News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Making the most of the cold garden

Linn County Master Gardener

This Spring is predicted to be colder than average, with the last frost in the lower levels of the Canyon to occur early in April, earlier than usual. The trend toward cooler temperatures after some sunny weeks has been referred to as “Reverse Spring”. Memory of snow during Spring Break decades past makes this year’s March snow prediction believable. Gardeners are itching to get started with the growing season, but it could be fatal to tender plants to start too early.

There is activity we cannot see below the frozen and snow-covered ground. Native and “wild” plants often need cold and wet weather to trigger their DNA-driven cycles. 

Many of the seeds dropped by trees, shrubs and wildflowers require a period of cold and wet conditions to prepare them for sprouting. Some have hard shells or protective coatings on the seeds that are breaking down now so warmer rains can penetrate to the seed germ and stimulate the dormant hormones that wake them to life. 

Root systems are interacting with microbes and reaching out for nutrients that will soon be pumped up to leaf and flower buds. 

Periods of thawing in late winter are a good time to build up organic mulches like leaves and compost so the rain will wash the nutrients into the root zone. Organic fertilizers applied a month before planting and growth time will provide food for the microbes that feed the plant roots. 

The brainless worms are smart enough to take a deep-dive to more hospitable soil. Sometimes we see them wiggling in puddles where they have surfaced, but most of them are down where it is warmer and less wet. 

Walking on wet soil will compact it, making it less appealing to worms and microbes, squeezing out the air and water plants need to grow. Walking on designated pathways to compact soil might make the weeds work harder to sprout there. Lightly fluffing surface soil in growing areas and adding organic material will encourage seed growth when warmth and moisture conditions signal the seed hormones to activate.

We can get a head start on Spring by sprouting some seeds indoors. Extra lighting will probably be required, along with daily check on soil moisture indoors. Keeping the house warm also dries out soil on seedlings and houseplants. Most seeds will sprout successfully at temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees, a range that people enjoy also.  

Some seeds have hard coatings that may need to be penetrated for the water to enter, by sanding, shaving or nicking. Sometimes soaking overnight will make a hard seed respond better to planting in warm, wet soil. 

Many flower seeds that require cold and wet will start better if they are put in a (labelled) baggie with damp soil or a wet coffee filter, then stored in the refrigerator for a month or more before sprouting. These are the ones that say on the package “plant as soon as soil can be worked” or “plant in the fall for Sprng/Summer flowers”. We can provide a controlled winter in our kitchens. When the seedlings get their second set of true leaves, but weather does not allow planting outdoors, give them a feeding of ¼ strength fertilizer and consider planting them into larger containers so their roots can grow until transplanting time.

The hardy vegetables planted last fall are thriving. Leaf lettuce, beets, carrots, spinach, arugula, cilantro, broccoli, kale are all producing in the winter garden, albeit slowly. The broccoli heads harvested in the Santiam Community Garden have been small but tasty this month. The beet greens and other leafy veg make crispy, flavorful additions to winter salads…without going to the grocery store.

There are many resources available from OSU Extension Service that give us information for better gardening. Check out on your computer or smatphone. Explore the various links to articles, catalog of publications, to-do calendars, videos, 1-hour zoom classes, Master Gardener websites and Facebook pages, and more. Learning is a great activity for days we prefer not to go outside.

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