Art of Growing
by Lisa Moeschler
Sitting down over coffee with local grower and gardener Randi Pratini, I at once understood why she has long been such a valued resource at BriarPatch. For Randi is one of the select few responsible for our beautiful grounds and the dazzling display of flower and veggie starts out front. With her smiling face full of warmth, she spoke with a sincerity and sense of purpose that made me realize that this was a woman in touch with the wisdom of nature.
For nearly 50 years Randi has been learning the art of growing through hard-won experience. Her farm has been certified organic since 2012 and was registered organic for years before that. Fresh Starts Organic Farm, is one of the sources our Garden-Floral Department has chosen to supply organic, locally-grown veggie, herb, flower, and perennial starts. (We are also honored to work with local, organic growers Sweet Roots Farm, Grizzly Hill Farm, as well as BriarPatch employee Kathy McCurie – for their heirloom tomato starts – along with regional growers JSM Organics and Geffray’s Garden.)
What I would come to learn about Randi is that she is always observing. First, it was the mindful way she noticed that our table at the café, which was in front of a big window, was becoming overwhelmed by the strong, midday sun. I enjoyed the warmth and commented that it felt like it was 10 degrees colder at my house than in town. She agreed and seemed to know exactly what I was talking about. And since she had never been to my house, I later realized she had gleaned more from my comment than I had casually intended. I also realized that there was very little that Randi says that isn’t first carefully considered and verified with some degree of certainty. That’s why when she suggested that we move to the back of the café, I went without hesitation. We sat and chatted by a window with southern exposure for more than two-and-a-half hours. And from our conversation, I was surprised to learn how much I didn’t know about what I thought I knew about gardening here locally! So – if you’re eager to get going with your garden, but are full of questions, read on! Randi’s advice is sure to help you plan a more organized and bountiful home garden.
“What should we be aware of before beginning to plant our home gardens this spring?” I asked. Her immediate reply: “Be aware of your property’s microclimate. It’s really important, and there can be multiple microclimates on a single site. My neighbor’s house, for example, will get frost on his roof while there’ll be none on mine; and he’s right across the street from me. I live on Sugar Loaf Mountain, and there may be frost at the bottom of my property, but none at the top where my house sits.”
Randi then reviewed some of the conditions that can contribute to the microclimates on a given property, such as being located on a hill; having or not having airflow; having tree cover versus no tree cover, or whether it is surrounded by concrete. In order to determine the microclimate(s) that may be present on your property, it’s important to make observations. “Permaculture principles dictate observing your property and keeping notes for a year, so that you have a full cycle of time in which to become familiar with nature’s conditions,” she said.
I asked Randi for a good, basic ‘to-do’ list to help folks ready their home gardens this spring. “It really just depends…” she said. She began by trying to remember her own property’s first and last frost dates. She said we should keep in mind that these dates only provide guidelines, but they’re extremely important in planning. As the season progresses you should note how different plants have performed, along with general observations such as ambient air temperatures and hours of sunlight received over the course of the day. Checking the soil temperature is important, too, she said, as well as noting how wet or dry it is. The list went on and on, but if your property wasn’t specific to the 2,700’ elevation where she lives, certain things may not be relevant. So we settled on:
The Short List:
- Be aware of microclimates and elevation; determine your property’s first/last frost dates; use them as guidelines. If you don’t know the dates, visit the UC Master Gardeners of Nevada County website www.ncmg.ucanr.org/ or call 530-273-0919. Their hotline office is staffed Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:00 am to noon.
- Observe your property for an entire year and keep notes (don’t rely on your memory!). Make a diagram that records what was planted where and did well (or not!). Include direct sowing and /or planting dates, the prevailing conditions (weather/temperatures), and observations such as hours of sunlight, wind patterns, pests, etc.
- In general, if the soil is really wet and you’re trying to work it in order to plant seed or transplants, it may become compacted, reducing the tilth (the condition of tilled soil, especially with respect to suitability for sowing seeds.) If that’s the case, it’s better to hold off planting till the soil no longer clumps when you’re turning it. If you direct-sow seed or transplant starts into a lighter, fluffier soil, they will be much happier and more likely to prosper. To see if the soil is loose enough to plant, you can use a digging fork and observe whether the soil passes through or gets stuck.
- Seeds germinate in a variety of soil temperatures. If the soil is really wet and cold (note the soil temp), you may wish to wait. Soil that’s too cold and wet discourages many seed varieties from germinating, and may also encourage rot.
- Check seed packages for favorable germination temperatures, or use the UCCE Nevada County Master Gardeners guide www.ncmg.ucanr.org/files/219478.pdf
- If you’re growing from seed sown in pots, provide a minimum of 12-14 hours of light. If you’re using a sunny window area, be sure to regularly rotate the flats or pots to encourage strong, upright stem growth. If your plants don’t get sufficient hours of light they will “reach out” for the light source, becoming thin, long, and weak-stemmed.
- If your soil is cool but workable, a few of Randi’s suggestions for direct seeding are mache (lambs lettuce), claytonia (miner’s lettuce), sugar snap peas, tatsoi, spinach, and a number of other lettuces.
- For a continual crop of lettuces, cilantro, radishes, arugula, and other plants that tend to bolt quickly when the weather changes from cool to hot, try direct-sowing a small amount of seed every 10-14 days, and provide some shade. Experiment with heat-tolerant and bolt-resistant varieties.
- Wait until May/June (depending on your zone and microclimates) to direct-sow heat-loving cucumbers, melons, and squash. The same rule of thumb applies to planting starts of tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and other heat-loving plants.
- A soil test is helpful if you have no knowledge of your ground’s fertility. Tests are available at Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, which also carries many supplements that the soil diagnosis might indicate would be helpful.
For more gems of local advice from Randi, consider the following as you move through the list and ready your garden:
What to plant this spring
Even if it’s cold I wouldn’t hesitate to put in spinach, kale, and many other hearty greens, as long as the soil is not frozen or muddy. If inclement weather is forecast, you might want to cover the young plants with a floating row cover.
Where to plant…
Consider leaving room for summer heat lovers such as peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes. Consider, too, that hearty greens (e.g., kales) may live through an entire year, so the space they occupy will not be available until the following spring. Also, think ahead so you know where space will be available for fall varieties, such as broccoli, when August arrives. Plants with like water needs should be planted together to optimize your watering requirements. Lettuce, chard, kale, and leafy greens benefit from a midday misting once it gets really hot. Shade cloth may also be helpful.
When to plant…
Need to know how to tell when your soil is warm enough for heat-loving starts and seeds? Use a soil thermometer, or follow the old-timers’ trick of waiting till the wild blackberries near your property are flowering, or waiting till you can sit on the ground comfortably in your shorts and your bare legs don’t feel cold.
Consider your soil…
There are many different types of soil in our county. For instance, in parts of Alta Sierra the soil has a much more clay-like texture, or there may be little to no soil on top of hardpan. In these conditions one solution is to work mature compost into the native soil, then create a mound to plant into. Randi has had success with this method doing landscape jobs. Mounds can warm the soil just as pots or raised beds do, though you’ll need to give more attention to water and fertilizer. Pots, in particular black plastic ones, can get extremely hot when temperatures soar. Check them often for dryness, and consider shielding them with wrapping made from cardboard or some other material.
To grow with starts or not…
Planting from starts has advantages: you can see where they are; birds are not as likely to eat them as they do seeds, and you are less likely to lose them to pill bugs, cutworms, and earwigs. Another plus is that you’ll enjoy an earlier harvest than you would when direct sowing.
When purchasing seed, choose organic when possible. A seed pack should display a germination-percentage rate, as well as a date on the package. It’s best to choose the freshest seeds (for this year’s sowing, that means seed marked 2016 or 2017) over older seeds, for optimal germination rates.
Perennials… a word of advice…
When you have a choice, plant perennials in the fall, when the ground is still warm. Their roots will welcome this cozy home when the sun and air temperatures are not as brutal as during the summer. Winter’s moisture and cooler temperatures are ideal for continued root growth.
The perennials you see for sale during the spring and summer often won’t be available at nurseries in the fall. If possible, buy them when available, transplant them into a larger pot, and grow them till the fall planting season. Take note: potted plants may require more water than you imagine!
When planting perennials, mulch protects the roots and soil from compaction. Randi prefers rice straw or leaves (not oak). Seasoned wood chips will work too, but if they’re fresh they might leach nutrients from the soil.
Many thanks to Randi for sharing her wealth of local knowledge as we ready our gardens this spring! And thank you to all of our wonderful local growers, Randi included, for ensuring we have an incredible assortment of organic plant starts from which to choose. Now let’s get started!
Photography by Akim Aginsky