By JOSE GERMAN-GOMEZ
For Montclair Local
Every season has its own enchantment, but spring is a special time, when our natural universe awakens after a long sleep to create life anew. For many, spring is the most beautiful time of the year.
Tired of being isolated in our homes, we want to breathe the fresh air of spring and experience the liberation of being outside. This year, the colors and the fragrances of the season are just what we need to heal us from the trauma of the past year.
Spring also means a new beginning, with hope for better times and ample opportunity to appreciate nature. We anticipate seeing flowers blooming and butterflies fluttering around us. We want to feel that we are alive again.
Early spring is a very active time for birds as they sing, claim territories, find mates, build nests and forage for food; have a seat, be quiet, watch and listen. You may be surprised by the diversity of birds in Montclair. You can make your bird watching more formal by creating a bird journal with your kids where they register each day’s sightings.
Pay attention as well to the reappearance of perennial plants and the blooming of sequence-flowering plants, shrubs and trees. Watch for the emergence of pollinating insects as they resume their essential environmental work. Look for the first fruits of the season in bushes and trees. Take pictures during this transformational process and notice the unfolding wonders of Mother Nature as the season progresses.
Bulbs will be in full bloom soon. Crocuses are up already, and some daffodils are peeking out and will bloom within days, but there is nothing to do with them now since they must be planted in the fall.
Early native bloomers include violets, golden Alexanders, Eastern columbine and creeping phlox (my favorite spring plant for its color and exquisite fragrance). New Jersey’s state flower, the violet, is underappreciated, but violets have great value as the host plant for the fritillary butterflies and make an excellent ground cover in difficult spots. Golden Alexanders are also an important butterfly host plant, in this case for black swallowtail butterflies.
In the past year, we have developed new, positive routines and taken advantage of working from home to enjoy more time with loved ones and find pleasure in our immediate surroundings. Gardening has become more important than ever. Few activities have been better for managing the stress and depression caused by this crisis.
I have written before about the therapeutic value of gardening. Visualize yourself and your family creating a new garden or improving the one you have, enjoying the spring weather, even having a barbecue, while you clean, plant and care for your yard. This crisis can be a great opportunity to reconnect with nature and plant the seeds in your kids about environmental care and sustainability.
Growing your own food
Nothing is healthier, fresher or tastier than home-grown food. These times of crisis have highlighted the importance of your garden as a source of local sustainability; think of the advantages of having organic food just steps away from your kitchen. Not only is it super-convenient, but it will save you visits to the supermarket.
Some veggies that you can plant now include arugula, sugar snap peas, potatoes, carrots, onions and cabbage family plants such as broccoli, collards and kale. If you were farsighted (or lazy) enough to leave last fall’s kale or collards in the ground, now you can enjoy their last, delicious explosion of edible leaves before they flower and go to seed.
Here is what I am currently growing outside: bok choy, romaine lettuce, kale, cilantro, potatoes and sugar snap peas. I have planted tomatoes from seed indoors. We know you’re excited, but remember the last frost date is May 5, so you will need to be patient about planting frost-sensitive crops — such as tomatoes, basil, peppers and eggplant — outside until then.
Now is the perfect time to start a new garden project. You could create an herb garden, begin composting (the township sells compost bins at discount prices for Montclair residents) or start converting a portion of your lawn into a vegetable garden or a pollinator garden.
Preparing for the growing season
Some garden tasks for your “to do” list:
For flower gardens:
- Before getting carried away with spring cleanup, remember that pollinators may be sheltering in dry stems. Leave those stems until temperatures reach over 50 degrees for seven or more consecutive days. Fallen leaves may also harbor beneficial insects – along with nesting materials for birds – so leave them in place as long as possible or gently spread them for use as mulch.
- After clearing the remains from last year, you can mulch the flower beds to prevent weed propagation. It is a perfect time for pruning, but be careful not to prune spring-blooming shrubs and bushes. Do not prune evergreens until late April, since they need warmer weather to grow their foliage.
- With your early spring plants up, you may want to thin some areas of the garden. Go deep to remove your plants, then divide them into small bunches and immediately replant them.
- The wet spring soil makes it a good time to dig wild onions out of your flower beds and lawn.
- Take advantage of the warming weather to seed plant containers with flowers. I recommend using self-watering containers, which will save you watering time during the summer.
- Don’t forget that native plants do best in our climate and provide support for pollinators and birds.
- Make your selection of summer annuals to plant later in the season when it is safe to plant frost-sensitive plants.
- Mix some compost into the topsoil.
- If starting your vegetable garden from seeds, try to avoid genetically modified seeds. Heirloom seeds are best since they are not genetically modified and produce varieties of vegetables that may be hard to find commercially.
- To plant peas, you can simply use your fingers to poke a hole in the soil about 1 inch deep for each seed. Plant peas about 2 inches apart. Taller varieties will need a trellis to climb.
- t is a good time to divide your strawberries or buy new plants.
- If you missed planting garlic last fall, you can still plant it for a later summer harvest.
- I recommend covering your new beds with nets since hungry garden predators will be around.
Spring will soon be here in full force, so get ready!
Jose German-Gomez is an environmental activist, Essex County certified master gardener and Montclair resident.
He is the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition.