The best dishes are made with the best ingredients. The freshest dairy, eggs, meat and produce create the most flavorful meals. Maintaining a fruit and vegetable garden is one of the best ways to obtain fresh ingredients. It’s a bit of a challenge to grow a garden where I live in the high desert. The growing season is shorter on “the hill” where we live vs. the valley of “in town.” The entire region is challenged with a shorter season than in warmer zones.
My garden is “at rest” in the winter, but the gardening never really stops. Over the winter, I add coffee grounds, homemade compost, trampled hay and shavings to the raised beds. I let this percolate under the snows of January and February. Organic matter is slowly breaking down on days when the sun allows a thaw. As soon as the snow melts off the beds and the ground thaws from its winter freeze the planting preparation can begin.
March is when the most active gardening really kicks off. First I start by removing all the dead leaves, pine needles and any other debris that has blown in with the March winds. If it is organic, I leave some of this material in the beds and turn it in. All the area round the beds is raked and kept tidy. This year, I had to wait until mid-March before the soil was soft enough to turn.
There is often still a layer of frost on the beds each morning, so I wait until evening and turn a bed or two each evening before the sun goes down. Once all the animals are fed and the barn yard is cleaned, I get out my pitch fork and take on the chore of turning in all the materials I have been feeding my beds over the winter. If I am diligent, at the end of a week, I will have all the beds turned and ready to add replacement soil. In the fall, I often lose soil to the harvesting and bed clearing as I put the garden to rest.
Next I haul in nice new bags of fresh organic compost and mulch and turn that into the beds. I smooth and level the soil in the beds, but leave it loose and ready to accept seed or seedlings as the case may be. Then onto repairing the irrigation system. Winter takes its toll on the above ground sprayer system I use. Generally a few connections or sprayers will spring a leak or get damaged from the frost. It typically takes me an hour or two with my repair kit to test the system, replace any damaged parts and get things functioning well again.
Then the fun can begin. I start gathering more materials for the now empty compost bin so it can begin to work as the days warm. Garden waste, manure and any trimmings from cooking that can’t be fed to the goats, donkeys or chickens go into the composter.
Next I get out my garden planner. I have a nifty sheet that I drew up and copied that is roughly the same layout of my beds. I keep a record each year of the date I planted items, how successful that was, and where the vegetable types were located in the beds. Each March, I plan a layout for my annual garden, always trying to improve on what I’ve done before. The notes from prior years really help, and are fun to keep and review. I have records back to 2009 now.
On March 31st I planted peas, Swiss chard, radishes, kale, spinach, and mesclun salad greens. After planting, I covered the beds with bird netting to keep our feathered friends from enjoying the tender young seedlings before they get a chance to mature.
The garden is fenced, but that doesn’t keep the birds, mice and lizards out. Our feral cats seem to keep the mice at bay, and the lizards don’t show up til it’s a bit warmer, but the birds are looking for those tender young shoots. A bit of bird netting allows things to mature nicely. I use irrigation tubing to form hoops over the beds and drape the bird netting over the hoops to keep it off the soil and emerging seedlings. Then I secure using landscape pins. This allows me to access the beds for weeding and irrigation adjustments.
As March draws to a close, and the early crops are planted, it truly feels as if the garden season is launched. I get excited about the April plantings and seeing those first seedlings emerge approximately 10 days to 2 weeks after the initial planting. Spring feels as if it has fully arrived, and even though the beds appear to be dormant, there is more going on than meets the eye.