February is the quiet month of the year for gardeners. We’ve perused the catalogues that arrived in January and wait for March to plant early crops. This is the month when we revise our original plans, look over last year’s notes and exchange seeds with fellow gardeners. February is the month when we decide what the first garden will be.
That garden is green peas, spinach, lettuces, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, chard, kale or kohlrabi. Leeks and onions. Parsnips, radishes, rutabaga and turnips. At a time when it’s still cold outside, we often timidly throw out a few seeds, although nature is ready for a windfall. From mid-March to mid-April, these crops grow best in cool weather. Choose a sunny, warmish day when the soil is not too wet. Spinach, kale and peas can go in first. Some savvy gardeners prefer to germinate the peas indoors and then plant them. That’s because peas may rot in cold, wet soil. But once they’ve germinated they will grow vigorously under very cool conditions.
Then progress to other crops you love. It’s a time that I’ve discovered is most intriguing when I plant a new kind of broccoli, a leafy cabbage, five kinds of radishes and a new turnip.
We’ve had a winter of the same kind of broccoli, cauliflower, radishes and lettuces from the local grocery. By midwinter we eagerly glean from a seed catalogue a bounty of leafy broccoli, purple cauliflower, white-tipped radishes. A hundred varieties of lettuce tempt the palate. It’s up to us to expand our nutrition and entice our taste buds in the first of our seasonal gardens.
Some of these plants fall into different families: spinach and chard in the goosefoot family, broccoli, radish, cauliflower and turnip in the brassica family and lettuces in the sunflower family. Like any vegetable garden, it’s wise to plant each family in a location where it has not been planted for about three years. Breaking the cycle of disease and pests is best prevented rather than confronted. Despite the different families, many of these varying families share a few common traits.
These are plants that will grow quickly, build a tasty root or tender leaf. We’re not asking them to bear fruit like a tomato or pepper. So it’s a garden of quick returns. We’ll also receive an ample harvest. Rows of lettuces satisfy salad lovers for several months before they bolt into unremarkable flowers in the first wave of summer. No other garden I’ve planted has ever returned the astonishing amount of green harvest that a spring garden offers.
Lettuces appreciate nitrogen. Broccoli will need phosphorus. Carrots require potassium. But they won’t want huge amounts of these fertilizers. Compost that has broken down during the winter adds enough phosphorus for my garden. My Colorado soil is laced with plenty of potassium typical of lean, Western soils. Alfalfa pellets like the kind you’d buy for rabbit food add nitrogen.
This garden will require evenly moist soil. With our dry and windy springs, watering the soil often over-saturates. Not watering allows the soil to dry out. It’s a deluge or drought that ruins the most carefully planned spring garden. There’s only one solution that I have found to be foolproof. I rely upon mulch. As soon as seeds are planted and seedlings begin to emerge, I layer mulch or compost in-between rows and adjacent to the seedlings. It will keep the soil moist, encourage earthworms, which aerate the soil, and protect the seedlings from winds. My mulch is made from autumn leaves, yard debris and vegetable peelings that accumulate through the winter.
Row cover stretched over rows, too, cut down on water evaporation, winds and flying pests. Want to keep the cabbage worm away from your brassicas? Stretching row cover over a row of broccoli, cabbage or cauliflower newly sown prevents the moth from laying eggs on your prize produce.
Other than these few considerations, a spring garden asks for little. Usually it’s planted in the wettest time of the year so water restrictions do not apply. Seeing a row of tender green lettuces emerging gives every gardener a thrill. After a winter of limp produce, any chef is more grateful than ever to pick a bouquet of chard or spinach.
And if you lack confidence in diving into vegetable gardening, a spring garden is the easiest to attempt. It’s hard to go wrong with four kinds of lettuces, a row of spinach or chard and some radishes. Your success will urge you to attempt the more difficult crops of eggplant, tomatoes or peppers. But more on these later crops come May.
Front Range Planting Guide For Foothills and Plains
Mountain Gardens should plan about one month later
Seeds indoors: globe artichokes, onions from seeds
Water: If there has been no snow for a month, water newly planted trees at midday when temperatures reach about 40 degrees
Seeds indoors: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, celeriac, cardoons, kale, leeks, lettuces (if not direct seeded to be set out April 1)
Trees: prune fruit trees and fruit-bearing shrubs, but especially apple and crabapple trees, suckers and waterspouts from trees
Pest control: plant to rotate crops by avoiding major plant families from sharing the same soil without a three-year hiatus. Flea beetles will lay eggs in the soil where you last planted the brassica (mustard, cabbage) family. A different flea beetle attacks the nightshade (tomato, pepper, potato) family but the pest controls are the same as for the brassicas.
Seeds outdoors when temperatures reach at least 40 degrees regularly: beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, kohlrabi, arugula, mesclun, lettuce, onions, parsnips, radishes, rutabaga, spinach, turnips, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, thyme, oregano, salad burnet, sage
Pest control: Place row cover immediately over cabbages, broccoli, Brussels sprouts to defeat the cabbage moth
Roots, tubers and plants: onion sets, seed potatoes, rhubarb burls, shallots, strawberry plants, grapes (mulch grape roots), tarragon
Seeds indoors: eggplants, peppers, basil
Ornamentals: cut back ornamental grasses, transplant shrubs and roses that need to be moved, sow hardy annuals like larkspur, bachelor’s button, calendula and violas in the garden, pansy plants but harden first, bare-root perennials and hardy lilies
Seeds outdoors: peas and pod peas, French sorrel
Seeds indoors: tomatoes. Tomatoes have a wide span from March 15 for large plants to April 15 for smaller plants. Those who grow large plants strip leaves from the lower half of the vine and plant the tomato vine horizontally. The stripped nodes will root and produce a vigorous root system. Those who prefer a smaller plant will lessen transplant shock when they plant their vine.
Vegetable transplants: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower
Pest control: place floating row cover immediately over plants of cabbage family. Also, putting out larger transplants will mitigate flea beetle damage.
Roots: asparagus, potatoes
Seeds indoors: cucumbers, melons, gourds, pumpkins, summer squash, winter squash if not directly seeded in the garden at a later date (these crops may grow just as quickly directly seeded in the garden as they do not like to be transplanted). Also, tender annuals like nasturtium
Ornamentals: move volunteer perennials seedlings, cutback late summer blooming shrubs like buddleia and blue-mist spirea, Russian sage, harden off shrubs and perennials purchased as container plants, prune winter kill from roses, prune lilacs by harvesting blooms and cut out dead stalks
Seeds outdoors: sunflowers
Pest control: Soapy dish soap sprayed on aphids
Seeds outdoors when temperatures reach 55 degrees regularly: beans, corn, cucumber, gourds, melons, pumpkins, squash, sunflower
Pest control: Place row cover over cucumber, melons, squash, pumpkins to defeat the cucumber beetle remove when flowers appear so insects can pollinate
Plants outdoors: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, celery
Ornamentals: begin hardening off tender plants like basil, compost and fertilize roses
Plants outdoors: cucumber, eggplant, melons, gourds, peppers, pumpkins, winter squash, summer squash, tomato
Pest control: Make tomato collars to repel cutworms (tuna can or cardboard collar placed around tomato plant and pushed into the ground to the depth of one inch)
Weather control: Place walls-of-water around tomato plants or four gallon-sized water jugs around each plant. Row cover close by in case of hail.
Ornamentals: plant tender annuals
Ornamentals: divide irises and Oriental poppies
Heat control: tomatoes and peppers may have bruise marks from sun scorching where the sunlight strikes them. Raspberries will have translucent berry cells. Allow plenty of leafy grow on plants. Consider planting tall sunflowers as shade or stretch shade cloth over scorched plants. Tomatoes will not set fruit when temperatures rise over 85 degrees; shade plants.
Pest control: diatomaceous earth for earwigs. Sticky yellow tape for lurking flea beetles (tape with the sticky side up is wrapped around cardboard paddles. Flea beetles are attracted to the color yellow. When a plant is brushed, they will jump to the sticky tape.)
Seeds outdoors: beets, lettuces, chard, spinach, radishes, mesclun, mizuna, mustards, turnip tops, for fall crop.
Weather control: These crops may not germinate in excessive heat. Choose a shady location or wait until temperatures fall. Keep row cover close by for hail. Heavier covers for snow or frost.
Ornamentals: plant peonies, divide daylilies and late-blooming perennials
Seeds outdoors: Sow spinach seeds or collards (cover) for early spring (must be kept watered through winter)
Ornamentals: dig tender bulbs to save, plant spring blooming bulbs
Plant outdoors: garlic bulbs to be harvested in July, mulch as soon as planted
Seeds outdoors: Cover crop of annual rye, clover, buckwheat or alfalfa in the veggie bed to prevent erosion and add nitrogen for spring
Ornamentals: mulch for winter
Compost: collect leaves, grass clippings and yard waste for next year’s compost