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Horticulturist: Warm weather doesn’t mean plant early, but work your soil

Posted March 17, 2012, at 7:02 p.m.

BOOTHBAY, Maine — Yeah, it sure is warm for March in Maine, but that’s no reason for gardeners to get too excited about planting — yet. Instead, it’s a perfect opportunity for the most important aspect of horticulture: working your soil.

That’s the advice of Brendan McQuillen of the Morning Dew Farm in Newcastle, who on Saturday presented the first of a season-long gardening series being hosted by the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay.

“When it warms up, we all think, let’s jump right out there,” McQuillen said. “This is a good opportunity to invest some time into your soil. This year we have a unique opportunity to get a little more organized before planting.”

Whether it’s going out and giving the soil in your growing beds a turn, carefully mapping out your growth scheme or having a load of compost hauled in, it will all pay off with better produce.

On farms such as McQuillen’s, which supports a community-supported agriculture operation and sales at farmers markets, there is good reason to try to cheat the cold by a few weeks with the use of greenhouses and frost-defeating barriers of hay, leaves and plastic. For the average hobby gardener, though, those investments might not be worth it.

“Typically with these early plantings, I’ve found that the ones you plant two or three weeks later always catch up,” McQuillen said.

Botanist Melissa Cullina, who is the Coast Maine Botanical Gardens’ director of education, said the “Growing Your Own Food: Beyond the Basics” series is a follow-up to a set of workshops last year that she said served as a gardening primer. Workshops planned for this year will include kitchen garden design, cultivating and preparing edible flowers, growing shiitake mushrooms, selecting heirloom varieties and saving seeds.

The botanical gardens, which was founded in 1995 on the grounds of a proposed housing development that went bankrupt, has been in steady growth ever since, said Barbara Freeman, a spokeswoman for the organization. Aside from the “Beyond the Basics” workshops, the organization hosts a number of other educational programs and is open for visitors year-round. The 2012 theme is “Feathers and Foliage: Celebrating Bird and Plant Interactions in Maine.”

Programs are typically wide-ranging and interactive, as was the case Saturday with McQuillen. His tips included ways to avoid weeds or use them to your advantage, which plants can co-exist with which other ones and to purchase seeds from trusted sources. For Anne North of Boothbay, who has maintained her own plots for years, learning about gardening will have to suffice for actually gardening — at least for now.

“I’ve got the urge to get my hands dirty,” she said. “I can’t wait to get out there.”

Cynthia Davis of Wiscasset said she also has a long gardening history and is taking the class to learn about new techniques and plant varieties, not to mention brushing up on her own experience.

“Sometimes you get into your own rut and forget the simple things,” she said.

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