Gardener’s Notebook

Spring Planting Tips

The days are warming, and soon the soil will begin to dry out after the ongoing deluge of this very wet winter. Here are some tips to help you get great productivity from your spring plantings and set things up for an abundant summer season.

Start by cultivating your space. As you remove old growth and weeds, you aerate the soil. Amend it with worm castings and then rake it back into level ground to create an evenly water-able planting zone. Here’s more on tending your soil.

Now is the best time for vibrant growth. As daylight hours continue to lengthen toward the solstice on June 20, you can align with the season by growing an abundant crop of spring greens like miner’s lettuce, butter lettuce, celery, parsley, bok choy, and arugula.

Plan for sun and shade. While planning where to plant, think about how the shade shifts through the season and through the day. The sun’s heat and intensity increase as we approach summer and are also greater in the afternoon, so plant your leafy greens to give them the benefit of afternoon shade.

Beans on the Edge. Beans and peas not only provide healthy fresh pods to eat, they also feed the soil from their nitrogen-fixing root nodules. By growing beans as a cover crop on fallow beds, you protect the soil and also get a spring crop of beans to eat. If you don’t have the energy or time to farm intensively, beans can be a good option. Just plant them six inches apart and give them a trellis or pole to climb up on. I plant sugar snaps and snow peas around the edges of the garden beds. Good choices are sugar snap peas, scarlet runner beans, and Italian pole beans.

Grow Up! Building a vertical lattice on the northern edge of your garden space maximizes solar reception to the bed and creates a windbreak. To maximize solar reception in the space, design so that the tallest crops (i.e. corn, sunflower, Jerusalem artichokes, scarlet runner beans) are to the north and short herbs and ground covers are at the southern edge of each garden bed. In small spaces, growing vertically greatly increases productivity.

Cucumbers in the Margins. Chances are you have small margins of bare soil around the edges of your raised beds as well as in the understory. I recommend that you plant cucumber and squash there and allow them to trail over the sides and spread into the gaps between garden boxes. In our community garden we have a thick mulch down in all the pathways. Rooted only in a small corner of the raised beds, the cucumbers love reaching out over this mulch. One of my favorite cucumbers is the Marketmore. Learn more here.

Snatch Crops in the Understory. While our main production crops like tomatoes take months to mature, some “snatch crops” are much quicker. I like to plant radish and turnips underneath and around larger crops such as corn and tomatoes. These root crops will tolerate the light shade of the understory. In hot growing climates, the shade creates a cooler-season environment for the root crops. Learn more here.

Tomatoes Thrive with Deep Roots. Plant tomatoes soon so they will have time to put down deep roots and grow tall in the spring sun. Here’s a tip: Cut off the lower two or three branches and plant the tomato deeper into the soil than you would think. The plants have the ability to turn these buried branch nodes into roots quite quickly. Learn more on planting here. One of my favorite tomatoes to grow is a prolific Czech variety called Stupice. For foggy coastal zones, I prefer to grow cherry tomatoes.

Companions for your Tomatoes. Your tomato plants will love growing with these companions: basil (aromatics enhance tomato flavor), marigold (pollinator plant will attract the good bugs), peppers (enhance flavor compounds), and beans and peas along edges (to fix nitrogen). Learn more about garden allies here.

A regular contributor to Edible East Bay, Joshua Burman Thayer is a Bay Area permaculture designer and educator.

Photos by Carole Topalian