A Cape Charles Gardener’s Perspective is special to the Mirror by Jane McKinley
One of my first gardening experiences in Cape Charles was watching my neighbor move her cactus plants out onto her deck a week or so ago. I was surprised to learn her theory that, by mid-February, if there is 3 weeks of freeze-free temperatures, we are past the risk of a freeze. She brings her semi-hardy plants outside, placing them against a South facing wall, and keeps a loose eye on them. I don’t know about her theory, but I do know that we garden in USDA Hardiness Zone 8a and, according to the Farmer’s Almanac, there is a good possibility that one doesn’t have to worry about a hard freeze after April 1.
Another pleasant surprise about gardening in this area was to learn that we have sandy loam soil – not the hard clay and rock I dealt with in my Richmond garden – which provides many advantages to the gardener. Our soil, with its high percentage of sand (up to 50%), allows water to enter faster and move more freely than in other soil types. However, with the low water holding capacity, it dries out more quickly. Sandy loam warms up more quickly in the Spring, is more easily tilled and is well-suited for vegetable crops.
Even with the soil’s good drainage and workability, there are still necessary components that might be missing. It may need more organic material which makes nutrients available for use by growing plants. It may need more acidity or alkalinity which is measured by pH. A pH value below 7 is more acidic and favorable for bedding plants. And it may need more nutrients, including nitrogen (building block for proteins, enzymes and chlorophyll and produces leaf growth), phosphate (promotes root growth, maturity and winter hardiness), and potash (vital for nutrient absorption and aids in disease resistance). All of these factors can be determined through a soil test done through the Virginia Tech Soil Testing Lab. And, once you have the results, consider amending the soil with an organic, slow-release fertilizer.
With April 1 right around the corner, if you are like me you are looking forward to getting out in the garden. If you are hoping to get a head start on your vegetable garden, there are a number of cold-hardy crops that can be sown directly in the garden this month. Many of these choices, such as leaf lettuces and radishes, have the added benefit of quick germination and harvest time. According to Les Parks, curator of Herbaceous Plants at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, they are excellent candidates for succession planting. This means that they can be planted at intervals (every two weeks is a good rule of thumb) to provide a steady yield throughout the growing season. Other cold-hardy crops recommended by Les are spinach, arugula and mustard greens. Basically, my experience has been anything greenish and leafy is best for the Spring garden, not to mention snow peas and broccoli.
If you are into flowers and other ornamentals, consider adding some native plants to your garden bed. Because they are naturally adapted to our environment, they are drought and disease resistant, requiring less water, fertilizer and pesticides and, consequently, much less maintenance. They play an important role in feeding the millions of migratory songbirds that not only serenade us but consume tons of insects that would otherwise drive us crazy and damage our plants. They provide food and habitat for butterflies and other beneficial pollinators.
But I bet you knew all these things already.
An excellent source of native plants for this area is the publication “Native Plants of Accomack and Northampton,” published in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Good choices include Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata) which produces tall ornamental summer flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies; Eastern Prickly-pear (Opuntia humifusa) which is a striking plant with beautiful, showy flowers that attract pollinating bees; Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) which makes a good cut flower and attracts goldfinches and chickadees; and Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) which provides shelter for salamanders and frogs, attracts birds and is good for dried flower arrangements.
Whatever your garden preference, are you ready to roll up your sleeves and get good sandy loam on your shoes? Hope so!