May is planting season in the community share cropping gardens. We already planted cover crops (more on those in a future post), winter wheat and garlic last fall; those are all coming in now. We had a wet, late spring in upstate New York, so didn’t get much going in April. Usually we have peas and onions in the ground as close to the beginning of April as we can manage, but not much got into the ground until May this year. Michael hedged the season a bit and planted early beans this weekend but we won’t be surprised if we need to replant them.
The time for warm weather planting in our region is really Memorial Day weekend. Everyone is always impatient to get things into the ground before then but it can be disastrous. We have had frosts as late as May 25, but with the changing climate, that hasn’t happened in the last decade or so. Even so, the soil isn’t really all that warm yet. Corn may rot in place rather than germinate in this kind of weather.
Although lots of people plant things crowded together in an attempt to maximize yield, we plant our gardens to make it as easy as possible to weed them with the tools we own. We use a wheel hoe and two different sizes of stirrup hoes, sharpened frequently with a file, to keep weeds under control. If you are a beginning gardener, rather than plan your garden in terms of harvest, you should plan your garden to improve your soil and lower your weed load.
Lowering your weed load is fundamental. Harvests come and go, but weed seeds are forever. Weeds are bad because they lower the yields of your crop plants and go to seed, leaving more weeds for next year.
To plant a garden that you can weed, you should space plants so that the width between them is at least two inches wider than the width of your hoe. If you are planting seeds, you may find that the seedlings come in too thickly to weed between them. You will need to thin them in order to get at the weeds. For some plants in which you eat the leaves, it is ok to crowd them a bit because you can thin and eat the plants you remove as you go. For example, in a home garden there is no reason to space each head of lettuce six or eight inches apart initially, you can simply pull out the small plants to make a salad as the season progresses. But if you are planting out seedlings, like broccoli and tomatoes, you should space them according to the size of the adult plants, with an eye to keeping the weeds down between them until they reach their full size and shade out any surviving late weed seedlings.
We basically never place any plants less than six inches apart, not even things that could do ok more crowded than that. Our standard stirrup hoe is five inches wide. Our smaller stirrup hoe is two inches wide. We use that for tight spaces but it is not something you would want to work with to weed an entire garden. So even leeks, which as harvestable plants might be ok four inches apart in a row, are at least six or eight inches apart in our garden.
We plant in straight rows, laying the rows out along a string stretched between two stakes at the time of planting so that we don’t start listing to one side or the other. We then weed between the rows with a wheel hoe and within the rows with our stirrup hoes. Some people plant in raised beds without rows. It doesn’t matter what you do, just figure out how you are going to weed it before you put the plants in or the weeds will win the battle.
Beginners tend to think of weeding as getting down on your knees and yanking up large plants. Some people go to elaborate lengths to avoid any weeding at all by planting into six inches of mulch (which has some good points) or planting into black plastic (which has no good points), but we prefer to “tickle the garden with a hoe” as someone or other put it. While there is always a time when you go away for a long weekend and come back to see that the purslane has taken over the back 40 or that the amaranth is taller than your six-year old, having to yank weeds by hands represents a failure of your system. If you weed out tiny little weed seedlings on a weekly basis, it won’t take much time and you will not have weeds go to seed in your garden.
That said, planting potatoes is a special case. We plant our seed potatoes, which are basically cut-up potatoes saved from last year’s garden or bought from the farmer’s market or occasionally ordered from Fedco or Johnny’s, in widely spaced trenches around six inches deep and around eight inches apart. We heap the soil on top of the potatoes. When the plants appear and grow up for awhile, we go down the middle of the wide rows and rototill or dig up more soil to heap on top of the potato plants, leaving just part of the plant above the surface. This is called “hilling.” Basically, potatoes grow in loose soil from the underground parts of the plant, so the more underground parts you have, the more potatoes you get. We hill the potatoes two times in the season, then plant a cover crop like rape in between the rows and let it go until it is time to harvest in late September. I love growing potatoes because I like to eat them and because they make me feel like I have raised real food, not just some crummy little herbs or some frivolous greens.
So go out there and plant your first crops. If you haven’t prepared your soil, you might want a year’s lead time, but you could dig some grass up right now and put in a few pea seeds and some parsley. If the rabbits don’t get them, you might be surprised at how pleasurable it is to grow food from space that used to just grow grass. At the time I write this, in the middle of the month, you could have spinach, kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, parsnips, onions, peas, potatoes, parsley, cilantro, most herbs other than basil, leeks, shallots, cabbage and its allies, tatsoi, bok choy, chard, mustard, beets, carrots, turnips, and rutabagas in the ground. Basically any cold tolerant plant is ok to plant by early to mid-May. This week you could also plant squash seeds, although not put out squash transplants yet. Wait until the end of the month for the warm weather crops like tomatoes and basil and peppers. They will just sit around suffering if you plant them now. If you want super early tomatoes, buy a big tomato plant in a tub from someone who started it in a green house.