From late freeze to pesky weeds: Spring gardening tips to get you growing

The best organic weed killer? Sweat. Grab a hoe and get cultivating. File photo. The best organic weed killer? Sweat. Grab a hoe and get cultivating. File photo.

Longer days and rising mercury mean big leaps forward for your backyard row crops—but the path to fresh veggies doesn’t always run smooth. Read on for some timely gardening tips.

Tender vegetables

Recent cool nights are a good reminder that we’re not out of the woods yet when it comes to cold weather that could prove catastrophic to tender vegetable plants.

Technically speaking, last frost dates tend to fall in mid- to late-April in Central Virginia. Chances are that if you planted tomatoes, melons, peppers or other non-hardy crops, they’ll be just fine. However, I’m reminded of a friend and former farmer who lost three-quarters of her tomato crop on May 24 to a freak frost several years ago. So, remember to keep an eye to the forecast and the thermometer, and if temps do drop, be prepared to cover your plants with row cover, a tarp, an old bedsheet—almost anything will suffice to provide a few additional—and crucial—degrees of protection from the cold.

Seedling shopping

I am often asked where I purchase vegetable seedlings, or “starts.” For plantings of tomatoes, peppers, melons, and other long-lived vegetable crops, you’re best starting with transplants as opposed to starting from seeds in the ground to ensure the soonest possible harvest. My first stop is always Charlottesville’s City Market, where vendors offer a wide array of plant varieties, many of which are grown free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Better yet, these pros grow what they sell, so in addition to providing your plants, hit ’em up for their advice on growing conditions, pests, and other info.

Want to buy plants and support local food and farming organizations? Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville ( offers seedlings for sale at Gibson’s Market on the corner of Hinton and Avon streets in Belmont, and the proceeds benefit their community gardens at Friendship Court, Sixth Street, and West Street.

The Local Food Hub ( holds its annual plant sale and open house on Saturday, May 11 from 10am-3pm at its educational farm in Scottsville. In addition to stocking up on organically grown vegetable seedlings, you can take in kids activities, live music, and farm tours.

Weed control

Nurtured by rain and warming temperatures, advantageous plants such as purple dead nettle, hairy bittercress, onion grass, creeping Charlie, and henbit are exploding in number. Soon we’ll be overrun with poke weed, morning glory, and autumn clematis.

What’s the best way to deal with weeds organically? Get yourself a hand cultivator, shovel, or better yet a spading fork, and dig them up. Pulling by hand often breaks off the topmost part of the plant leaving roots free to re-sprout. For smaller weeds that are just getting established, a simple pass with a hand cultivator or a stirrup hoe will suffice.

Regardless of what you’re weeding, try to remove these pesky plants before they go to seed. And don’t forget what comes after weeding—mulching! Cover newly weeded areas in vegetable garden beds with straw mulch (not hay) to prevent new weeds from sprouting.—Guinevere Higgins

Guinevere Higgins is owner of Blue Ridge Backyard Harvest, which provides consultation, design, and installations for home-scale edible gardens. When she’s not gardening, she works in fundraising for City Schoolyard Garden and the Center for a New American Dream.

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