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When to Start Planting

Our farm in Maine is located in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5a. This means that planning when to plant your vegetables in spring can be a challenge. If you wait too long, they won't be able to reach full maturity before frosts begin in the fall, but if you start too soon they will be killed off by the harsh spring weather.

We've had a few days that touched 80 degrees, but the average temperature in our area at this time of year is closer to 50 degrees, and so it is important not to get over-excited when warm weather comes around.

Our vegetable garden was first turned last fall, in early September, so that all of the sod and organic matter would have the winter to decompose and enrich the soil. The next step towards the garden's readiness is to turn it again, this time mixing in richer dirt, manure, and ashes from our wood stove to help further improve the quality of the soil. This process is about due, and many farms around us are busily doing their spring rototilling.

Because our house is unheated (except for the wood stove) and our space is quite limited, we don't start seeds indoors. Someday, our goal is to have a greenhouse and maybe some cold frames for over-wintering select crops and starting seeds early. But for now, we sow directly outdoors or purchase started seedlings from local, organic nurseries.

Once the garden has been tilled and the paths and beds laid out, the first plants that should be sown are hardy ones that can survive a light frost. Some more delicate plants can be started using plastic or glass covers to keep them warm and protected from the elements, but mostly I'd stick to v vegetables like peas, beans, some onions, beets, radishes, and turnips. These will start growing despite the colder weather, and they'll thrive even more if you are able to keep them covered or to sow them in raised beds.

For us, you can bet snap peas will go into the ground fast, since I cannot wait to start snacking on them. Quick to follow will be radishes and onions, and we will be trying a few turnips this year which I've never grown before.

The majority of Maine veggies move outside or are sown around the end of May. Conventional farming wisdom says not to move your tomato plants outside until Memorial Day, which is traditionally a huge gardening weekend in our state.

We have a few new plants we're planning on experimenting with this year, starting with Brussel Sprouts which I've spent all winter cooking with and are a new favorite of mine to enjoy. All of the staples will be there, too: corn, potatoes, extensive varieties of tomatoes, cabbage, beets and lettuce, pumpkins and cucumbers. The extensive garden this year - especially after a season of horticultural rest last year - should keep me pretty busy.

We're also trying our first few Elderberry plants, which we'll grow around the vegetable garden. We'll be putting in started Elderberries come May, and in the next week I'll be sowing a strawberry patch that I hope will start to make my breakfasts a little bit more savory.

A busy year in the garden will mean a busy year in the kitchen, and I'm looking forward to both adventures. It was nice being able to focus on other projects last summer, but I missed getting my hands dirty in the soil.


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