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Something is Stirring...

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Purple Snow Crocus in bloom Photo by: Kate Prunkl

Under the gray blanket of late February in Virginia, something is stirring…

Plants and people in the know are beginning to mobilize, tapping into last year’s reserves in order to bring forth the wondrous return-of-life in Spring.

Among cultivated land, keep an eye out for the early crocuses, snowdrops, aconites, hellebores, and forsythia (and if you’d like to have flowers in your garden while it’s still cold, make a note to plant some of these varieties for next year!)

On a woodland walk in wet areas you may encounter a patch of eastern skunk cabbage, whose Snow White-worthy flowers improbably pervade the cold and ice before any other. This is enabled by an incredible mechanism through which the plant breaks down starch it has stored in its roots and rhizomes throughout the winter to generate its own heat. This proffer of warmth and pollen also attracts some of the season’s earliest emerging insects, who find themselves welcomely ensconced within the hooded reddish-purple spathes.

Similarly, gardeners with a penchant for hearkening the earliest blossoms and tender cool-weather vegetables are tapping into the energy stored in seed banks of yesteryear to begin the cultivation of new botanical lives, sprouting seedlings in greenhouses and sowing seeds in wildflower beds.

For those who wish to dine from the garden at earliest possibility, start preparing your beds and get your peas in the ground now. Thomas Jefferson liked to keep records of when he planted peas each year. It is very much worth planting several rounds, both to ensure a successful early crop and to extend your picking season.

If you do not already have poppies growing in your garden, they are a lovely addition, and can be sown on a late winter/early spring snow melt. I love the simple joy sparked by the small red Shirley poppy and the process of drying and harvesting the seed pods of Hungarian blue breadseed poppy for baking.

I also feel it requisite, if you love eating fresh fruit and low-care plants, that you have a berry patch somewhere in your yard if you have the space. This is a great time of year to dig up some roots from a friend’s patch or order some. If planting a cane plant from the rubus genus (raspberry, blackberry), I’d advise selecting a back corner of the yard in sun to some dappled shade where they can spread out a bit and not encroach on your other beds. However, they are also easily contained simply by mowing and pulling up new shoots which venture outside their bed. Be sure to pot up those stray shoots; you can gift them to a friend, family member, or donate to a local community garden or organization for the less fortunate if possible! I love the plants which just keep on giving.

For smaller spaces, apartment balconies, and container gardens, strawberries are a great choice for your home berry patch. You can enjoy strawberries all season with the “everbearing” varieties (an amazing advancement on this historically spring-bearing fruit), or select several different varieties which bear at different times of the season. If you have not yet tried alpine white strawberries, they are quite delicious; a bit reminiscent of pineapple.

Now is also the time to start many nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant) indoors, especially hot peppers, which evolved in parts of the world with extended hot growing seasons. If you have never made your own hot sauce before, it is an easy and rewarding process of blending your choice of hot peppers, vinegar, and seasonings like garlic. Chinese five color peppers are just the thing if you want the most bang for your buck in regards to their dazzling candy colors and high spice content. Each pepper journeys through a penta-hued trajectory from tiny purple star-shaped flower to red ripened capsicum; the plants look like little holiday trees.

Tomatoes, so beloved by home gardeners, can also be started from seed indoors around this time. I always pick a reliable beefsteak variety, sungold cherry tomatoes for their consistently sunny, mellow, low-acid sweetness and umami, and then have fun with some heirloom and unusual varieties. Two fun ones I’ve encountered are the “banana leg” and “garden peach”. The former is a protracted, lemon-yellow, torpedo-shaped ‘mater that goes a long way in making summer salads and appetizers more interesting. Garden peach can confuse even a fruit connoisseur who’s unsuspecting, with its coral blush and actual soft fuzz visually indicating more “stone fruit” than “sandwich slicer”. A bowl of these beauties on a summer table setting or in a picnic basket conjure scenes of French Impressionism. (Can you tell I enjoy food that is also art?)

Now is a great time to really get going with planning your spring fruit and veggie plantings. Start gathering your natural mulches and fertilizers, whether organizing/turning leaves or compost from your or your neighbor’s yard, or placing an order for topsoil or manure from a local source. Do you want to introduce red wiggler worms to your compost pile this year? How can you best use the resources that are already on your property?

Start to think about your garden spots and their potential—take some time to reflect on the soil, the light, the verticality, the functions of the space. Then while you peruse seed catalogs, think about what makes most sense for your endeavors. What produce do you eat the most of? Which is the most expensive to buy organic? Which varieties are hard or impossible to find in the store? Do you have a garden which is inviting as a place to enjoy beauty? Are you giving back to the many animals which co-habit this ecosystem, particularly native bees, birds, and endangered species? Could you devote a small patch of your garden to at-risk native woodland medicinals? It can be more attainable than you think—in case you missed it, check out Kat Maier’s suburban sanctuary in last season’s October episode, as well as the United Plant Savers at-risk species list.

Finally, don’t forget about our overwintering feathered friends! In late winter, food resources are most scarce, as plants have yet to produce new seeds and most insects remain dormant. As humans have taken over much bird habitat for our own uses, it is a kind gesture to at least replenish the lost food sources. Black oil sunflower seeds are the preferred forage of nearly all of our local avian species, so if you’re considering putting out a feeder, now is the perfect time to do so!

We wish you warmth and and wellness tiding this last leg of cold and gray, and invite you to share you current garden preparations on our Facebook page! What are you doing to get ready for this garden season? What are you excited to grow this year?

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