"Almost spring' excites gardeners, homeowners

By Tom Seymour | Mar 01, 2019
Photo by: Tom Seymour Early coltsfoot is often confused with dandelion.

Tomorrow is March 1 and with it comes a renewal of interest in gardening and other outdoor activities.

Although the same degree of anticipation occurs every March, we have something else to spur us on this year, and that is the springtime temperature forecast for Maine from The Weather Channel.

It is interesting to note that for meteorologists, spring begins March 1 and continues through May 31. And this year, the Weather Channel’s Spring Temperature Outlook indicates that Maine and northern New England will see above-average temperatures for the three-month period. Also, Maine and parts of Vermont and New Hampshire will be the only areas in the nation to enjoy above-average March temperatures.

If this becomes reality, what can we expect from a warmer-than-average-March?

Well, since snow cover, at least for Midcoast Maine, is not as deep as in other years, it is possible that we’ll see open ground sooner than usual. When that happens, we can at long last get out and do yard work. It always amazes me the amount of clutter, in the form of tree branches, the melting snow discloses.

Besides that, this makes a good time to rake spring-flowering bulb beds. So often, weather prohibits us from cleaning up our beds before such early treats as crocus pop their pointy green shoots up from the newly thawed soil. But with a coating of last autumn’s leaves (I like to let these remain in place over the winter as a protective layer) over the beds, our spring flowers must push around, and often through, dead leaves.

Hopefully, this year we’ll be able to remove the leaves before our spring-flowering bulbs awaken from their long slumber. For me, there’s no prettier sight than a neatly manicured bed of spring-flowering bulbs.

Garden beds are another story. In years with an early spring, it is oh-so-tempting to get out and turn over the soil. But that’s a big mistake, since even walking on wet soil can compact it, causing lots of problems later. So refrain from this at all costs.

Of course, as soon as the soil becomes dry enough for us to safely walk on, we can get out there and begin working. And perhaps this year will see us planting early season crops such as peas by late March or early April. This has happened to me just once and if memory serves me correctly, it was in the spring of 1984.

That was the year I managed to get peas in the ground by late March. And of course back then, early peas were a big deal, because if we had fresh peas by July 4, we could enter a “first peas of the year” contest. The Republican Journal used to host one such competition.

The July 4 connection stems from the old-time Maine tradition of having fresh Atlantic salmon and fresh-picked peas on July 4. This I did only once, and the salmon wasn’t fresh, but a frozen one taken the previous year and saved for just this purpose. The peas, though, were fresh.

Weeding begins

Most of us ignore weeds at the beginning of the gardening season. In early spring, weeds are only tiny, so small as to be easily ignored. But that same tiny weed will eventually become a very large weed, one that will later require some effort to remove.

Better by far to haul these out now, while they are young and easily pulled from the soil. So look for early-appearing weeds around garden edges and along raised beds. Some grasses, even those growing outside a raised bed, can send their roots underground and well into the bed. Then removing them becomes a major chore.

So on one of those enticingly warm March days, try going out and pulling every weed you can see. You’ll feel good about yourself for having been proactive, and you’ll surely thank yourself once gardening season gets going full-blast and you find fewer weeds to deal with. Besides all that if you are like me, you’ll find a secret satisfaction about getting your hands dirty with garden soil this early in the season.

Here’s one final note on early-season weeding. These weeds just outside your garden beds are easily killed now simply by pouring undiluted apple cider vinegar on them. The vinegar won’t migrate into the bed, but will remain outside it, at least until the next rain dilutes it.

All the same, if you have concerns, just try the vinegar treatment on an out-of-the-way location.

Early veggies

In addition to raised-bed gardening, I also enjoy container gardening, especially for vegetables. In addition to the EarthBoxes and Gro Boxes that I already had, a friend recently moved to a place where he has no room for them, so he gave them to me.

Now I have what can only be called a large battery of these handy, rectangular vehicles for growing almost everything under the sun. So even though soil in gardens and raised beds may remain wet and damp, these commercially-made planting containers heat up quickly and by mid- to late March, are ready for planting with early-season crops.

So planting, at least in containers, can begin in March, weather permitting. Three vegetables that do well in these situations are Swiss chard, lettuce and peas. Imagine having fresh lettuce for salads by mid-April. Then, a little later, small chard leaves can go with your homegrown lettuce for springtime salads.

And by planting peas in one of these specialized containers, it may be possible not only to meet the July 4 deadline, but to come in a bit earlier. If we only had these devices 50 years ago. The race to the Fourth would have intensified dramatically.

Wild edibles

Dandelions, ranking among my most favorite foods, are never better than when picked in early spring. At this time the plants are weak and spindly, since they haven’t had time to add bulk, but this doesn’t hurt their taste. I usually make several trips around my house, looking for the first dandelions of the year.

Most of these will be young plants from last year. These have the sweetest flavor. Some of the larger of last year’s plants can be tough and not worth the trouble. So look for those small, young dandelions and prepare for a great treat. That is, given that you enjoy dandelions.

Chickweed, another eminently edible wildling, often grows in garden soil and is treated as any other weed. But chickweed tastes good, and when it appears in my gardens it receives tender care.

Better yet, chickweed grows in thick clumps and winters over in the garden. This makes the plant even sweeter when harvested the following spring.

Finally, wild evening primrose becomes available the moment the snow cover melts. Every part of this hardy biennial has culinary value. The very young leaves, those found toward the center of the basal rosette, the whorl of leaves that lies flat on the ground, are a fine salad ingredient.

We can treat the larger leaves as a pot herb and boil or simmer them the same as spinach.

And the root, which in some instances is about the size of a small carrot, is a prized root crop. Dig with a garden trowel, take inside and rinse under the faucet, taking care to remove the fibrous rootlets on the outside and split down the middle. Then simmer in water until fork-tender.

Evening primrose roots are creamy-white with a raspberry-colored crown. Look for the basal rosettes along south-facing banks. This is where they will appear first. Another way to find these is to look for the dried stalks from last year’s primroses. This year’s crop won’t be far from there.

Seed-starting

Regarding seed-starting in March, I have one word of advice. Don’t.

Just because it appears as if we may have an early spring, that doesn’t mean that tender crops should be started and then set out earlier than usual. Tomatoes, for instance, won’t prosper in cold weather and may even be set back. Also, a late frost can still kill tender plants.

The old admonition about planting tender crops no earlier than Memorial Day weekend stands true today. To this I might add that back in the old days, Memorial Day occurred on the last Saturday in May. Now, because of federally mandated three-day holidays, Memorial Day happens on the last Monday. Either way, wait until the last weekend in May to set out tomatoes and other tender garden plants.

So when starting seeds inside, proceed as always, by looking at the date from germination to planting out and starting your seeds to coincide with that timespan. And no matter how tempting it may be, don’t rush it. You won’t lose anything by starting your seeds according to the usual schedule, and plants set out on Memorial Day weekend should become acclimated and begin growing much earlier, since the soil, presumably, will be considerably warmer.

Tom’s tips

Ever drive around in March and notice a swath of bright yellow, dandelion-like flowers on the south side of a roadside bank? These are the very first wildflowers to bloom in Maine and, while not dandelions, are a distant relative.

The flowers in question are called “coltsfoot,” and their showy display gladdens the hearts of young and old. So the next time someone tells you they saw blooming dandelions in March, just tell them that it isn’t dandelions, but rather, coltsfoot.

Crocus can grow through a covering of dead leaves. (Photo by: Tom Seymour)
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