Archive for Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Proper seed spacing, depth gives garden veggies a fighting chance

April 5, 2006


While the text on the back of a package of vegetable seeds doesn't offer the most engaging reading ever, it contains useful information for planning your garden.

It probably also will offer instructions that are so obvious as to be worthless. For example, an envelope of lettuce seed tells me to "select a sunny location" and to "cultivate the soil." Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a vegetable that does not require sunlight for growth. This may be why you don't see vegetable gardens staked out underneath shade trees.

Nor do gardeners generally sow seeds in uncultivated soil. Anyone who buys a packet of seeds with the intention of sprinkling them on unbroken ground should not be allowed to garden. Perhaps our representatives in Topeka can add this to their seemingly endless agenda of legislation that enhances the image of our state.

Some of the most useful information on the seed packet tells me how to space seeds, how deep to sow them and whether to thin them. Spacing and depth can be extremely important and can determine whether you'll have vegetables to eat and whether your plants will produce to their potential.

Spacing works two ways. The seed packet will tell you how much room to leave between plants and between rows. Usually the information on spacing between plants is fairly accurate, while the prescribed distance between rows is usually wider than absolutely necessary. Beans and other row vegetables generally can be planted in double rows, about 2 feet apart. Sweet corn probably should have at least 3 feet between the rows because of its hefty root system.

Planting depth can determine whether the seeds actually germinate. The general rule is the smaller the seed, the closer to the surface it should be planted. Lettuce seed, for example, usually is covered with just a light dusting of soil, while corn and bean seed should be planted an inch or more beneath the surface of the soil.

Many direct-seeded vegetables require overplanting, meaning that you will need to pull up the extras after the seedlings achieve a certain size. Carrots, corn and lettuce are among those crops that often require thinning. There are two main reasons for thinning. One is that some seed has a lower germination rate, and overplanting ensures that you will have a filled-out row.

The other is that the seed is so small that it is too difficult to space accurately. Using a seed dispenser can help with this because it allows you to pinpoint the location of tiny seeds. Most people pull up seedlings to air out the row, however, and the seed packet will tell you what the spacing should look like when you get done.

The other piece of potentially useful seed-envelope info is the days-to-maturity number. This is usually on the front, making it easy for you to compare the vegetable varieties on the packet display. The 83-day corn will be right next to the 75-day corn and the 67-day corn. In theory, you should be able to do the math from your projected date of planting and figure out when you will be slathering butter on your first ear.

If you were able to plant just before May 1, the earliest corn might be ready to pick by the Fourth of July. That is based on average performance in planting trials. My guess is that the folks tending the test garden stick to a watering schedule and stay totally on top of the weeding and fertilizing, so the projected days to maturity may be a bit optimistic.

Obviously, winds, temperatures, the timing and quantity of rainfall, and the presence of pests will make a difference. But that much information doesn't fit neatly on the back on the seed packet.


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