temp is handy when it comes to direct seeding in the garden. That is planting seeds right into the ground rather than using transplants. Typically peas, carrots, beets, parsnips, radish, squashes, both wither and summer, cukes, pumpkins, all melons, corn and beans are direct seeded. If the soil temperature isn’t warm enough your seeds are likely to rot.

Direct seeding allows plants to establish deeper, more drought tolerant root systems and larger plants that can produce better.

Preparing the garden bed before you sow seeds is essential, loosen and amend the soil, remove any weeds and lay out your irrigation first. I use the round tip on the handle of my hoe to scratch out a furrow that the seeds will be planted in. The general rule of thumb is to plant the seed about three times the thickness of the seed.  Make sure to firm the soil over the row of seeds and gently water them in. Then make sure the soils stays moist until they germinate.

For vining things I use the old fashioned method of planting in hills. You create a hill by mounding the soil up into a 2 or 3-foot diameter mound spaced every 4 feet. Using the palm of your hand you create a bowl in the center of the mound.

The mounded soil heats up quicker than the ground and the bowl creates a place to catch water. The seeds are sown in the center of the bowl, I typically sow three to five seeds spaced about 3 inches apart using my finger to press them into the soil about an inch or two deep. Mulch all around the mound, water and you are done. A great trick for speeding up germination time and thwarting the birds is to use plastic milk jugs with the bottom removed as a cloche over the seeds. This acts like a mini greenhouse and jump-starts the seeds while preventing birds from digging up and eating them. Remember to remove it once the seeds up are up as they can easily fry on sunny days. They can go back on at night if need be.

Flying Blue Dog Homestead and Nursery, High Tide Permaculture and the Beneficial Living Center have gotten together to create a living seed bank, Seeds For Life a Living Seed Bank. We started over on the coast where 30 people became paid members and signed up to be trained as seed stewards.  Everyone was given seeds, a seed saving booklet and discounts at the Beneficial Living Center and Flying Blue Dog.  They will take the seeds home, grow them out and harvest the seed keeping some to continue working with and return a portion to the bank.

Our goal is to develop resilient, bioregionally adapted open pollinated seeds for organic growing conditions. Follow up workshops will deepen our seed saving skills. In the next few days we will be announcing a meeting in Willow Creek to introduce to the eastern part of the county. All are welcome to attend. Check out our page on FaceBook for more details or e-mail


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May 1st, 2012

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