Getting ready to plant
May 14, 2020
It's just about that time. Time to plant, I mean. I've had several calls in the last week that involved the question of when to plant. It's been a bit of a strange year with the warm weather, hot weather, cold weather, even a stray snowstorm. I may be crazy but it seems like the weather has been more back and forth than usual this year. It's no wonder that people are unsure of when to plant. The bottom line is. "Patience is a virtue." The Master Gardeners are currently having a "Virtual Plant Sale" so people can pick up their plants directly from the grower and plant when they're ready. When people pick up their plants we try to educate them on planting methods and timing. I always advise waiting until at least June 1st. That just seems to be a safe compromise for planting. I know there is no guarantee, but at some point we have to just break down and take the risk.
For those people who are buying their plants early to get the best selection of plants, I recommend keeping the plants indoors until June 1st. There are a couple of ways to do this. The first and most obvious is to just leave them in the pots they came in and nurse them until it's time to plant. The other is to move them into a large container. You can keep them in the container or transplant to the garden. For some people, containers are the best way to go. You can use any large pot or tub as a container to grow plants. For veggies I just use a five gallon paint bucket. I drill four half inch holes near the bottom for drainage and just leaves the plants in it for the season. That makes them easy to move if I have to bring them indoors.
If you are planting a traditional garden plot there are things you can be doing in this last few weeks to get ready. First and foremost is to check your soil. I've written (and spoken) many times on the importance of a soil test. Without it you have no way of knowing what nutrients your soil may be lacking. Start with a simple hand test. Moisten a handful of soil until it starts to hold together. Not too wet. Now close your eyes and feel the texture. Is it smooth and slippery or coarse and grainy? Or maybe it's somewhere in between. Smooth and slippery refers to clay soil. The smoother and more slippery the soil the more clay it has. Clay is really good for holding water so you won't have to water quite as often. However, it has its drawbacks, too. When it gets dry it can get hard and may stunt the growth of your plants. The other end of the spectrum is that grainy soil that won't hold together well when moist like the clay will. The graininess is the sand that's in the soil. Sand is very good for drainage, but that also means that it doesn't hold water well. And that means more watering. By not holding water well it won't soak your plants' roots in water and drowning them. The ideal soil lies in the middle. A good mixture of sandy and clay. Fortunately, our soil is a pretty good mix, tending a little more toward the clay end of the scale in many places.
But what about nutrients? The best way to test for nutrients and pH is to have your soil tested in a qualified laboratory. Colorado State University is our closest lab and provides an outstanding test report. One of the things I really like about the CSU lab is that they'll tell you exactly what your soil needs and a variety of methods to add those particular amendments. They'll even do the math for you. Sample bottles can be obtained by calling the lab at 970-491-5061 or you can pick up bottles from the UW Extension Service Horticulturalist, Catherine Wissner, located in the Pathfinder Building at LCCC, 4th floor.
Taking a sample and preparing it for the lab takes a little bit of effort, but it isn't difficult. If you have a small plot, one sample should suffice. As your plot increases in size, though, it becomes increasingly more complicated. For medium size plots, you can take samples from around the plot and mix them together for one sample to be sent in. However, larger plots, where it is possible that the soil makeup could change in different locations, will require multiple samples. In my vegetable garden (about 2,000 square feet) I take about a dozen samples and mix them to obtain one sample for the lab. In the lavender field, about an acre, I divided it into four quadrants and took eight samples in each quadrant to mix for the lab resulting in four samples. This field was unbroken prairie with different results in each quadrant. To take a sample, dig down 4"-8" and dig up about enough soil to fill a half pint jar. If taking multiple samples then do the same for each sample. Mix the samples from the same plot together and put on some newspaper to dry. Once the soil has dried, usually 2-3 days, crumble it up really good, then mix it again and fill the sample jar full. Seal the jar and mail it with the form that came with it to the lab. If you provided an email address, the results will be sent back in 2-3 weeks.
Once you have your test results back and are ready to add your amendments to the soil, it's ready to work the soil. You'll want to prepare the soil shortly before planting. Make sure it isn't too wet when you start breaking it up or it'll dry into hard clumps that are difficult for planting. For relatively small areas, it's best to turn the soil with a heavy tined rake or other tool that will turn the soil and help break it up. For larger areas a tiller may be required. If you use a tiller, make as few passes as possible to keep disruption to the soil's natural underground life to a minimum. Add your amendments before your start working the soil so they are worked into the ground at the same time. You may recall that I had most of my garden completely killed last year because of a bad load of compost. Even weeds wouldn't grow. By constant watering (it was mud nearly all summer) I was able to bring it back for this year. I did have to add a lot of amendments, though, because the watering leached out quite a few of the nutrients. I had to add Sulphur, iron, and nitrates. The pH ended up very high, much higher than the adjacent ground. The Sulphur will help with the pH as it combines with the water to form Sulphuric Acid. This is a long process since the water has to break up into its elemental units first. Then I had to add 50 pounds of alfalfa pellets for the nitrates. Hopefully, this will take care of the problem. I'll wait a couple of weeks for the amendments to break down then I'll till again right before planting. I don't like to till a second time, but this is an unusual situation.
From here it's just a matter of laying out where you want the plants and setting them in the ground or sowing the seed directly. And don't think you can sow the seed early and expect it to come up when it gets warm enough. Although you will get some germination, you'll also have seed that rots in the ground. You can see what plants are available from the Master Gardeners by going to our website at http://www.lcmg.org of calling me direct at 307-640-2445. If you have any questions ask a Master Gardener. It's what we do