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Archive for Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Cold snap won’t harm veggies already sown underground

March 22, 2006

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The good citizens who obediently planted their potatoes and onions on St. Patrick's Day or already have sowed spinach, lettuce and other greens need not fear the forecast. At this writing, temperatures in northeast Kansas were expected to be in the upper 30s early this week, with the possibility of sleet or snow and an overnight low of 20 mixed in.

Cold snaps and even snow and freezing temperatures will not harm anything below ground level. If temperatures dip below freezing, they generally don't stay there long enough to cause damage. And even if greens have sprouted, it would take a really hard freeze to do them in. If that happens, you have plenty of time to replant.

The prospect of snow in March should be welcome because snow is, after all, nothing but precipitation. Even if it accumulates briefly, the melt is on its way. At this time of year, think of the random snowstorm as serving your garden a Slushee.

Late March is also the time to be thinking about planting the table vegetables that must do most of their growing during the earliest part of the growing season. That list includes snow peas and sweet peas, as well as the cole crops: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts.

In this part of the country, we plant all of these vegetables except the peas as starts, using greenhouse plants or those we germinate ourselves. There are three main reasons for this.

Because cole crops must get on with the growing in order to be harvested before the heat of the summer settles in, we don't have time to wait on them to germinate in the ground.

Second, in parts of the country with more moderate climates and uniform temperatures, cole crops can be direct-seeded with greater success. Here the germination rate for cole crops is frustratingly low. While they are cold-tolerant, cole crops need a certain ground temperature in order for their seeds to germinate.

Third, the brisk wind that pounds Midwestern gardens in the spring is hard on sturdy transplants and lethal to emerging seedlings.

Because we have the ability to compensate for drought and to erect barriers to most garden predators, the wind is the primary obstacle to having a successful early-season garden. The trick is to provide windbreaks that do not cast shadows or block sunlight.

For starters, the plants - or in the case of peas, the seed - should be planted in a furrow at least 2 inches deep. As soon as the plants are 4 inches tall, start mulching lightly and continue to pile it on as the plants grow. The mulch will protect the stems from the wind.

This early in the season, insects are no problem, although grubs and caterpillars can provide an occasional challenge. It's probably wise to leave them be unless you are certain that they will mature into problem bugs. Avoid destroying beneficial insects.

The more serious predator threat to an early-season garden is the four-legged population, particularly rabbits, mice, deer and any other creature that might enjoy a trip to your outdoor salad bar.

A fence is usually the best protection. Otherwise, a mammal inside the garden will make quick work of an entire row of baby spinach or, in the case of deer, eat lettuce heads whole. Pepper sprays are another alternative, although a predator intent on getting its recommended daily allowance of green vegetables might appreciate the seasoning.

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