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Gardening is a real science

Before we talk about this month, a word about last. Science Cafe hosted a session on forensic science that was wildly popular and resulted in huge attendance to the point where people were turned away and service for those in attendance was a challenge.

We apologize to any who were disappointed, and we are looking into a reservation system to help make attending easier, so please be patient. For now, you might plan to arrive a bit earlier.

This month, Science Cafe presents “Preparing Your Garden,” the science of sun, soil and getting the most from our plants. The following article was contributed by Sandy Belknap of the Science Cafe New Hampshire Organizing Committee – thanks, Sandy.

Well, it’s officially spring. The days are getting longer, the birds are back singing and if you really look, you’re seeing pops of color across the Nashua area from blooming crocus and daffodils. Gardening season is here. But wait. What do you mean – gardening season is here?

It seems counterintuitive. We’re often told to plant our gardens after the last frost – usually by Memorial Day in our region. But did you know there are plenty of vegetables you could have planted in March and can plant right now in April?

It’s not due to climate change or some new gardening trend. It’s because of science. Starting in late March, we see more daily sunlight during any other time of the year until the arrival of the summer solstice on June 21. The sun is rising earlier and setting later each day, providing more than 12 hours of daylight. We are in the middle of a critical growing period that many New Hampshire gardeners miss.

As we planned this conversation on gardening, we talked with Gene Harrington, co-owner of the Nashua Farmer’s Exchange on Bridge Street. Harrington shared that a critical aspect to be a successful local gardener is knowing about how to time your plantings.

You may be surprised, but according to Harrington, “Now is the perfect time for gardeners to start planting some crops like onions and peas.” He explained, “These plants are photo-sensitive.” This means they grow better and produce better results when planted early in the spring to ensure proper exposure to light during their key growth period.

When asked about that “Memorial Day Rule,” Harrington explained that it’s almost too late from a calendar perspective for photo-sensitive plants. They will only have three, maybe four weeks of extended daylight. Once we reach mid-June, the amount of daylight becomes less each day and your photo-sensitive plants planted too late in the season, including peas, onions and various greens will struggle to produce. (Note: tomatoes, peppers and eggplant do not fall into this category and should be planted outdoors later in May, however, seeds can be started indoors now).

While being aware of how daylight affects your different plants, the science behind soil also is important to understand. When you dig your hands into the soil, it’s more than just dirt that you are moving around.

Cameron Bonsey, with the Coast of Maine Organic Products, explained at a past Science Cafe Nashua that “soil needs to be treated as a living, breathing entity.” Soil needs oxygen and nutrients to ensure your garden produces results.

During this time of year, as the daylight increases, its important to feed your soil before mulching and planting it for the season. Your soil can be fed with a variety of fertilizer and compost options. Knowing what works for your own garden can be a science experiment itself.

Once you have your garden timing planned and rich, composted soil prepared, there’s also the big question of ornaments or vegetables? Annuals or perennials? Can you grow both in the same garden? As for ornamental shrubs and trees, are there specific plants better for southern New Hampshire?

Jonathan Ebba, with the UNH Cooperative Extension Hillsborough, will join Harrington and Bonsey at Science Cafe Nashua to round out our Wednesday panel on how your understanding of science can make you a more successful gardener. Ebba teaches classes in horticulture at Thompson School at the University of New Hampshire and has more than 18 years of experience as a grower at both commercial and retail greenhouses prior to joining UNH.

Join us Wednesday to dish the dirt on gardening. As always, Science Cafe is free and open to the public. Come join the conversation.

Science Cafe is hosted at The Riverwalk Cafe and Music Bar. For additional information about Science Cafe New Hampshire, visit www.ScienceCafeNH.org.

Dan Marcek is co-founder of Science Cafe New Hampshire and can be reached at dan@vetflix.org.