On Sunday I took advantage of the glorious sunshine and warm temperatures to take a stroll through the yard. I wandered out to my vegetable garden and took a mental snapshot of the place, noting the work that awaits me next month when I begin tilling for spring.
Unseasonably warm late winter days are such a tease. When I stooped down to wriggle my fingers through the top few inches of dirt to gauge the moisture in the soil, I caught a whiff of the potent smell of damp earth. The garlic tops are the only dash of green in the garden now but the ground is thawed and spring is clearly just one moon cycle away.
With the change in seasons soon upon us, gardeners who want to start their own transplants should be making plans to do so within the next couple of weeks. The average date of the last killing frost in this area of Kansas is April 20. Gardeners can start planting frost-sensitive vegetables after that.
Tomatoes and their nightshade kin -- namely, peppers and eggplant -- must be started indoors. They fare best if they're 8 weeks old when you put them in the ground. The nice thing about tomatoes is that they respond well to being moved into progressively larger pots and, with a sufficient light source, you can develop plants that have sturdy stalks.
The trick is to pinch off the lower leaves every time you move your starts into a larger pot, burying the stem to about three-quarters of an inch from the lowest remaining leaves. The stems of well-watered tomato plants are flexible and can be bent with care to put more of the stem under dirt. The plants will then send roots out of the stem, providing you with tomato plants with well-developed root systems.
If you start your own cole crops, waste no time in starting your seeds. Because broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi and cauliflower have greater tolerance to cold and frost, you can plant them earlier. How early depends largely on whether you can protect your young seedlings from wind, which can be brutal in late March and early April.
Although Kansas gardeners have been starting squash and cucumbers in the ground for generations, you will harvest a couple of weeks earlier if you give your vines a six-week head start indoors. You can wait until late March to start your seeds, because these plants are less tolerant of the cold and generally like to be in soil that is at 70 degrees.
I've also become aware that a lot of people are starting lettuce and spinach indoors, primarily to give plants a better chance of standing up to the elements. I've had mixed results with this strategy. The reason, I believe, is that these greens have such wimpy and short roots. Greens that are direct seeded and emerge from the soil tend to anchor themselves as they grow, while transplants are forced to try to re-establish themselves in less than ideal weather conditions.
If you don't mind waiting until late April to pick your first greens, you can direct seed your greens in the garden next month.
Regardless of what you start indoors, be sure you can provide adequate light to keep your plants from turning leggy and pale. If I ever win the lottery, I'll buy one of those multi-shelved grow-light stands, which cost several hundred dollars. Until then, I will stick with my trusty shop light, outfitted with one cool and one hot fluorescent tube. You can also use plant lights in a shop light, although they cost a few dollars more.
The trick is to hang the light so that it's no more than 2 inches above the seedlings. Be sure to water the baby plants thoroughly to keep them from wilting, turn the light out at night, and protect the seedlings from drafts.
Potato note: I reported last week that I had not been able to find a seed potato source that would ship in time to accommodate a St. Patrick's Day potato planting. It's true that most northern potato suppliers shy away from early shipping because of the potential for loss. However, reader Marge Rowell called to say that a Minnesota company by the name of Potato Patch will ship between Jan. 4 and March 29 for a $5 charge. She has been impressed with the variety of potatoes the company offers. The company's toll-free number is (800) 934-7002.
-- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. You can send e-mail to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.