Gardening Tips: April 16, 2014

Time to Start Seeds
Although there is still very much winter weather outdoors, by now many of you are extremely anxious to get started on this season’s garden. It is still much too cold and the soil is too wet to even consider tillage of the garden right now. The noticeably longer days are triggering all sorts of hormonal responses for humans as well as the animals in our forest. I am also getting very “antsy” to plant something! As soon as I return from Florida I expect to start many of this year’s vegetable transplants within a day or two of my return. Early April is the time of year when we can safely start most vegetables and flower seeds indoors for outdoor transplanting in May or June.
Most vegetables only require four to six weeks to reach optimal transplanting size. “Optimal” does not mean oversized. Research has shown that smaller transplants will usually out yield plants that already have flowers or fruit on them. Of course you can buy all sorts of vegetables with fruit already well formed and growing, but these are best left in their containers and not set outdoors.

Tomatoes first
Tomato plants started on April 1 will be ready for the garden by mid-May. Peppers take up to 10 weeks, but even so they will still be ready by June, which is not too late at all to set them out. The back of your seed packet will tell you how long in advance to start the seeds indoors, but don’t be upset if you have missed the date. I have had good results directly sowing seed into the garden as well as transplanting, for most crops anyway. I direct seed zucchini, cucumbers, melons, summer and winter squash, beans, lettuce, spinach, radishes, dill, cilantro, basil, carrots, cabbage, beets, pumpkins and, of course, sweet corn in late May to mid June with good results. The most important consideration with direct seeding is to make sure the soil temperature is warm enough to allow germination. Lettuce, beets, spinach, cabbage, radishes, and other cool season greens can be started when the soil temperature is above 55 degrees but wait until it is at least 70 degrees for warm season crops, like beans, cucumbers, squash and sweet corn.

Adding light
Few homes have bright enough south or southwest facing windows to guarantee good growth of transplants so many gardeners resort to using artificial light sources. Two, four foot long fluorescent tubes (shop lights work great) hung six inches over the tops of your seedlings will provide enough light for good growth provided that are left on for about 18 hours a day. The past few years I have used panels of three, compact fluorescent bulbs that each deliver 100 watts of light. This set up has worked very well for me and can even grow a nice crop of lettuce indoors if desired.
It is important not to let the transplants overheat since this can cause long, spindly growth and encourages damping off, a fungal disorder that causes seedlings to keel over and die. Temperatures should not exceed 70 degrees and can be as cool as 60 degrees for many crops. Be sure a use a sterile seed starting mix, not ordinary potting soil, and certainly not garden soil from outdoors. Well-screened, homemade compost is another option. Compost is actually an excellent seed starting media and can be mixed with Pro Mix or Jiffy Mix.

Growing along
Once the seedlings have produced two sets of leaves fertilize them weekly with a dilute solution of liquid fertilizer or compost tea. Research has shown that seedlings will develop into much sturdier plants if they are exposed to wind. Setting up a moving fan to gently blow on the seedlings periodically as the fan rotates will not only help them develop thicker stems but will also reduce disease and keep the soil temperature cooler.
Starting seeds right now is a very pleasant diversion when winter seems to linger far longer than we would like. There is light at the end of this tunnel we call winter!