Made in the shade

by Ari LeVaux

Assuming you had all the time in the world to cross the ocean, would you drift, row, motor or sail? Your answer may shed light on your gardening style.

Drifters would just as soon take a hike in the intoxicating early days of springtime. Well, there’s nothing wrong with hiking, except maybe that special springtime mix of dog doo and mud paving the trail, and the occasional neon spandex. Meanwhile, many of the same forces that create that springtime walking experience occur in your own back yard.

The birds are back, the sun is strong, the air is fragrant, and the workout can be great - especially for the rower-types, who consistently choose the hard way, no matter what. Rowers will pick the stairs instead of the elevator, for exercise, endorphin rushes, endorphin addiction, guilt, fun, shame, whatever. In the garden, they’ll turn the earth by shovel, rather than power tiller. To those who shovel, I salute you. Digging is cheap, easy on our global fever, and with a shovel you can do anything, eventually.

Those who would motor across the ocean, meanwhile, tend not to mind burning fossil fuels in order to save time and labor, and they get off, from time to time, on the power that internal combustion can provide. The rototiller has a spinning row of steel tines that turns your soil to fluffy mush. And if you’re prepared to sweat a little, tilt sideways into the corners, pull the tiller backwards, and lean it forward, you can dig pretty deep. But please be careful. Those steel tines can tear your feet to pieces.

To those non-drifters who want to garden, but to whom choking on two-stroke exhaust or throwing your back out shoveling are not what you had in mind when you traded your hike for a hoe, you might consider sailing.

Unfurl a tarp or a piece of thick plastic, ideally black in color. Shake it out in the spring wind and let it flutter a moment like a picnic blanket, then lay it upon the ground like the tarp it is and let nature take its course.

The weed seeds, many of which have already germinated in spring’s moist warmth, are in for a surprise when they hit that wall of plastic, which on sunny days will bake those baby weeds in dry heat.

Meanwhile, established weeds that over-wintered from last year might have plans to expand their root systems and send up more green shoots, only to be thwarted by your tarp.

In fact, the tougher the project, the more effective is the sailor’s tarp. Take, for example, a well-established lawn. Say you wanted to turn that lawn into a tomato patch, which would be a fine idea. If you lay down your tarp, this week, with heavy objects around the edges to hold it down in the wind, the worms and bacteria should have your lawn digested, roots and all, by Memorial Day.

After four to six weeks, peek under the tarp to confirm that your departed sod, denied sun and water and baked dry, crumbles effortlessly into puffy worm poo.

If you tarp soon, you should have time to prepare a bed for not only tomatoes, but peppers, eggplants or any other late spring transplant, as well as a summer planting of fall crops like broccoli, radishes or greens.

Some crops, meanwhile, can be planted today, or soon, including carrots, spinach, peas and flowers. If you were a good sailor last fall, you put your garden to bed with a thick layer of mulch. Mulch is basically a biodegradable tarp, adding carbon and other soil amendments to your garden. Hardwood leaves, compost, and straw are all good choices.

After a well mulched winter, your dirt should be soft, moist, fertile, weed free, and generally ready for planting with nary more than a wink. If you were a bad sailor and didn’t put your garden to bed, you’ll have to grab your tool of choice – because for plants going in the ground now, it’s too late for mulch and tarps.

And while you’re at it, sailor, why not make the most of your digging by tossing each shovelful onto a soil screen, strategically set upon your wheelbarrow? (My rectangular screen has a frame made from two-by-fours, to which half-inch-square wire mesh is stapled). Shoveling dirt into a screen and then shaking it through is hard work, but after it’s done you’ll have smooth gardening for years to come in rich, plant-able pudding, where you’ll rarely see a stone larger than a nickel.

Ideally, you want to plant spinach in a spot where it will get full sun now, but shade in June, when it’s itching to bolt. One solution is to plant spinach in the pea patch. The peas will grow up and start shading the spinach just when the spinach needs it. Shade is one of my favorite garden products.

After you plant your peas, put up a trellis. Keep all your seeds well watered, hopefully with the help of a nice spring rain.

Whether you row, motor, drift or sail your way into summer, your time in the garden should be fun. Otherwise, you might as well take that hike or crawl back under your rock. But if you want to get your garden on, now is the time, and remember: the smoother you sail into spring, the more shade you’ll have made come summer. •

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