Eugene Weekly : Gardening : 2.11.10


Head Start 
Taking a chance with peas
By Rachel Foster

I’m fond of saying that gardening in January is optional. Do it if you feel like it, and if you don’t, there is not much harm done. By February, on the other hand, it’s time to get busy. I like to get a head start on weeding by the middle of the month. I also cut down the brown tops of ornamental grasses, perennials and summer-blooming clematis and tackle a few shrubs that are routinely pruned to stubs in winter, such as red twig dogwoods and summer-flowering spiraea. I leave more tender items until spring is well under way. Especially if it is gray or silver or has aromatic leaves, severe pruning now may discourage it! 

Tom and Victoria Schneider’s raised bed garden

February is also a good time to plant bare-root roses, fruit trees and bush fruits. Any woody plant you get in the soil now will benefit from months of root growth in a moist and warming soil. But the condition of your soil, its workability, will really determine how much you can get done this month. Some parts of my new yard are workable after one or two days without rain. Other areas, including some that were in perfect tilth last summer, are saturated with running water and turn to mud when disturbed. Then there are areas of nearly unadulterated clay that will need serious remedial action before they can be worked at all. Only the raised beds in the food garden are completely tractable. 

Kale and sprouting broccoli starts I planted late last fall have displayed a little growth spurt in every spell of milder weather, and corn salad seeded in about the same time has grown to the size of a quarter. Clearly these beds will warm up faster than any soil at grade. This raises the question: How early is it worth seeding cool-weather crops like peas and radishes? Nick Routledge, caretaker for FOOD for Lane County Youth Farm and erstwhile nurseryman for the Springfield Transitions Garden, takes a serious interest in extending the gardening season. He points out that Asian greens, mustards and arugula are all strong germinators in cool soils.

Routledge warned that February is the month when inexperienced gardeners tend to seed too early. Hold off on seeding those warmer season crops until March or April. But If a warm spell in February or early March makes you feel like sowing pea seeds directly in the soil, he said, “Do it! You might not get another window for two or three months.” As far as peas go, he added, “When I am pushing the envelope, I not only seed directly in the ground when weather and ground allow but also earlier, into cells in the greenhouse. That way we get a jump on the season even if the ground is too cold or wet to seed directly and/or slug pressure in the garden is too intense.” Peas hate bottom heat, according to Routledge, and will germinate just fine in an unheated space. 

Here’s the risk you run with early direct seeding: If the weather turns seriously wet and chilly, seeds may rot in the ground before they germinate, good drainage not withstanding. A cloche or cold frame will raise the odds in your favor, both by protecting the soil in a raised bed from excess rain and by trapping some extra warmth. I’m trying the low-cost solution I photographed in Tom and Victoria Schneider’s garden. Plastic, Reemay or shade cloth, depending on seasonal micro-climate needs, is attached with clothes pegs to hoops made of welded wire fencing. The ends are usually left open but can be covered for extra protection during cold spells. Hoops need to be secured against the wind in winter. The Schneiders tie theirs to stakes set firmly in the ground around the raised bed. The hoops hang flat on a nearby garden fence when not in use. 

There will be a free Spring Seeding and Greenhouse Management Workshop at the Youth Farm (705 Flamingo, Springfield) from 10 am to noon Saturday, Feb. 13. This is an opportunity to meet gardeners and farmers with a great deal of experience to share. For example, here’s more from Routledge: “Some seeds require higher temperatures to germinate than plants need to grow. Most don’t need light to germinate, so stack seed trays next to your woodstove, and move them outside once the seedlings are up.”

Rachel Foster of Eugene is a writer and garden consultant. She can be reached at