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Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Spring, Ever so Sweet

Sunday, March 19, 2017


Photo: Wikipedia

We know it in our bones. As surely as sunrise, before, during, and after, the moment defines us. Our orbit around the Sun twice aligns day and night in perfect 12 hour harmony. All feel the celestial tug, tides run high, birds and all the choirs of angels, arch angels, and the cherubim of heaven join forces. Life returns to the garden. Urban gardeners surrender to destiny. Our pilgrimage to the garden begins. 

Soils are key to garden success. Pay homage to the long term. Science serves us well, test your garden soil either with inexpensive kits for ph or collect small samples from various garden locations, mix, and bring to the many Master Gardener events in your region. More careful analysis for noxious elements is important. Lead paint residue is common in former house sites or adjacent to older buildings. Raised beds are not only easier on backs, they also guarantee new toxin free soil developed from compost and bio-degradable materials. Near neutral soil ph offers the greatest variety of cultivars access to nutrients, most soils east of the Mississippi River lean towards the acid side. Urban gardeners contend with history’s legacy of buildings and industry.  Test your soil. 

We are all gardeners in the spring. Contact community gardens in your neighborhood. Subscribe to plots, don’t be discouraged if put on a waiting list. Consider volunteering at community gardens or engage in a farm share program at surrounding farms. Neighborhood gardens increase yearly as many municipalities offer abandoned spaces to pioneers close to home. Meet new friends and build community awareness over the garden fence. Farmer’s markets offer the chance to connect with local farmers who often sponsor flexible mixtures of labor, space, and produce to those who just cannot resist growing their own. 

 Turning over the garden is time honored and few garden labors are as rewarding. Winter mulches are likely much diminished by spring. There is no need to tackle the entire planting area at once. Choose a dry day, dress in layers, eat a good breakfast. Use a long handled oval spade to dig in, pry out a spade full of soil and put aside on a burlap bag. Proceed and turn over the next spade full topsy-turvy old mulch and top soil bottom side up. Place the rich dark loam above into the initial hole. Continue, engage gentle rhythm and breath, lean into the spade and fulcrum the soil over, feet on mulched bed, observe, smell the rich earth. Remove stones, old bottles, and if persuaded, replace the occasional St. Joseph. 

Don’t overdo it. Take your time, save muscles and backs more accustomed to chairs and cars. Wear gloves. Drink water. Don’t forget a hat, dedicate work pants for well- earned stained knees and pockets certain to stuff in snipers or trowels. Deer ticks are virtually invisible and ubiquitous in my region. A quick spritz of water, peppermint and orange essential oils offends most insects and inspires the gardener. Each spade full of soil turned over is a study in the living soil. Enjoy the presence of earthworms. Worms are fine barometers of healthy soil. A steady diet of organic materials is transformed within worms into ever more fertile humus. Worm castings are powerful organic fertilizers. 

Quickly cover earthworms with soil to protect from desiccating wind and sunshine. Feed them compost and old mulches. Earthworms are prey for many birds. Strutting robins will adopt your garden. Their quiet search is magnificent intention manifest. Provide shallow, pedestal based bird baths for insect gathering birds. Do not bemoan the occasional earthworm or dried out bath. Bird baths that dry out prevent mosquitos from completing their life cycle while giving birds and pollinating insects, chiefly but not restricted to bees, a rare urban water source.  

Skunks search for earthworms. Nocturnal and arrogant, skunks have adapted to urban environments. Near perfect circular drill holes in the mulch if not lingering scent are tell-tale signs of foraging skunks. Good fences hinder their progress although they will confidently walk down sidewalks and driveways. Skunks are family oriented. They colonize debris and are notorious for dens under garden sheds. The best defense is precaution, remove or blockade possible habitats. 

Medium sized Have a Heart traps capture skunks. Quietly, without the family dog or small children, approach the entrapped skunk and cover with a tarpaulin. Note the trap handle’s location, no groping around the trap. Calmed by the tarpaulin, keep covered and transport the skunk elsewhere. Kits or immature skunks are born fully armed with stink. Harass or corner skunks at peril. Call Animal officers for removal or future defensive measures. 

Notice grubs? Squash between fingers and prevent metamorphosis into voracious caterpillars. Inoculate soil with BT or Bacillus thuringiensis. BT is a parasitic bacterium that infects grubs. Once ingested by grubs the parasite eventually kills its host before the grub matures. Dormant spores remain to await future grubs. Tame wild infestations with BT far into the future. BT can be sprinkled over turf as well. Noisome bald spots among grass are prime areas for introduction.  A little BT goes a long way, cautionary inoculation while turning over soil is effective and non- poisonous. Walk right past sacks of chemical insecticides in garden centers that slaughter the innocent and benign along with larval Japanese beetles and other grubs. 

Ready to plant? Let’s get to it! Cool weather, early spring crops are quick to mature, typically only a few weeks for radishes up to 60-70 days for peas. Mustard, arugula, cress, endive, and the many lettuces thrive in cold soil. Tradition in my region of SE New England links pea planting with St. Patrick’s Day. A more reliable barometer are emergent perennial sweet peas. Sweet peas are old fashioned success stories. Like their edible cousins, sweat peas thrive with a little support to clamber upwards. They readily self-sow, give them a trellis and they’ll transform the trellis into a mass of lovely foliage. The bonus is a plethora of fragrant blooms from Memorial through Labor Day and beyond. Harvest seed pods for friends or future gardens, left alone they’ll form self-sustaining colonies. Are crocus, squil or muscari, the grape hyacinth in bloom? Let’s plant peas.

Select a sunny spot. Furrow the turned over soil or if untilled, simply draw back mulch to soil level. Pre-soak the hard dried peas overnight to jumpstart germination or rely upon rain and moist soil. Edible podded or Asian peas offer the largest harvests for small spaces. Select seeds according to taste and interest, give preference to pre-inoculated peas. Peas, like all legumes, form symbiotic relationships with nitrogen fixing bacteria in their root systems. The bacteria extract nitrogen from the atmosphere and transform the gas into vital nutrition for the host plant. Over plant peas as a green manure as well as a crop. 

Peas are delicious right off the plant. Bountiful and virtually pest free, garden peas are not commonplace. They freeze well if not eaten right on the spot. Peas bolt at the advent of warm late spring- just in time to harvest and turn under. Use the same location to raise beans, tomatoes or other warm weather vegetables such as sweet or hot peppers. Urban gardeners reap successive crops from the same space and simultaneously enrich the soil. 

Sun, moon, and planets collude. Harmonious, the music of the spheres seduces gardeners. We are migrants into longer days, full of care, nurture and growth. It’s spring and all are gardeners. Breath deep, rejoice. Shadows, be gone. Persephone, welcome home. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


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