By Heather Dooley and Pat Hitchcock, UC Master Gardeners of Napa County
The recent rain and cool weather have given us plenty of time to pore over all those seed catalogs looking for a new vegetable variety to try or reordering seeds for our favorites. It's time to start planning your summer vegetable garden (although it's not planting time yet).
Fortunately, we live in an area with a Mediterranean climate, characterized by long, dry summers and mild, rainy winters. As a result, we have two cool seasons annually for gardening, one in late summer and early fall and the other in early spring. Our warm season typically starts in late April when the soil is warm enough to plant tomatoes. Now is the time to start planning for that warm season.
You can start your own warm-season vegetables now in pots. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are easily started from seed indoors. These vegetables require warmth to germinate so it's a good practice to put seed-starting trays on a heat mat.
All seeds need the correct temperature and moisture to germinate. But after they sprout, light becomes all important. Put baby seedlings in a sunny spot by a window or, if using a grow light, keep the light about 1 inch above the leaves to prevent spindly, weak plants.
If your seedlings do get leggy or aren't dark green, they need more light. Keep soil moist but not soggy and use a half-strength liquid fertilizer once a week. In about six weeks they will be ready to plant outside.
Be sure the area where you intend to plant your seedlings gets enough sun. Six to eight hours is the minimum for most vegetables.
Do you have a plan for irrigation? And have you examined your soil? Is it nice and crumbly, like a piece of chocolate cake? Or is it waterlogged clay? Clay soil holds micronutrients but typically needs to be amended with compost to lighten it, so it has air pockets for the nutrients to cycle.
Have you been adding organic matter to feed the soil microbes? Soil is alive. It has both macroscopic organisms (the ones we can see), such as earthworms, aerating the soil and decomposing organic matter and also microscopic organisms such as bacteria and fungi.
Mycorrhizae are fungi that live in association with the roots of plants. These fungi collect nutrients for the plants in exchange for carbohydrates. It's a wonderful example of life forms helping each other. There's a whole conversation going on underground in healthy soil.
Don't neglect weeds. Most soils have a large amount of weed seed just waiting for the right conditions. Weeds compete with your vegetables for water and nutrients. Controlling them is a constant part of gardening but can be managed by depriving the weeds of water and light. Mulch your beds to exclude light, water only where necessary for your vegetables and disturb the soil as little as possible to avoid bringing up a new crop.
Plant healthy transplants at the right time to encourage growth and to out-compete weeds. Chemical weed controls are not recommended in a vegetable garden and not needed in most situations.
Now that you have a sunny spot with great soil, access to water and no weeds, what do you want to grow? Ask yourself why you are gardening. Is it for flavor, to save money, to harvest organic produce or to have access to unusual produce varieties?
It's tempting to want to grow everything, but properly spaced plants will be healthier and more productive than plants spaced too closely. Make a planting plan on paper. Think about the size of the vegetable when full-grown and how long it will be in the ground. An indeterminate tomato plant will eventually need almost nine square feet of growing ground and will need to be supported with a strong five-foot-tall cage. Can you stagger plantings for a longer harvest season?
It is better to grow fewer plants well than to have a large vegetable garden that you can't take care of. Gardening is work and therapy, and you get tomatoes, too.
See complete list of upcoming events on our website calendar http://napamg.ucanr.edu
Free Talk, 1 hour: “Growing Summer Vegetables” at the Napa Public Library on Thursday, March 7, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Learn what you can grow in the summer, what to plant and when, and how to have a harvest all summer long. No registration required.
Workshop, 2 hours: “Growing Spring and Summer Vegetables” on Saturday, March 9, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at the University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Do you want nutritious, easy-to grow and utterly fresh food from your garden this spring and summer? Learn what the garden needs to successfully produce spring and summer vegetables from seeds and plant starts. In addition to growing basics and hands-on activities, this program includes watering, fertilizing and harvesting tips, with a dash of Integrated Pest Management for pest and disease control. The delight of growing your own groceries is matched only by savoring them at harvest. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
Workshop, 2 hours: “Summer Vegetables” on Sunday, March 10, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., at Yountville Community Center, 6516 Washington Street, Yountville. Get tips for growing your own summer vegetables. Learn some basics, get keys to success, and do hands-on activities to learn about new varieties and review old favorites. Enjoy healthy vegetables taken straight from your garden to your table. The delight of growing your own vegetables is matched by savoring them at harvest. Online registration or telephone the Parks & Recreation Department at 707-944-8712.
Demonstration garden update: UC Master Gardeners of Napa County have begun the process of re-establishing a demonstration garden in Napa Valley. For further developments, please visit the Demonstration Garden link on our website ( http://napamg.ucanr.edu/).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the home gardening public with research based gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County (http:/napamg.ucanr.edu) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site, Click on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County./span>