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Gardeners haven't been digging this cold spring

The Baltimore Sun

April has been brutal. The temperatures plunged to historic lows. The news headlines were equally dark.

So this weekend if, as predicted, the temperatures soar into the 70s, I will be among the multitudes frolicking in the sunshine. For me a good time means rolling in the dirt, a hobby also known as vegetable gardening.

Ever since I chipped the ice off the garden ground Easter Sunday, I have been waiting to dig. During the rotten days of April, the pent-up urge to plant gathered force, like a swelling stream.

When a bright spring weekend arrives, gardeners can go a little squirrelly. We cause gridlock at the nurseries, where crowds of pansy-wielding women bump shopping carts with throngs of tool-toting men.

So far the spring "has been nasty," said Dave Martin, an agent with the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in Baltimore County. I routinely check in with Martin at this time of year to see how things are growing. He told me the frigid spring has pushed flora and fauna two to three weeks behind schedule,

Gardeners who were able to plant cool weather crops, like peas, have not seen much progress, he said. "Peas are sitting still, many haven't germinated, and those that have germinated, haven't grown," he said.

Martin recently toured a number of Baltimore-area greenhouses and reported that the stocks look good and the proprietors were antsy. "They are anxious to get the season started," he said. "They have all these beautiful plants in the greenhouse but for the past weeks they have just been sitting there."

There was some good news. He said the recent rains had given "the subsoil a good moisture base." That means, once seeds can be planted, they should do well. But Martin cautioned me and other anxious gardeners to give the soil the "ball test" before planting this weekend.

Grab a handful of soil and form it into a ball, he said. Then drop it on the ground. If the ball falls apart, the soil is dry enough to plant in. If it sticks together in a ball, the soil is too wet to work, he said.

I questioned him about ways gardeners could play catch-up, about things we could try to make up for lost growing time. One technique discussed was raising the temperature of the soil. A gardening book I consulted, Rodale's Garden Problem Solver by Jeff Ball, said the microlife of the soil, which is responsible for creating food for the plants, does not become active until the soil reaches a temperature between 40 degrees and 45 degrees.

It is a good idea to measure the temperature of the top 2-3 inches of your soil, Martin said. (Devices that measure soil temperature are sold at gardening shops. I have used an instant-read thermometer to measure mine.)

Cool weather crops like peas and lettuce can germinate when the soil temperature is in the 40s, Martin said, while the seeds of beans and tomatoes require soil temperatures in the 60s and higher.

One way to heat up the soil and get it ready to germinate seeds is to cover it with sheets of clear, tight-fitting plastic. This is a technique that some Maryland farmers use, Martin said, to get their corn crop started.

To work well, the plastic has to fit snugly on the ground and has to be treated to protect against the sun's ultraviolet rays, he said. Look for labels that say the plastic contains "UV inhibitors." Martin said using the wrong kind of plastic "like the kind wrapped around your dry cleaning," won't work. The plastic will disintegrate, he said.

Another way to heat up the soil, he said, is to construct raised planting beds. Elevating the beds by a few inches, either by corralling them with lumber or hilling up the ground, works because the sides of the raised bed are exposed to sunshine, he said.

Martin gave me a lot to think about. But the more I considered my gardening options, the more I doubted I would use the catch-up techniques. They had benefits but they also required a fair amount of work. Moreover, they carried unintended consequences.

If, for example, I put timbers around my planting beds, I know I would end up constantly tripping over them. While covering the ground with clear plastic might heat up the ground and accelerate vegetable growth, it could also encourage weeds to sprout.

My weeds don't need encouragement; a spring crop has already made its presence known.

More than likely this weekend I will end up wallowing in my 40-degree dirt, pulling weeds, uncovering worms, making friends with the robins. I will add more organic matter to the soil, a task in life that, like losing 10 pounds, seems always to be with us. This may not be speedy gardening, but plodding in the sunshine will feel delightfully familiar.

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