Planting Dates

A few weeks ago I wrote of the earliness of the season, as evidenced by one of the earliest of the early bloomers, witchhazel. It was already in bloom at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, and the large bush at the front corner of my house has also since come into bloom. A reader, writing from  where temperatures are colder than in my garden, wrote to tell me that he has a witchhazel that started blooming in January! I don’t doubt it.

Witchhazel can mean any one of a few species: Japanese witchhazel (Hamamelis japonica), Chinese witchhazel (H. mollis), vernal witchhazel (H. vernalis), and H. X intermedia, the last of which includes hybrids of the Japanese and Chinese species. Depending on site, species, and variety, the strappy petals might unfold sometime from late fall right into spring. The reader’s plant, the variety, Jelena, at his site probably bloomed earlier than usual this winter. I grow the variety Arnold’s Promise.

Quoting Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of” . . . planting, of course. This guy’s thoughts, at least. And especially this year, with spring sprung so early, for now at least. March is a capricious month, with a winter reminder of snow not an impossibility before the month is out.

It was over a week ago that I was visiting Guy Jones’ nearby Blooming Hill Farm and he innocently mentioned to me that he had already sown some lettuce, spinach, and other hardy greens in his fields. Already they were sprouting.

I usually plant by the calendar, with early April being my greens-sowing date. The 70 degree, sunny weather the day after my visit with Guy got the better of me. Out came packets of seeds, a trowel, and a garden rake. I carved four parallel, approximately equally spaced furrows down each of two beds, and into them sprinkled Buttercrunch, Black Seeded Simpson, and Majestic Red lettuce, arugula, and Joy Chen baby bok choy. Covered with soil then firmed with the garden rake, the seeds have all they need to begin sprouting and growing. 
Continued warmth and some water will make things happen. 

I roll my eyes whenever someone tells me that the time to plant peas is on St. Patrick’s Day. Put simply, a gardener in Austin, Minnesota might need a pickaxe with which to plant peas on St. Patrick’s Day while a gardener Sarasota, Florida would need a time machine. Fall would have been the time for planting for the Floridian.

Peas enjoy — no, need — cool weather to thrive, which is one reason for planting them early. You want them up, bearing, and then cleared away before hot weather sets in. Heat is not a concern in very northern or coastal regions where summers never get very hot; in such places, peas can even be sown in summer for an autumn harvest.

But back to St. Patrick’s day: That partial myth probably got started because St. Patty’s is the perfect time for planting peas in Ireland. Except far enough south where peas are seeded in autumn for a winter harvest, the correct time to plant peas is when the ground has warmed enough so that the seeds sprout, rather than rot, when they hit the dirt. Pea seeds sprout at about 40 degrees F so if you really want to know when to plant them, stick a thermometer in the ground and wait for that temperature.

  Another way to know when to plant peas is by looking around at what’s blooming. Perennial woody and herbaceous plants are cued into seasonal temperature trends. I used to use forsythia bloom time as my prompt to sow peas but realized for the past few years that those blooms open at about the last, rather than the first, date for pea planting. Just about everybody grows crocus and this little flower is up and out of the ground, and spreading its pretty petals, about when the soil temperature hits that 40 degree mark.

Usually I just play the averages and plant peas on April 1st. But the climate has been a-changin’. I see that my crocuses are up. Hmmm. Just to make sure, I took the temperature of the soil and it’s almost 50 degrees F.  Breaking tradition (mine), I planted peas today. This year, peas on St. Patrick’s Day is the right time for pea planting both here and in Ireland.
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