Planting spinach consumes lots of time

Posted April 30, 2010, at 6:04 p.m.

Early on a late April morning with the air warming and bumblebee queens buzzing about in a frantic search for new digs, I head for the garden with a packet of spinach seed in one pocket and a super-size red permanent marker, the one I use to make garden labels from old cedar shakes, in the other.

The path to the vegetable garden is strewn with raspberry canes, a once neat pile of prunings dispersed by wind and dogs. I find the wheelbarrow under the porch and a rake in the basement and soon the path is clear. On to the garden, the spinach!

Dandelions are growing everywhere, blooming in the garden’s paths and in the beds where they have reached mammoth proportions usurping nutrients intended for spinach. This cannot wait, and I return to the basement for the dandelion puller, a long fork-tipped instrument that reaches deep into the soil to pry the weed from the ground, root and all, with a satisfying popping sound.

While wrenching dandelions I think about this word, “weed,” about how I value dandelions as an early source of nectar and pollen for native bees, but in the spinach bed they are a plant out of place. Thousands bloom in the drainfield and we delay mowing until they have finished flowering, a gift to the bees, and so we will always be popping them out of the garden beds.

Deferring to a fat bumblebee queen, her head buried among the tiny yellow flowers of a dandelion flower, I soon have a respectable pile of withering foliage and thick tuberous roots. Again the wheelbarrow, off to the brush pile — dandelions seem to thrive in the compost pile — and then back to the spinach.

The sun is higher in the sky, the air warmer. At least an hour has passed since first heading for the spinach bed, perhaps an hour and a half – I never wear a watch in the garden.

I’m screening some of the oldest compost to add to the spinach bed, thinking I might as well get enough for the potato bed while I’m at it, when Marjorie joins me in the garden, focusing her attention on a perennial bed that over the last few years has become more of a small fruit and flowering shrub garden.

“Is there some of that compost to spare?” she asked, wanting to mulch the highbush blueberries and a peach tree.

I screen more compost as the discussion shifts to a winterberry holly that we planted several years ago at the edge of the vegetable garden, before the deer fence went up and before the nearby firs grew tall, making its corner of the garden too shady for any vegetable crop. Two other hollies that we planted in the perennial bed have flourished, but this forlorn shrub, trapped in a dark corner, needs help. We decide to move it to the perennial bed with the others, immediately, before it leafs out.

To make room for the holly, we have to move some of the perennials and so begin digging and dividing clumps of artemisia, nepeta, and a hybrid iris, replanting, watering, mulching with the screened compost, then lifting and transplanting the holly to its new home. The sun rises higher in the sky and the large red marker in my pocket digs at the side of my leg, reminding me of the spinach seed in the other pocket.

Digging and dividing the iris results in a surplus of plants, more than the garden can hold, and we decide to contribute the extras to an upcoming plant sale at Marjorie’s office, and that means potting them up, or at least heeling them in. I do the latter, using more of the compost, and then it feels like noon, or past noon, and still no spinach seed in the ground and my stomach tells me that the morning’s oatmeal is long gone.

Finally to the spinach bed, tracing two long rows in the soil with the tip of a rake handle and then deepening the rows by hand, carefully spacing seeds in each row and covering them with screened compost, firmly tamping down the soil, watering well with a gentle spray, covering with a light mulch of fresh straw. Back in the house for lunch, the wall clock says 10 after two.

I empty my pockets and the red marker reminds me, I still need to make a label for the spinach.

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