The month of May is when the garden finally starts to look like a garden. The seeds I sowed two to four weeks before the last frost date have finally sprouted and the transplants of lettuce and kale that have stayed the same size for the past two months are growing like they actually want to live. Yes, mid-spring is a glorious time and if you’re new to gardening, it’s probably the first point in the growing season where you feel like this gardening thing isn’t so hard after all.
I urge you to embrace this moment of fleeting bliss.
After mid-spring comes what I like to call “pledge” month for gardeners. It runs from late May to late June and is usually set in motion by the transition between spring and summer weather, but it can definitely start much earlier than that with other aggravating challenges.
While Mother Nature’s hazing process is not for the faint of heart, it will be your official initiation into the 10,000-year-old tradition of crop cultivation and your goal will be to outlast the impact of the complete and utter devastation that will inevitably occur. It’s really not that bad, but what makes the hazing so brutal for new gardeners is that it can end up being a lot of chaos to keep up with in a short amount of time.
The whole ritual is more or less a gradual breakdown of the new gardener’s psyche, typically starting with slugs. They turn up first to decimate small seedlings, particularly tender greens like lettuce and broccoli (cole crops in general are their favorite). Month-old transplants of these crops generally have a better survival rate early on as they’re able to withstand the stress of a slimy diner. Beer traps with an extra malty brew are a good way to give slugs an enjoyable exit from the garden. But as the season warms up, they will generally slink back into the cooler, shady areas of the garden, and not cause much damage again until fall.
If you make it through slugs, the next visitor arriving closer to late spring is another cole crop connoisseur, the cabbage moth. Delicate, pearly white little beauties, fluttering whimsically around on warm sunny days, they lay their eggs on the underside of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bok choy and kale leaves, and the larvae decimate plants. Prevention is inspecting every plant every day for eggs, which look like little green pills, and you can just pop them. Interplanting cole crops with fragrant herbs and flowers that throw the cabbage moth off their scent is also a good solution.
The final hurdle of hazing is bolting. Bolting is when environmental stressors trigger crops to start their reproductive cycle. This is when plants begin to put their energy into developing a flower, which means all the parts we enjoy eating become rather unpalatable. Sudden fluctuations in temperatures during the transition from spring to summer are often the culprit.
You can tell when lettuce, spinach, radishes, beets and carrots are bolting when the middle stalk begins to get tall. For crops like broccoli and cauliflower, the tightly formed head we’re familiar with seeing at the grocery store will unravel into various stems of yellow flowers.
Bolting is definitely one of the more defeating problems because it makes your two or three months of hard work essentially useless. Bolting can sometimes be prevented with adequate watering, using a shade cloth, or planting locally adapted seeds, but sometimes it sneaks up and there’s no way to get in front of it, so as soon as you see your plants begin to bolt, scrap ’em. They’re better as additions to the compost heap at that point.
Luckily, though, once you get over this chaotic hump (you can do it!), mid-season from late June into early July will be a much better time to directly sow most of the “early” season drama queens (except for spinach and bok choy, which legitimately hate hot weather, so you’ll have to wait until around late August to plant them again).
This strategy results in much better germination and overall faster growing plants (big perk for short attention spans) since conditions are just right as soon as the seeds hit the soil. All you have to do is remember to water (consistent moisture is key to germination). There’s still a chance bolting can occur, but with temperatures remaining relatively stable throughout the summer (save for a heat wave), not every plant will do it at the same time.
Deer, rabbits, moles, aphids, mildew and disease are other challenges mother nature can throw in there to test your resiliency. But fences, good air flow, nutritious soil and a diverse garden (a healthy mix of veggies, herbs and flowers) are good ways to show her you mean to see the task of cultivation through. Though, if in the end you find the experience more than humbling, there’s no shame in throwing in the trowel and thanking a farmer.
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