Brief warm spell heats up desire to dig and plant

March 25, 2006|By ROB KASPER

THE URGE TO PLANT RUNS WILD these days. A few days of warm weather roll in and I can't wait to start scratching the ground. Recently, I picked up a shovel and planted a few pea seeds.

No sooner had I put my spade and stiff shoulders to rest, than Norm, Tom and Bob -- the three television wise men of weather -- predicted snowfall and freezing temperatures. I worried.

When the sun was shining, I rooted for the seeds to sprout. When the clouds rolled in and the temperature plummeted, I prayed for the seeds to remain dormant, away from the killing winds.

Nature, of course, has her owns rhythms and she may not be ready to start dancing just yet. The soil temperature -- 44 degrees the other day when I stuck an instant-read thermometer in the ground -- still shows signs of winter's chill.

The recent pea-planting episode was another example of a gardener's attempts to read Mother Nature's moods. In the spring, I often feel I am forcing the pace, stepping on Mother Nature's toes. In summer, I am tripping over myself to keep up with her suddenly torrid sprint. Finally, in the fall, I am catching my breath, wondering if she has another burst of energy in store before cooling her heels for the winter.

As I do most springs, I began the season with a winter-ripened scheme, a book-learning attempt to beat the bugs, birds and other assailants that vie for control of my vegetable garden.

Every winter I dig for fresh wisdom, mining garden books that I page through on dark, dull nights. This year, my off-season companion was The Vegetable & Herb Expert by Dr. D.G. Hessayon, who, according to the blurb on the book's cover, is the author of the "world's best-selling book on vegetables and herbs." Because he spells "flavour" the British way and stresses the importance of "cloches," small protective glass or plastic structures placed over plants, I suspect that Hessayon is one of those green-thumbed Brits.

The book was a Christmas present from one of my kids who bought it for $15 at a Baltimore-area bookstore. One of the things I like about it is that it has illustrations of crops that have gone bad.

Rather than gazing at verdant fields, I am much more interested in images of troubled tomatoes or mice-eaten melons. I am reassured to learn that if I feed the tomatoes potash and fight the mice by putting down "spiny twigs," I have a shot at success. Education, I believe, can defeat vermin.

When a sunny spring weekend rolls around, however, I can't resist the urge to put down the books and take up tools. Most of the gardening going on at this time of year falls into the category of drudgery -- dumping wheelbarrows full of organic matter on the garden, breaking up the subsoil with a shovel, uprooting the weed crop, which, like original sin, is always with us.

After a long stretch of this duty, I felt the need to reward myself, to sow a few seeds. Last weekend, I bought a couple of packets of pea seeds at the neighborhood hardware store and bicycled up to my garden plot in Druid Hill Park to put them in the ground. Only later did I read that Hessayon did not approve of such behavior.

Peas, he wrote, can be complicated. One should not, he said, simply buy a packet of peas and pop them in the ground without first reading "the rules for success."

Those rules, it turned out, were that you should know what types of peas -- first early, second early or maincrop -- you are planting. Moreover, he said, once peas are in the ground, you need to protect them from birds by covering the planting site with black cotton cloth.


Later, I did look up the pedigree of my peas. I had planted Little Marvels, which are a first early pea, and some Oregon Sugar Pods, which are maincrop peas. The Little Marvels should be ready to pick in 11 weeks to 12 weeks, maybe around Memorial Day, and the Oregon Sugar Pods should show up just before the Fourth of July

That schedule is dependent on Mother Nature's cooperation. Already I spotted some worrisome signs that could delay progress. The soil, for instance, is dry. When I planted the peas, this dirt had passed the "clump test." I grabbed a handful of it and it had not formed a ball that roots couldn't penetrate. Usually at this time of year, the soil is soggy. But because we did not get the much-predicted snowfall, or any other recent form of precipitation, the soil is dusty.

Seeds need moisture to germinate, so Thursday morning I was back in the garden, toting a water jug. The sky was dark, the wind was fierce, and I was wearing a thick coat. It felt more like November than March.

I watered my pea seeds and wondered what fate had in store for them. Instead of covering them with a cloche, I was leaving them in the clutches of Mother Nature. Somewhere in the distance, a cardinal was in full voice. Maybe it was heralding the arrival of spring. Or maybe it was waiting for me to leave, singing in anticipation of a snack of foolishly planted pea seeds.

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