As winter fades into a warm drizzly spring, a strange sort of hunting season opens for gardeners.
In the weedy, disordered landscape of an overwintered 78th Street Heritage Farm, Laura Heldreth, a master gardener with the Washington State University Extension Service, stalks her prey by looking under wood planks, plastic jugs and cardboard left after the fall harvest.
"A-ha!" Heldreth said, yanking her quarry from a small hole in the ground.
The slug in her hand looked unperturbed; but then again, it didn't know what was coming next.
"They eat lettuce, leaves, if you leave them, they'll lay hundreds or thousands of eggs," Heldreth said, gently flipping it over in her palm for a closer inspection. "If you get them now, you'll save killing hundreds or thousands later on."
Alas, poor Fred the slug. (Or Freda? Slugs are hermaphrodites, after all.) Heldreth brought his/her
brief, slimy life to an end quickly with a squish.
"In my own garden, I cut them in half with scissors, but I don't have any on me right now," she added with a shrug.
Removing slugs, weeding and removing moss make for annual traditions as gardeners get ready for the rapidly approaching spring planting season.
Slugs especially like hiding under pieces of wood, and Heldreth recommends placing a plank or two in your garden to draw them out so you can dispose of them. She also recommends Sluggo as a good product to bait and kill them.
Weeding can be a chore, at least if you pull undesirable plants out one by one each day.
But you can speed up the process by laying cardboard over your garden area to deprive the weeds of sunlight, overtopping it with compost or mulch.
"You leave it for a few weeks, pull the cardboard up, and you're good to plant," Heldreth said.
If you're feeling a little more adventurous, though, some weeds that are already dotting the landscape are edible.
Popweed, with its small white flowers, can quickly spread and take over an entire landscape. Though it's a bane of gardeners, it's also munchable -- with a light peppery flavor that Heldreth says she's not particularly impressed with.
"I wouldn't say it's lovely, but if I was starving I'd eat them," she said.
Dandelion greens and flowers are also starting to appear and can be used to make tea or salad.
Another thing to start looking at in your lawn is moss. Right now, it's everywhere, said Charles Brun, WSU's horticulture adviser for the Clark County master gardener program.
"It's time to get lawns renovated, there's a lot of moss out there and it's just about time to start aerating," Brun said. "At this time, you're kind of on the cusp of things just starting to wake up out there."
Moss can be a sign that there's too much shade in your yard or that your turf isn't doing well, but it also is a pretty normal part of living in the Pacific Northwest, Brun said.
"We don't live in Arizona," Brun said. "In the Northwest, we have moss on everything, the sidewalk, the lawn, the rooftop, the trees. It just goes with the turf, if you'll forgive the somewhat intentional pun."
Using a machine called a core aerator, which can be rented from home improvement stores, can help with moss problems. Or you can hire a landscaping company to take the moss out.
You can also rake it out, he said.
"You can get moss killers, products that will turn the moss black, but the moss always comes back," Brun said. "It's a Band-Aid. It makes you feel good, but it doesn't really kill anything. It's kind of a waste."
Moss usually clears up by itself in May anyway, he added.
"I can always tell it's March because people start calling about moss," Brun said. "By May, we don't hear anything about it."
In the garden, March is still a bit too early to plant most vegetables, but berry plants, shrubs, roses and fruit trees will do OK, Brun said.
"A lot of the bare root plants can go now," Brun said. "But we generally don't do vegetables until early May."
If you're just itching to plant something, though, either in a container on your patio or in your fledgling garden, Heldreth said radishes and hearty greens like kale or chard are good choices.
"Radishes, I adore radishes, you can plant them right now and they'll be ready to go in 28 days, and by the time you harvest them, you'll be good to plant tomatoes," Heldreth said.
If you haven't had a garden before, Heldreth said it's good to start small, with a few edible plants that you enjoy eating.
"Think about what is your favorite thing to eat and grow that," she said. "I think herbs are one of the best things to start with. That's what I do."
One big plus about herbs is that they're much cheaper to grow than to buy in the store -- and they're much fresher. For beginners, Heldreth recommends starting with rosemary, thyme, oregano and basil.
"You can also add a mint, but expect world domination issues later," she said with a laugh.
Heldreth grows a section of chocolate mint and pineapple mint each year, which she puts in her iced tea or uses to make ice cream.
"You can also put herbs in fresh baked scones, which is really good," she said.
Thyme she uses on chicken. Rosemary she pulls the leaves off and uses the stem for skewers, which adds to the flavor.
As the early May planting season arrives, she suggests beans, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes and peppers. Eggplant can be good too, although it takes a lot of room, she said.
"I love planting chard," Heldreth said. "You fry it with olive oil and garlic, put an egg on top of it, and there's dinner. I don't know why, but anything with an egg on it seems like a suitable dinner."
The master gardener program runs plant start sales, several clinics and answer workshops throughout the year. Call 360-397-6060 ext. 5711 for more information.