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Archive for Wednesday, January 22, 2003

A guide on when to plant vegetables

January 22, 2003

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People who have neither an active nor a passive interest in growing vegetables should probably find another article in the paper to read. As promised, this third installment on preseason gardening will address the planting schedule.

This will be pertinent information for gardeners who start their own seeds as well as those who let the local greenhouses supply their transplants. I also will offer guidance to both the frost-be-damned contingent and the fair-weather gardeners.

Until I set my watch to the academic calendar, I was an unapologetic member of the first category of gardener. I had my garden tilled up and ready to go by early March. Gardening manuals generally say you can start puttering as soon as the soil can be worked. This refers to a point in time when the ground is no longer so frozen that it breaks the metal pins in your tiller's tines and the risk of hypothermia is minimal.

The goal every year was to start sowing greens as well as carrots, turnips and other direct-seeded root crops as early in March as possible, and to plant potatoes and onions by St. Patrick's Day. If I had been interested in eating radishes, I would have started sowing them, too.

Toward the end of the month or in early April, I planted the cole crops and leeks from transplants and direct-seeded the peas. Basically, everything that benefits from a cool climate and doesn't like heat should be in the ground by early April. If you plant 70-day cabbage, for example, you want to be able to harvest it before it has too much exposure to the June heat.

Planting in March and April means that you'll be planting seeds or starts that are cold-tolerant and that you must be able to protect anything growing above ground from the brutish winds we get here in spring.

You also must have a sense of adventure and a willingness to fail. In the years in which the temperatures maintain a steady trajectory toward springtime warmth, you will be the envy of all your neighborhood's fair-weather gardeners, who will feel decidedly behind the curve when they emerge from their hibernation in late April. However, in years when we have a series of late freezes or torrential spring rains, you may be a bit disheartened.

It's a gamble, but in the years when it works, it's worth it and it will make you want to try it again.

In order to have cole crops ready to transplant in March, you need to be germinating your seeds indoors in late January or early February. The best transplants are six to eight weeks old when they go into the ground.

Alas, I was forced to join the ranks of the fair-weather gardeners a few years ago, and my annual gardening adventure now commences in April, which just means that I'm like most of the sane people in the world. You still can plant greens and carrots and most of the cool-weather veggies, you just can't sow as many plantings of lettuce, for example. Your broccoli also is going to be quicker to bolt as it will mature in mid-June.

April 20 or so is the average date of the last killing frost. What that means for gardeners in both groups is that you should hold off on planting the warm-weather veggies until after that date. This includes your tomatoes, beans, corns, okra and peppers. These can be planted through May.

Okra won't even germinate until the ground temperature hits 60 degrees. A late frost may do some damage to other crops. Beans and all the nightshades are very frost-intolerant.

The most common warm-weather vegetables that must be transplanted into the garden are eggplant, leeks, peppers and tomatoes. If you grow your own transplants, you need to get these started indoors by late February or early March.

Going back to the gardening map we talked about last week, it's helpful to note the projected planting dates on the map. If you start your growing season early, you will be able to throw in an extra row of beans after you pull up your lettuce.

Next week we'll talk about varieties of vegetables that are worth growing.

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