Photo illustration by Joshua McNichols
Spring Vs. Summer in the garden

Backyard Feast: Plant Gardens In Spring, Enjoy Nature's Awkward Adolescence

By Joshua McNichols

There is a moment, when a storm has passed you by, when you can stand on the sidewalk and feel the warmth of the sun, even as ten blocks away the yellow-gray storm cloud sits on Phinney Ridge like a hen on its nest. Depending on where you live, there might be a rainbow over Ross Park, or Ballard Market, or the Library. That rainbow is a perfect expression of spring.

In spring, so many variables are just right, neither too much of this, nor too little of that. Spring is between the relentlessness of Pacific Northwest winters and the austerity of late summer drought. In spring, the soil is just warming up enough that the microbes wake up and begin eating and pooping, releasing dormant nutrients to the roots of plants. At the same time, plants aren't stunted by drought: there's water for all, enough that plant cells can stand erect, turgid, like a pressurized garden hose. Yet the intermittent dry days allow oxygen to penetrate the soil, aerobicizing microbe activity like a Zumba class. The resulting soil is a playground for roots, which romp and careen through the loose soil like drunken sailors. And while there isn't enough heat to coddle melons and tomatoes yet, there's plenty of light. Days are becoming longer and longer –- they peak in length LONG before the days become reliably hot.

This season of between-ness –- it has an awkwardness about it, like the first hairs on the upper lip of an adolescent boy, like the mind of a girl who mispronounces words she's only encountered in books. The plants of this season are special. They are youth itself. Ridiculously green and nutritious like kale. Toothy and snappy like new radishes, which you must harvest in large bunches before they toughen over the next week.

The plants of summer are different. Tomatoes, for example, have a zen-like ability to eke out a life from the drip-drip of late summer. They are the monks of the plant world. Around them, the impetuous plants of spring will lodge, collapse and wilt.

But now is not their season. Now is the time to celebrate abandon, vigor, fecundity. Plunge your hands into the cool soil. Take advantage of that moving sunbeam, the odd dry day. Remember when you absorbed, grew and changed in this way. Let the garden inspire you.

Things to plant right now:

  • Radishes from seed.
  • Carrots from seed (water them later).
  • Peas from seed (irrigate them later).
  • Kale from starts (plant in areas with Southern or Western shade to discourage them bolting when it heats up).

When it gets too hot for these, when you can't keep them from flowering any longer, don't be ashamed of letting them go, letting them become nectar sources for the bees. They are like our children. You can't keep them young forever.

Joshua McNichols is author of The Urban Farm Handbook. He is somewhere between old and young. He lives in Ballard, in the house where former owner Bill Redfern once displayed a sculpture of a skeleton riding a motorcycle in the front yard. Many local children were frightened.

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