Monday, March 1, 2010

Get Growing in March

This is the fourth in a twelve part series for new gardeners. If you have never planted vegetables before but always wanted to, this is the series for you. Robin, who writes the blog Vegetable Matter, and I will post on the first of every month. Robin lives in Houston and I live in Boston. We will be posting about what to do in the garden that month and giving advice. So if you have always wanted that vegetable garden, but didn’t know where to start, you have no excuse. Get growing!

March finally gets us out in the garden even in the North. The beginning of March often has snow and frozen ground, but by the end of March things are usually defrosted. Snow is still possible in April and in northern New England in May, but our temperatures are moderating. Only the hardiest of plants can survive without protection in March. Two of these plants are peas and spinach. Neither can be grown as a summer crop, but they both thrive in the early spring.


Here in Southern New England, St. Patrick'S Day is often considered the time to plant peas at least if the ground has defrosted. Some years it does, and some years it doesn't. I keep checking the soil to see. Once it is defrosted you still may need to wait. Some soils get waterlogged at this time of year. A raised bed will prevent this, but if your soil is too wet, it will hurt the soil to be worked at this time of year. In addition the pea seed will be too wet and may rot in the ground. You can tell if your soil is dry enough by getting a handful of your soil and forming it into a ball. If the ball starts to fall apart when poked with your finger, you are fine, if not it is too wet. Wait until it drys out a bit more. After a while you will just get a feel for how wet the soil is but until you do test it.

Peas need a soil of at least 40°F or 4°C to germinate. If the soil is colder, this will cause the seed to take a long time to germinate and it could rot before it does. This does not mean that the soil needs to be 40°F the whole day. If the soil freezes at night you should be fine. Peas are very hardy. Just make sure the soil reaches that temperature in the daylight hours before you plant.

For more pea growing information you can see Robin's Get Growing post on peas.


Spinach only needs a temperature of 35°F or 2°C to germinate and won't germinate at all in soil that is too warm. So as soon as the soil is defrosted and dry enough you can plant.

Spinach needs a fairly fertile soil. It does well if it follows peas or beans as they increase the fertility of the soil. If your compost is very high quality (is made with the fast method and has a lot of nitrogen in it), you can get away with just that, but if you are like me and have a more carbon rich compost, you will need to fertilize before planting in addition to your inch of compost. I use an organic 5-3-3 fertilizer. But whatever you use, follow the direction for the amount on the package. Sprinkle it on the surface of the soil and either rake in (if you don't till) or turn it under.

Spinach bed about to be planted in rows

Spinach does best when planted 6" or 15cm apart in all direction. I make rows 6" apart and plant one seed every 1-3" (2.5-7cm). When the plants get big enough I thin every other one and eat the thinnings. Some people don't like this method. They like to broadcast the seed over the soil. They just throw the seed down over the surface and thin after it comes up. Either way you sow your seed, the seed needs to be covered by 1/2" or 1cm of soil and patted down.

Once you have your spinach 1/2" under ground, water the seed in well even if the ground is wet. The watering will help the seed make contact with the soil. Don't just spray it with a garden hose however, as the blast will knock the seed out of the soil. Invest in a rose for your hose that gently waters the soil, or use a watering can with a rose.

Spinach will often have germination issues. If I am planting regular seed, I put them 1" apart in the rows. However I often presoak the seed and then I plant 3" apart. This insures that almost all the seed will germinate. To presoak I put the seed between two pieces of very damp paper towels and put in a plastic bag. I leave the bag just slightly open. Enough for air to get in, but not enough to dry out the paper towel much. Then after 36 to 48 hours I plant the seed. If you wait as long as 48 hours, you will begin to see little roots starting to come out of them. Plant them right away if yo see any roots, or they could break off when they get planted. If they do break, the spinach will die.

Some people like to start the seed indoors so the germination is better. Be very careful with this method. If there is any root disturbance it will slow the plant down drastically and make the plant bolt more quickly. Spinach does not like to have its roots disturbed. If you insist on this method (which frankly I don't think is worth the effort since spinach is so fast), use something like newspaper pots or soil blocks.

Your spinach seed pack will probably tell you that spinach takes 30 days to mature. If you have very cold temps it will take longer. Don't fret. Give it time. When you harvest, pick off the outer leaves and let the inner ones regrow. The plant will bolt fairly quickly, but sometimes you can get multiple harvests. Spinach bolts when they either experience very warm weather or when the day length gets longer. In my area (about the 40th parallel), spinach will start to bolt around May 15th if only the sun were a factor. If you get hot weather it could be faster. Spinach is considered a very finicky crop.

Leaf miner damage on chard

I've never had disease issues with my spinach but in my area I get one insect pest and it isn't usually until late in its growth. Leaf miners lay small little white eggs in groups of about 3-6 on the underside of the leaves. When they hatch the larvae mine through the inside of the leaf. It makes the leaf unusable. There are four solutions. 1) Pick all the spinach before the miners come out for the year. 2) Do a search and destroy on the eggs. Just scrape the eggs off the back. This can be very time consuming if you have a lot of spinach. 3) Ignore the problem and just eat the leaves that are still good. 4) Use a row cover.

Row Cover

I use the last option for my spinach. I have some Agribon row covers that I use as soon as I plant my spinach. It does two things for me. First it keeps off those leaf miners. And second it warms up the soil and air around the spinach in the early spring. I've found the spinach is ready about a week faster with a row cover than without one.

Other post in the series

Determining your growing zone and planting peas (Vegetable Matter - December)
Planning a Garden (Daphne's Dandelions - December)
Growing Lettuce (Vegetable Matter - January)
Starting transplants indoors (Daphne's Dandelions - January)
Growing tomatoes (Vegetable Matter - February)
Compost (Daphne's Dandelions - February)
Snap Beans (Vegetable Matter - March)
Peas and Spinach (Daphne's Dandelions - March)
Eggplant (Vegetable Matter - April)
Brassicas (Broccoli, Cabbage, Asian vegetables) (Daphne's Dandelions - April)
Edamame (Vegetable Matter - May)
Tomatoes (Daphne's Dandelions - May)


  1. Hi Daphne! Been reading you for awhile, just haven't been commenting! This is a great post, even for seasoned gardeners. Every year I find myself on the fence about exactly when to put those peas in, and always find myself doublechecking those dates and temps, thanks!

  2. Another great contribution to the series Daphne! I adore spinach and peas and it is amazing how desired and appreciated they are after a long winter of mostly preserved items.

  3. Thank you for all the information for us "newbie" vegetable growers.

  4. I am so excited to start planting! I just got some of my seed packets yesterday and realized I could plant the spinach now! Ahh! I don't think I can wait for my garden to get tilled... into some pots they go until then. Thanks for the great information.

  5. Leaf miners are a real pest here, but it took me years to identify their eggs. Duh.

    That said, the spinach is about to bolt. I need to pull it and process it or I'm going to lose the entire crop. Bleah.

  6. Thanks for this post. Last year was not the best year for my pea crop, so it was interesting to read about how the soil temperatures and moisture affect germination. I'll be more attentive to that next time.

  7. Erin, dates are a good reference point, but your soil is so much better. I love my raised beds since the soil warms up and drains so much faster than without them.

    kitsapFG, spinach especially since it is always my earliest crop. I love eating spinach all the time in the spring.

    keewee, your very welcome

    Lauren Drury, I wish I could plant my spinach today, but nope. Still frozen. I'm going to go out soon and put plastic on the beds to get the warm faster. I always have trouble waiting for mother nature to be ready for me to plant.

    Stefaneener, They are an annoying pest here. I don't cover up my chard, so I have to pick off eggs every few days before they hatch.

    Sally, I hope your peas do better this year too. Some people have trouble with peas because the birds pull them out as they germinate. If that is the case you should use a row cover or bird netting to keep them out. I've never had much trouble with that though.

  8. I definitely started my spinach late last year and that's probably why it did so poorly. Another great post, Daphne, thx !

  9. Spinach is one plant I don't mind seeding directly in the garden. It was one plant that germinated very well for me last year.

    I'm starting to realize how much work it is to start plants indoors. I think I'll stick to direct sowing most of my greens in the garden and start only a few inside to fill in any germination gaps.

  10. I'm not new to gardening but still found new information in your post. I'll try spinach under cover this time! You have me wanting to get out there now! Thanks.

  11. Miss M, It really does love the colder part of spring. I used to have trouble with it, but last year it grew well being started so early.

    Thomas, I tend to get spotty germination if I don't presprout. So I do. It isn't too much work. The only thing it makes harder is the sowing. It is hard to get each seed put in one at a time when they are wet. I don't find it too much work, but it does take a lot of space. I would love to do a lot more wintersowing and then only start some things inside.

    poppyseed, I want to get out there now!

  12. Do you Know Agribon can provide up to 8º +F of freeze and frost protection