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In the Garden: Not time to plant, but it is time to plan

This is the time of year that tries a gardener’s patience. (SUSAN MULVIHILL/SPECIAL TO THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
This is the time of year that tries a gardener’s patience. (SUSAN MULVIHILL/SPECIAL TO THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

It feels like the winter months are moving at a glacial pace. While all of us are anxious to head out to the garden and get down to business, there are a few pre-season considerations worth discussing.

The Inland Northwest is primarily in USDA hardiness zones 5 and 6. We have about 120 frost-free days ranging from mid-May to mid-September. This varies from year to year but provides a rough guideline of when it should be safe to plant warm-season crops such as tomatoes, beans, peppers and squash in the garden.

Vegetables need a minimum of six hours of sunlight daily to be productive. Leafy crops such as lettuce, beets, spinach, Swiss chard and kale will tolerate some shade, making them good options for gardens that receive less light.

One way to squeeze a bit more sunlight out of your garden is to consider growing some crops vertically on arbors, trellises and tall stakes. This allows vegetables to grow up toward the sun. Many gardeners do this with peas and pole beans, but you can grow cucumbers, small melons, vining types of summer squash, and small winter squash vertically as well.

To get a jump on things in the spring, consider using floating row cover. When placed over a garden bed on hoops, this lightweight woven fabric provides a few degrees of frost protection. I always cover my most tender seedlings under floating row cover for the first two or three weeks to get them off to an optimal start. The cover must be removed before any fruit-producing crops begin to flower so pollinators can get to them.

Floating row cover can also be used as a physical barrier to keep damaging insects away from certain plants. In this region, that applies to cabbage worms and aphids – which favor cabbage family crops – and leaf miners, which damage the leaves of beets, spinach and Swiss chard. Since none of these crops needs to be pollinated, the cover can stay in place for the entire season.

Whether you are planning to start your plants from seed or purchase seedlings from a garden center, it’s very important to lay out your garden on paper first in order to rotate your crops.

Crop rotation is simple if you keep a record of your garden layout from the previous two or three years and plant your crops in different areas. This makes it possible to thwart – or at least minimize – insect and disease problems. It also helps with soil fertility. Here’s why:

Each family of vegetable crops is susceptible to specific diseases and damaging insects. This especially applies to plants in the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants and tomatillos). If there are disease pathogens in the soil where you previously grew them, or insects unique to them overwintering in the soil, you’re avoiding those problems by planting them elsewhere.

In addition, each family of vegetable crops uses different amounts of nutrients within the soil. Instead of planting them in the same location year after year, change your crop locations and amend your soil annually with organic compost. This will make your garden fertile and productive.

How do you know which crops are in each plant family? Refer to the list on my website (susansinthegarden.com) under the “guides” menu. That should make planning a breeze.

Learn more about preparing to garden in this week’s “Everyone Can Grow A Garden” video, which you can find on my YouTube channel, youtube.com/c/susansinthegarden.

Susan Mulvihill is co-author, with Pat Munts, of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook.” Contact her at Susan@susansinthegarden.com.


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