Midwinter greetings, mountain neighbors! I’m excited to restart this monthly gardening feature and to engage with your plant- and land-tending questions. You can get in touch with me at email@example.com, and I’ll share what I know about growing things in our beautiful ecosystem.
Snakes in my garden bed
My friend found a nest of baby snakes on her property. Is there a safe way to relocate their nest and/or a way to “hide” the nest from a dog while still preserving their home?
When I hear about snakes in gardens, I rejoice! Of course, the first and most important step is to identify what kind of snakes they are. Fortunately, the vast majority of species that live in North Carolina are nonvenomous, 31 out of 37 to be more precise. And many that are harmless to humans like to hunt garden pests like voles, mice and rats. In fact, the snake I’ve seen most frequently in my garden has been the black rat snake, which, true to its name, loves to eat rodents (thank you!).
Other common types are garter snakes, milk snakes and corn snakes. The only venomous snakes I’ve seen here are copperheads and rattlesnakes. They’re both fairly easy to identify with their wide, diamond-shaped heads and catlike vertical pupils. Another cool feature of these beautiful snakes is that they are ovoviviparous, which means the mothers hatch eggs inside their body and give birth to live babies. This characteristic leads me to believe that your friend’s babies are not rattlers or copperheads, because the birthing season doesn’t come until at least midsummer.
So, if it were my garden, I would happily leave the snake den and hope that some of the babies stick around to help me manage herbivorous pest populations. As for protecting the snakes from the dog, you could place some large stones around the nest so that the dog can’t dig them out while they’re inside.
The weather is pretty warm. Is it too early to plant potatoes?
Potatoes are a favorite spring crop and are indeed one of the earliest things that can be put into the ground as spring comes. However, they do require a soil temperature of at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Since “seed potatoes” are planted deeper than true seeds, this means the ground needs to be that warm about 6-8 inches down. It’s not quite there yet.
If potatoes are planted too early (before the ground is warm enough for them to sprout), they will either just hang out and wait for the temperature to rise, or they may rot. The former, of course, is not a problem; the plants just take a little longer to come up. The latter, however, can mean no potato plants at all. Rotting is more likely if you’ve cut up seed potatoes into pieces, leaving large exposed surfaces in contact with cool, moist soil. Unless you have very small seed potatoes, cutting them into pieces with 2-4 eyes each is a good practice, so waiting for warm weather is well worth it.
One way to fine-tune your potato planting schedule is to purchase a simple soil thermometer and pop them in the ground when you know it’s warm enough to get them going. Around here, that’s usually mid to late March.
The life of seeds
Where can I buy the best garden seeds?
Seeds are the foundation of any garden, and now is the time to get them for spring and summer gardening. Not all seeds are created equal, and the quality of your seeds plays a major role in the success of your crops. I am a strong proponent of open-pollinated, regionally adapted seeds and varieties for small-scale growers like us. Some hybrid seeds that have been developed for organic practices can be great in the home garden, too. Genetically modified seeds, on the other hand, have no place in our food system, in my humble opinion.
The best sources for good seed are small, regionally adapted seed companies, and a few larger companies that breed their own seeds and/or buy from small seed growers who care about quality.
Before you start ordering seeds, take stock of what you’ve got. Don’t just look at crop or variety names, but also look at packed-on dates. Seeds are living organisms that don’t stay viable forever. Many types of seeds can last for years if they’re stored properly, but others won’t germinate well after just one year in storage. Exposure to moisture, heat and light can decrease a seed’s viable life. Here’s a quick reference that tells you approximately how long different types of seeds will be viable under good storage conditions. We got this information from a more in-depth chart at Johnny’s Selected Seeds (avl.mx/cey):
- 1 year: onions, parsnips, parsley, salsify, spinach
- 2 years: corn, peas, beans, chives, okra, dandelion
- 3 years: carrots, leeks, asparagus, turnips, rutabagas
- 4 years: peppers, chard, pumpkins, squash, watermelons, basil, artichokes, cardoons
- 5 years: most brassicas (kale, cabbage, broccoli, etc.), beets, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, muskmelons, celery, celeriac, lettuce, endive, chicory
Along with a good sense of your current seed inventory, it will be helpful to have a basic garden plan for the coming year. This doesn’t have to be fully flushed out but rather just a general sense of how much space you’ll be planting and the different kinds of crops and varieties you hope to grow. For help with garden planning, you can check out the Holistic Garden Planning Class we offer through our school, Wild Abundance.
Once you’re ready to buy seeds, my favorite sources are Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (which is nearby in Virginia), Fedco Seeds (based in Maine), Adaptive Seeds (in Oregon), and Johnny’s Selected Seeds (also in Maine). Our hyperlocal seed company is called Sow True Seeds and it’s got a great selection of open-pollinated and organic seeds, plus some live plants and bulbs and growing supplies.
If you’re a seed nerd like me and enjoy perusing lots of small seed companies’ offerings, check out the blog post I wrote about small, independent seed companies all over the country. If you have a favorite seed source that’s not on there, please email me so I can add it.
If you want to save money on your seed order, get a group together and order in bulk. Many of these companies have larger packets available at lower prices per ounce, and some offer blanket bulk discounts on larger orders.
Once you receive your seeds, store them in a cool, dry, ideally dark environment like a closet or shelf in a corner. In humid environments like ours, a plastic tote or other vessel can be really helpful in maintaining a stable microclimate to keep seeds fresh. As an extra layer of protection against moisture, you can add silica desiccant packets to your seed tote (like the ones that you find in jars of vitamins or packages of sushi nori). If a seed packet happens to get wet, don’t put it back in the container with others until after it’s completely dry.
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