After a long, cold winter, spent inside all cosy drinking hot chocolate, playing
, watching TV and reading it’s tempting to get out into the garden on the first warm day and start planting. But remember that even though the weather feels warm to you, it may not be warm enough for your crops. Both soil and air temperatures have to be right for seedlings and transplants to get off to a good start.
Knowing what conditions your crops need will help you pick the best time to begin planting. Seed packets and seedling labels usually give general guidelines on the best planting times. You can plant some cold-tolerant crops, such as peas and lettuce, as soon as you can work the soil in the spring. Depending on your climate, this can be as early as late February or as late as early May. When your soil has thawed and dried out enough to be worked, start sowing or setting out transplants of these early crops.
Other crops need warmer soil for germination and good growth. For instance, you can plant bean seeds and squash transplants around the last frost date (the average date of the last spring frost in your area;). About 2 weeks after the last frost date for your area, you can plant tender crops such as corn, tomatoes, and melons. Be prepared to protect tender plants if weather reports predict a late frost.
There are a couple of exceptions to these general planting instructions. One is the West Coast, where soil may not be warm enough to plant summer crops, even though the danger of frost has passed. And in mountain areas, spring frosts may continue long after the soil temperature is adequate for planting.
Use a soil thermometer to accurately gauge soil temperature (you can buy soil thermometers at some garden centers or from mail-order garden-supply companies). Plant when the soil conditions are ideal. Then be prepared to protect your plantings if weather forecasters predict a cold spell.
Picking Plant Spacing
Every plant needs a certain amount of sun and root space to develop and produce properly. Whether you plant in rows, hills, or beds, be sure to allow adequate spacing between seeds or transplants. Look for spacing guidelines on the seed packet or on the plant label if you’re planting transplants that you bought at a garden center.
Where two different crops meet in rows, hills, or beds, you need to decide how close to plant them. Calculate this spacing by adding the correct distance between two plants of each crop and dividing it by two. For example, if lettuce should be 6 to 8 inches apart and broccoli 18 to 24 inches apart, then lettuce and broccoli should be 12 to 16 inches apart.
Sowing Seeds Outdoors
Nearly every gardener develops a favorite method for sowing seeds easily. Here are the basics – with time, you’ll come up with your own innovations (see the tips at the end of this chapter for some great hints from gardeners like you!)
Sow in rows. Sowing seeds individually in rows allows you to walk between the rows to cultivate or tend individual plants. Large-scale growers prefer rows because they allow for the use of large equipment. Use the corner of a rake or hoe to open a shallow furrow. Drop individual seeds by hand into the prepared farrow at the proper spacing. To cover the seeds, pick up handfuls of soil and sift it through your fingers over the row. This will screen out stones, sticks, soil clumps, and other debris.
Sow in beds. By planting in beds rather than in rows, you can grow more plants in the same amount of space, because you don’t have to allow for paths between rows. Set seeds or transplants evenly over the bed at the standard spacing. Large seeds – like peas, beans, and squash – are easy to plant individually at the correct spacing.
You may find it easier to broadcast smaller seeds. To broadcast, mark the area in the bed that you want to cover. Scatter the seed evenly over the prepared soil. Gently rake the seed in or cover it with soil to get the correct planting depth. Once you see the seedlings emerge, thin them as needed.
Sow in hills. With hill planting, you group three to five seeds or so together, then allow wide spaces between the groups. The “hills” aren’t necessarily actual mounds, although planting on low mounds can improve drainage and reduce the chance of seed decay. Vining crops – like melons, squash, and pumpkins – are common choices for hill planting. Use rocks or stakes to lay out the spacing of your hills before you plant your seeds.
After you’ve covered the seeds with soil, pat the planted area with your fingers or the back of a rake to get good contact between the seed and the soil. Label the area, and water gently (so you don’t wash the soil away). Keep the soil moist until you see stems and leaves popping out of the ground.
The same planting schemes that you use for seeds also work for planting transplants: rows, beds, or hills. Once you’ve prepared the soil, use stakes and string to mark rows or beds, or use pebbles to mark hills. Then set out the plants at the correct spacing. Dig a hole at least as wide and deep as the container in which the transplant is growing. Remove the transplant from its container by placing one ; hand over the soil, with the plant’s stem between two fingers. Turn the plant over gently, and use your other hand to gently squeeze the rootball loose (from flexible containers like plastic six-packs) or to pull off a rigid container like a plastic pot. If the pot won’t come off easily, tap it few times on a hard surface to loosen the rootball.
Set the transplant in the center of the hole. Steady the loosened rootball with one hand, and use your other hand to fill in the soil around it. Pat the soil down firmly around the base – but not too firmly. Some transplants, like lettuce, should be set at the same depth as they were growing in their container. Others, like tomatoes and cabbage, will do well if you dig a deeper hole and bury them up to their seed leaves (the first leaves that appear after germination).
Use your fingers to shape a low circular ridge a few inches out from the plant stem. This ridge will catch and hold water and direct it right to the plant’s roots. Water as soon as you can after planting. Apply about 1 quart of water per plant.
Keep transplants well watered until you see new growth, then gradually cut back. If you plan to set in stakes or a trellis, do it soon after planting to avoid injuring growing roots.
Harsh weather after transplanting can damage even hardened-off seedlings. You may need to protect transplants from sun, winds, or cold temperatures for a few days or even up to a week. You can use floating row covers or other commercial products, or make your own devices…