It’s that time of year ... when you start to feel just a little antsy, it becomes harder to sit at your desk all day long and the new green of budding trees and blades of grass so easily lifts your spirits. With the melting of the snowpack and the arrival of longer, warmer spring days, many of us spirited gardeners are yearning to get our hands into the dirt. But as longtime valley denizens know, sometimes you have to wait ... just a little bit longer. That doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the beautiful Colorado sunshine and start preparing for summertime bliss.
Spring gardener’s checklist
Here are a few ideas from Better Homes and Gardens to get you excited for spring gardening:
• Check for new growth, lift those spring spirits!
• Prep your beds — remove winter mulch and check your soil (read on).
• Prune the trees.
• Basic maintenance — repair the deck, check your stonework.
• Start your seeds.
• Plant some hardy spring veggies — some root vegetables and lettuces do well in cold weather.
• Divide your perennials and share with friends.
• Build new flower beds.
• Put your bird feeders away for the season.
It’s all in the soil
Many savvy gardeners start in spring by working the soil. A note of caution, however — preparing your plant beds too soon is a mistake! When the earth is still densely moist from melting snow or April showers, it can easily get compacted. And plant roots like well tilled, airy soil. You may not be surprised to learn that there is an age-old gardener’s test for soil readiness: One, pick up a handful of soil and compress it into a ball. Two, drop the ball to the ground from about 3 feet high. Three, if the soil ball keeps its shape or breaks with difficulty into solid sections, then it is still too wet. Soil that is ready to work should shatter in your palm with your fingers or easily break apart when it hits the ground. Digging into the earth too soon can compromise your soil for an entire season!
The nitrogen cycle
Once Mother Nature has given you a green light to work the earth and you are satisfied with the texture and drainage of your soil, it is time to start thinking about nutrients. There is actually quite a complex exchange going on right under your nose. Fertile soil requires nitrogen to aid in successful plant growth. Nitrogen can be supplied from several sources: the atmosphere, commercial fertilizers, soil organic matter, crop residues or animal manures.
While we have nitrogen in our atmosphere and you might think that this provides the easiest accessibility, N2 must be processed through what is referred to as the “nitrogen cycle” in order for plants to take advantage. Plants are unable to use atmospheric nitrogen directly because they do not have the necessary enzyme to convert it into a form they can use to make proteins. Below you will find a quick, simple overview of the cycle steps. This is interesting stuff! If we’ve peaked your interest, then Google “the nitrogen cycle” to learn even more.
First, atmospheric nitrogen must go through a “fixation” process. Soil bacteria called rhizobia (found only in the plant roots of legumes) assist in this biological process to turn atmospheric nitrogen into the ammonia (NH3) that plants use in protein synthesis. This symbiotic relationship provides that bacteria with carbon from the plant and a safe environment to call home.
Fixation leads to the next steps of the cycle — “ammonification” and “nitrification,” which lead to the creation of ammonium and nitrates as described above.
Finally, these converted nitrates are ready to be used by the plant to make proteins and thus the final step — “assimilation.”
This seems like a whole lot of complex biology, but really it boils down to a simple idea. You might recall that I mentioned this natural process of breaking down nitrogen only occurs through the roots of legumes. Therefore, by rotating plants in the legume family (beans and peas grow well in our mountain environs!) throughout your garden beds year after year, you tap into an environmentally friendly way to provide essential nutrients to all your plants. You can of course also use commercial fertilizer, but why not go the non-chemical route and enjoy some legumes at the same time?
Now that you have the facts, it’s time to get down and dirty. Get out there, drop your dirt balls and see what Mother Nature has to say about starting your gardens. Happy spring!
Kristen Belschner is the marketing manager at Walking Mountains Science Center. She is excitedly awaiting “safe date” June 1 to make the annual trip to a local garden center for summer flowers.