To Everything
a Season

And spring is for
digging in the dirt

By Jan Leitschuh

These are the best of days, weather-wise.

In the Sandhills, dogwoods and azaleas swell, turning our area into a fairyland. The garden stores and centers see a brisk business in April, as sunny days and pleasant temps lure folks out to tend their yellowed, pine-pollened yards.

And the urge to grow a garden takes hold, to raise a few fresh vegetables for the kitchen.

Now is a beautiful time to turn rich compost and a little lime into our garden beds, preparing the soil to receive seeds and tender transplants. It’s one of the ancient rites of spring, that calls to get our hands in the cold dirt.

Some plants thrive in it, and some languish or rot away. It’s good to have a handle on which do what.

Think of March, April and May as three different planting zones. In late February and early March, sugar snap and snow peas can be sown directly into the garden. They laugh at the cold and provide buckets of sweet snaps for salads, stir-fries and snacks.

Other seeds that thrive in this time period are chard, spinach, turnip, radish, carrots, lettuce, arugula, beets, rutabaga and spicy mustard. Irish potatoes can go in too. Transplants of onions, broccoli, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi and collards can be set out during this time. Pots of parsley, mint and dill seed are herbs that thrive.

If you dislike hot summer gardening and bugs, perhaps you will enjoy just planting an early garden for a fresh harvest. After all, the farmers markets are bursting at the seams come summer.

April allows for further variety. Weather conditions are transitioning, and that is reflected in the soil temperatures. Our last frost date is in early April, meaning the probability is low for a killing frost. The nights are still chilly, but the days grow warmer. The soil, though transitioning, is still quite chilly and can rot certain seeds and even transplants.

Choose seeds and plants suited for this situation. If you’re unwilling to lose a few seeds or plants, early April can be a little tricky, but sound the all-clear after mid-month. Bush snap beans can be pre-sprouted or sown directly. Summer squash and zucchini can go in early, to try to outrun some of the emerging bugs. Plant any sweet corn this month. Set up that cucumber trellis and go for it, especially after the middle of the month.

Southern field peas can start to go in and continue in succession through May. Some peppers can be planted mid-month, though if you are only putting in a few plants, you might wait until the last week of April. Sunflowers can be seeded in if you’d like to attract pollinators to your garden. And fennel is an herb that will thrive.

In April, that itch to plant a tomato hits. Resist.

Who doesn’t love a juicy, homegrown tomato? The garden shops and farmers markets are full of beautiful transplants, and lots of variety — heirloom, grape, slicing/sandwich, plum/paste, and more. Feel free to grab your favorites, but hold off planting them directly in the garden soil. Instead, pot them up in a nutrient-balanced potting soil, and bring your tray of transplants in at night if temps drop low. They will put on healthy root systems and good top growth and be ready to hit the ground running. I find rinsed milk cartons with a few holes punched for drainage to be economical and roomy, growing gorgeous tomato transplants. When the time comes to plant, dig a deep hole, peel back the carton and plant — in May.

By then, the night temperatures are consistently in the 50s. The soil is warming up to receive the last of your garden’s spring input.

Besides tomatoes, you can give heat-loving eggplant the same treatment. It will thank you with strong production. May is the time for direct seeding your okra, and winter squash will thrive. Sweet potato slips planted then will make some fun digging in the fall. Basil, a true heat-thriver, can be safely transplanted or sown — or both.

Enjoy these upcoming spring days, pollen or no. Answer that ancient call to root about in the dirt. I know I will be.  PS

Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of Sandhills Farm to Table.

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