The ground has started to become visible now, but its so ugly that I don’t think I’d mind if it were covered by fresh snow. Mud + ice + smashed down grass = the beginning of mud season, which of course = early spring. We are finally emerging from a very cold winter in the Catskills, with only a sprinkling of warm days between seriously cold ones. It seems our already-short spring planting season will have to be squeezed into an even tighter window this year, with summer immediately on its heels. I admit I get antsy to get digging as soon as I see the muddy ground emerge from beneath the blanket of snow and ice. You too, perhaps? Hold that fork (or roto tiller)! Our efforts will be in vain until we have enough consecutive warm days to thaw out the ground beneath the 2 inches of mud we can see on the surface. If you attempt tilling or turning while the ground is wet and muddy, you’ll end up with hard dried clumps of soil later on, which are very tough to break up.
To help visualize what’s going on beneath the surface, I drew up this handy cross section. Most garden vegetables and flowering perennials utilize the layer beneath the 2″ of sod, meaning its best to wait until that warms up enough before planting. So, what to do if you must get that early spinach in the ground? You could warm up a section of a prepared bed by placing a cold frame made of old windows over it, or you could make a row of low hoops covered with thick plastic. Both of these will accelerate the warming of the soil within the mini greenhouse, so you can get planting earlier. I recommend this season extension method from mid-March to late-April, and again in late September-early November, only for cold hardy vegetables like spinach, winter lettuce, arugula, baby kale or mustard greens, since once they are up, they can stand a bit of cold. Its best to let it sit in place for at least a week to warm up the soil underneath, then remove the cover to fork over or shallow till the soil, replacing it after you plant. To make sure its warm enough under there before you plant, you could purchase an inexpensive soil thermometer, which will tell you if the upper 6″ of soil is above 40 degrees, and therefore OK to plant. After your seeds sprout, you may have to crack open the lid on sunny days to let in some cool air, otherwise you could possibly fry your greens on accident! As we have more and more warm days, you can use your soil thermometer to test the soil outside your makeshift cold frame, and occasionally stick a garden fork in the ground to see if its loosed up. If you can push the fork tines all the way in without hitting frozen ground, its safe to turn your beds over and plant another round of greens, or other cold tolerant veggie crops. Have you tried cold frames before? How were the results?