By Peter Heffelfinger
posted March 22, 2021
With the recent clear, cool nights and sunny days, spring has arrived several weeks early. The key difference is the relative absence of sustained rainfall. We’ve had a few sudden downpours, and even a bit of sleety hail, but not the sodden, extended weather that is expected around the spring equinox in the Pacific Maritime Northwest. The usual signs of spring are here: the red flowering currant bush is blooming and the Lenten hellebores are in full display, with the overwintering hummingbirds buzzing around both sets of blossoms. And, atop the highest fir tree the local pair of bald eagles have been making incessant calls to each other, as if to get the nesting season started early.
Last year at this time the ground was too soggy to plant potatoes, which didn’t go into the garden until April 17th. This year, the ground at my South Fidalgo garden is fluffy and workable, and the winter rye cover crop is being tilled in; the potatoes will be planted in a week or so, as soon as the rye roots and leaves decompose a bit. With the start of daylight saving, the garden weather clock seems to have moved ahead as well. The jump start may seem a boon to gardeners, hoping to get things in the ground soon, but the real message is the early drop off of the winter rains. The summer drought seems to be creeping in ahead of time.
Out on the Flats, where I have a large plot of garlic, the dry weather has caused the clay soil of the Valley to harden into a solid cake. Last year I applied a layer of woody compost to both deter the weeds and lighten up the ground, but the garlic crop suffered with a high percentage of moldy bulbs, approaching 30% in some beds. So, this winter I kept the beds bare, applying the usual mid-February fertilizer to jump start the garlic growth in the cool winter soil. (Note: I just use my standard, all-round organic fertilizer mix, not the blood meal or high nitrogen application often recommended.)
Of course, the ever present weed seeds also appreciated the sudden nutritional boost, forming a thick carpet of shot weed and other common occupiers of open soil. I’ve had to spend long hours using my stainless steel Japanese hand weeder, with a very sharp cutting edge and an offset blade, to cut through both the hard surface of clay as well as the already tough weed roots. Unfortunately, unless I am very careful, the sharp blade occasionally nicks off a soft garlic shoot. Hopefully the few plants sacrificed now will be less in number than the many that had to be thrown away last summer. Thankfully the mold last year was just common botrytis, not the feared white root rot that permanently affects garlic plots. Ultimately the cleaned garlic from last summer stored well, with the cloves just now starting to sprout or turn soft.
To preserve the remaining surplus of stored garlic I peel the good cloves, process them with a bit of olive oil and canning salt, and pack the rough mixture into pint jars for freezing. The mix can also be safely stored for a few months in the fridge, with the garlic bite turning very sweet. Be sure to keep a thin layer of oil on the surface to keep the garlic ‘refrigerator jam’ from drying out. You can also do a quick pickle of garlic. Whatever method you chose will serve to bridge the fresh garlic gap between now and the appearance of the first scapes in June.
I’ve also been making a traditional Spanish garlic soup: lots of sliced garlic sautéed with olive oil, paprika, cayenne and cumin, then mixed with chopped ham and chunks of day-old baguettes. Heat with stock or water, add whatever chopped spring green available and garnish with some newly-sprouted garlic chives. A proper spring tonic at the end of the garlic cycle.
Peas, Spring & Fall
For me, spring means fresh peas. It’s been many years since I grew traditional shelling or English peas. I now prefer Snap peas for quick eating or cooking in the shell, while my overall favorite is the Oriental Snow pea, particularly the variety Mammoth Melting Sugar. I find other varieties of snow peas to be not as large, sweet or tender.
In order to avoid spotty germination in the cool soil of early March, I bought starts of Super Snap peas and transplanted them in a raised bed lined with cedar boards. I kept the plants covered with large pots for a few days to shield them from the sun and wind while they develop their root systems. After I removed the pots, and the peas were standing 4 inches tall, I unfortunately forgot to cover them with my usual low arch of chicken wire to fend off any rabbits that might make it through the outer fencing. When a large gate was left open one night, the pesky critters trooped in and neatly trimmed off the tops and most leaves of the peas. There’s always a chink in the armor. So, once again giving thanks to local nursery suppliers, I replanted with fresh starts, which should still provide a slightly delayed, mid-spring taste of fresh peas.
The Mammoth Melting snow peas, which I dote on for stir-fries, have not been available locally as starts for several years. So this spring I soaked the seed overnight and planted it in the relatively dry soil of the same raised bed as the Sugar Snaps. To support the 6-8 foot tall pea plants of both varieties I’ll be using 4×8-foot cattle panels instead of makeshift arrangements of tall poles and twine. Not quite as homespun, but effective. I also bought extra snow pea seed for a late summer planting, which will supply a second crop, given the increasingly warm and dry autumn growing season. As the climate changes, fill the gaps.