Notes from the Garden: It’s Planting Time, But Don’t Rush It
After a few hot spring days many of us are more than ready to plant vegetables in the garden. It’s important, however, not to jump the gun. There are things you can plant now, but others still have to wait — tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cukes and squashes, among others. My garden will surely see frost again, and the ground is not as warm as many plants need it to be to do their best.
I have planted my peas, and I would say it’s safe for anyone in New England, even the cold spots, to plant them now. That said, let me warn that pea seeds can rot if planted in cold, wet soil. I have a relatively wet vegetable garden because it is near a stream and the water table is high. To fix that problem I grow my veggies in wide raised beds.
Most of my beds are just mounds of soil that are six inches taller than the walkways and about 30-36 inches wide. When making the beds I loosened the soil, then raked soil from walkways into the beds, which raised them up. I also add wheelbarrows of compost each year and work it into the top few inches of my raised beds, making them even taller. Now they drain well, which is important in spring or during long periods of rainy weather.
I have planted my onions, too. Some years I plant onions by seed indoors in early March. Other years I buy onion plants. These are always bigger and fatter plants than the onions I start from seed. Maybe they start growing them in January, but I don’t want to have to baby plants for such a long time.
Most gardeners buy onion sets, which look like little bulbs, though I rarely do so now. These are tiny onions that are already a year old. They’ve been grown so close together that they never developed any size and are used to start new plants. They certainly do work, and are much less expensive than buying onion plants. But I feel they are less vigorous than the plants.
What else have I planted outdoors by seed? Spinach, lettuce, carrots, kohlrabi and beets. Spinach is the hardiest of those; frost is not generally a problem, even for young plants. The others are somewhat frost hardy but can benefit by some protection if the weather is forecast to drop into the mid- to low-20s. Row cover or Reemay is a spun synthetic fabric that works well to provide a little frost protection.
There are different thicknesses of row cover available, including one called the GardenQuilt Cover, which claims frost protection to 24 degrees F. When I use that, I keep it on only at night. Light passes through it, but it reduces the strength of the light considerably. Others, the thinner ones, provide only a degree or two of protection, but can stay on all the time, keeping insects like flea beetles from getting to your plants.
Young plants are much less frost hardy than older plants. Kale, for example, will survive very cold temperatures when mature, but can be damaged when young by moderate frost. I have harvested kale in December when covered by snow. I start my kale plants indoors in April and then plant them outside in mid to late May.
Any plant that has been started indoors needs to be hardened off before going into the ground. This is also true for plants purchased from garden centers. You should ask when you buy seedlings of annual flowers and vegetables if they have been hardened off. If they are on display on tables in the sun, they probably will be fine. But things grown indoors or in greenhouses have tender leaves that can get sunburned or wind burned.
I harden off my seedlings over a 5-to-7-day period. I start by carrying flats of seedlings outdoors and giving them morning sun in a place where the house blocks the wind. Then they go to a spot where they get a couple of hours of afternoon sun for a couple of days. Finally they get all day sun and are ready after a day to go in the ground.
Watering is key for small plants. They don’t have a big root system yet, so they can dry out quickly. I check seedlings growing in pots or 6-packs at least twice a day (when outdoors, or once if indoors) to see if they need watering. Bigger seedlings, those that have been growing for several weeks, get a little dilute fish or seaweed fertilizer as they have used up the nutrition found in potting mix (which is relatively void of minerals).
Once in the ground, seedlings still need daily watering. I like to use a watering can as it is gentler than a hose. I also water seeds that have not germinated, or check the soil for moisture, every day.
Spring is the time when the garden makes its most urgent demands. Fortunately, most of us are eager to spend time outside now, too. Enjoy!
Henry Homeyer is a gardening consultant and a specialist in fruit tree pruning. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.