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Ready, Set, Grow

March is finally here. The good news is that Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow on February 2nd.  It means an early spring for all of us. Of course, the groundhog’s predictions have only been 30 percent right over the past ten years, but we gardeners will hang our hopes on anything this time of year.

With the spring crocus, daffodils, and early green sprouts starting to show, we want to get started on our gardens. Caution is important since cold weather and frosty conditions still are in the forecast. Early plantings often get a nice start only to be zapped by some ice and even March snows.

A better plan is to line up the research, testing, and put pencil to paper designing your spring and summer garden.  There are many steps you can take to get ready for when the spring warmth comes.

Garden 101 Research
Timing is everything. So, one of the first steps is consulting a Frost-Free Calendar, available online, and a good one is provided by the National Gardening Association, https://garden.org/apps/calendar/.  According to that guide, “ On average, the frost-free growing season starts Mar 29 and ends Nov 15, totaling 231 days.  Most plants can be planted around March 29th, but there are some that can tolerate the cold soil like onions and potatoes that can be planted as soon as the ground thaws.

In addition to giving guidance on when to plant, the guide provides dates for seeds to be sowed inside, so the seedlings will be ready to transplant into the garden.  For instance, broccoli, brussel sprouts, and tomato seeds can be planted indoor starting now. The seeds should germinate and turn into seedings over the month.  Getting a head start on some vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants is important since they require around 100 days to harvest.

In addition to checking the calendar, you may need to do some soil research. If you are

starting new or haven’t checked the nutrients in your soil in a while, March is a great time to get the test kit from your local nurseries, or to order a soil sample test from the University of the District of Columbia. This research is especially important if your previous season left you scratching your head as to why certain vegetables or flowers just didn’t produce.

Caitlin Dicara at Frager’s Garden Center picks basil seeds as one of her favorite seed packets and is looking forward to the starter plants arriving later this month. Frager’s Garden Center is located at 1123 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, two doors from the main store.

Here on Capitol Hill where soil has been subjected to all kinds of previous uses, it is an important health consideration to know that your plants aren’t growing in arsenic or mercury.  Lead, copper, and too much potassium can also be unhealthy and can transfer from the soil to your vegetables.  Home kits can detect some of these elements, but a professional test is more reliable.

DC’s Environmental Quality Testing (UDC) offers full services of environmental sampling and analysis in the DC metro area. There is a link on the website to submit your request for a quote, and the staff will help guide you through the process once the quote is accepted. Depending on the size of the project, the staff may even do field samples. For information contact, https://www.udc.edu/eqtl/.

Jump start the plantings
In addition to doing research, March is an excellent time to get the seed starting kits out and start to plant your vegetable garden indoors. There are so many ways to jump start the seeds.  Luckily three different garden centers in the Capitol Hill area have everything one needs to get started.

The movie version of long folding tables with naked light bulbs hanging from the ceiling in the dark basement really is an extreme example of seedling kits. There are plenty of small trays of seed cups and even in a small apartment you can always find room to get started.

Many gardeners use both seeds and starter kits. The seed packages are a great source of information about the vegetable and will guide you on how long a seed takes to germinate, and when to place outdoors.  It also guides you on the type of soil and sun requirements.  Starter plants usually don’t come with this kind of information.

A new kind of starter kit, and one that would work perfect for kids or gardeners short on space, is egg carton gardening. The product is called Grow, and its branding says, “grow happiness in small spaces.”  It retails for $15.99 and comes in three types, Salsa, Honeybee Habitat, and Herbs.  Gingko Garden staff say demonstration samples were very convincing that this approach works, so they were excited to add them to the store inventory.  In addition to buying the kit, there are many DIY YouTube videos on how to make your own from scratch.

Caitlin Dicara, in her second year at Frager’s Garden Center, is using her master’s degree in plant biology to help customers find the right plant for their homes.  “I think by mid-March we will be starting to get the early starter plants in,” says Caitlin, “but we are ready to get you started on your seeds now.”  In addition to the growing kits, Frager’s has a Greenhouse in a Box kit that provides LED light cords to help you get the right light and heat.  Caitlin also finds the Renee’s Garden Center, When to Plant Chart, a great resource to help gardeners on timing for planting.

Over at W.S. Jenks & Son Hardware and Garden Rooftop Center, there are many great bargains to kick off your gardening season. Many of the pots, soil, and other short-cut kits and tools are on the entry level store floor, so you don’t even have to climb to the rooftop. The rooftop garden center’s opening party, one that gardeners don’t want to miss, will be April 13th from 11 to 3 p.m. Another great garden starter is the tried-and-true seed tape, and Jenks has an entire display of the Velcro tapes available.

Lowes Garden Center is also full of plants, seeds, and many kinds of set ups for starting the seeds.  The Center has many different bags of soil to choose from depending on the type of vegetable or flower seeds you want to try.  The store carries a seed starting heat mat that holds a 10” by 20” seedling tray.  No need to worry about light bulbs, this tray keeps the roots warm, stimulating warmer soil conditions.

Lowes Garden Center located at 2438 Market Street, NE, near Costco has many different sizes of starter kits, as well as a wide variety of soil bags.

Now is the perfect time to sneak a trip into your favorite garden center, and pick out the seed packets, starter kits and other resources that will turn your garden into a vegetable jungle and flower paradise in just a few months.

Rindy O’Brien is more than ready for spring to come and see all the Hill gardens come alive. To contact Rindy, rindyobrien@gmail.com

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