Dirt-y Secrets: A preseason garden checklist

By Ranel Hanson
Reader Columnist

“In winter, I plot and plan. In spring, I move.”
— Henry Rollins, punk rocker

The earth is waking up soon, and we will see the evidence. Green leaves, tiny buds, mud, more birds, more bugs, more blue skies and probably more snow. Time to get your gardens ready for planting. 

Seed catalogs have arrived and they are great company for a rainy day. Use them to plan your garden; but, when it is time to buy seeds and plants, remember to buy local. We have several wonderful nurseries in our area and when you buy from them, you support not only our local economy, but friends and neighbors. 

One of the first steps, if you are eager, is to set up your seed planting enterprise. If you have grow lights, you are ready to roll. There are many vegetables and flowers that can be started in March, so that when the soil warms and the sun comes out for real, your seedlings can go into the ground. That is usually mid-May in our area.

Plants that need a little more time to mature make the best candidates for early starts. Peppers, tomatoes, eggplants — these are a few of the best choices. A little warning though: These early risers need plenty of light, (not too much) water and occasionally they may need to have the second leaves pinched off to avoid the dreaded legginess. 

In addition to compost, a spring garden should also contain fertilizer. Courtesy photo.

If you don’t have grow lights, a warm, sunny window will work, but not as well. At this time of year, it is very hard to get enough light from a window. And it is harder to keep those sprouts warm enough if the weather is cold.

It’s also the beginning of the yearly “Slug Fest.” If you’ve read this column before, you know about slugs, eggshells and salt. If you haven’t, start saving all of your eggshells now. As soon as the snow is gone, spread those eggshells you’ve been saving all winter. Crush them with Epsom salts and place them around vulnerable plants. Now, before the flowers come, that mostly means hostas. Later, you’ll want to protect the new shoots of practically everything, because slugs are hungry — and sneaky.

A word on compost: Healthy soil means vigorous plants. Like cooking a good, nutritious meal, you must add some good ingredients. In addition to compost (your homemade or bagged from the nursery), you’ll also need some fertilizer: steer and chicken manure (not dog, it shouldn’t need to be said) are good choices, but be sure it is organic. Chemical fertilizers are not only bad for your own private Idaho, but bad for our collective water, soil and air — and ourselves. 

It is certainly worth the effort to garden organically. The birds, bees, squirrels, deer, elk and moose will all thank you. You can buy soil testing kits at the nursery to check the health of your soil and add soil amendments to improve its health.

It is too early to be planting your outdoor pots, but it is time to get them ready. If they have that white ring on the bottom from sitting in water, scrub it off with a brush and a vinegar solution. I add a drop or two of dish soap  and go to town. They will look better and the cleanliness will help them to avoid pests and diseases. Be sure to rinse well, though, because vinegar kills plants. 

However, that means vinegar kills weeds, too. I keep a spray bottle full of vinegar and dish soap (just a few drops) handy to spray emerging weeds. Just be sure not to spray plants you want to protect. 

Bird houses need cleaning this time of year, too. Unless someone has already moved in, empty last year’s nesting material, brush out dirt and place somewhere that birds have nearby cover from predators. A tree or some shrubs are ideal. Don’t worry if you see yellow jacket nests inside. Your birds will take care of them by gobbling up the larvae. 

It also helps your bird visitors to have a source of freshwater nearby. A clay saucer on a deck railing works just fine. But, you must clean your bird bath, too. Avian flu is still around and cleanliness helps keep it at bay. Once a week, empty the water, scrub the surface, rinse well and refill.

As I write, there is still snow on the ground in many places, but we can practically feel the seasons changing. Enjoy the last gasps of winter as you look forward to a bountiful garden, baby animals, sunny days, green grass, leafy trees and longer daylight.

Until next time.

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