By late March, the urge to grow something is becoming overwhelming for most northern gardeners. Fantasies of home grown, tasty vegetables can be hard to stifle when you are anxiously awaiting a glimmer of sunshine. The pictures in seed catalogues tease many people to buy far more seeds than they will ever have time or space to plant. Here in the sunshine state the big box stores are already stocking most of the garden transplants we will not see for sale locally until May. Oddly, here in Florida, I could probably grow all sorts of vegetables and flowers in my back yard from February through April, but I really have no desire to do so. My gardens are in NY and that is my home. Down here I am on vacation, or so it seems. Many people think retired people are always on vacation, 24/7, but that is not really the case and I don’t think I will ever be fully retired. A reader wrote me that “old gardeners never die, they just spade away”.
For those anxious, winter weary, gardeners who have patiently waited, now is the time to start many types of seeds for this year’s vegetable gardens. Tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, other salad greens and cauliflower may be started indoors now for transplanting later on, when it really is spring. I know the calendar says it is spring but, seriously…
Wait a few more weeks to start cucumbers, melons, squash and eggplant. It takes about six to eight weeks to produce optimal size tomato, eggplant and pepper transplants but only about a month for the cool season crops such as cabbage and all its relatives. Lettuce, spinach and other salad greens are usually ready to set out in three weeks or less from seeding day. The vine crops such as cucumbers and squash also require less than a month, but they should not be set out until the soil is quite warm. I use a compost thermometer to test the soil temperature instead of relying on the calendar. Calendars tell you the date but not the weather. The cool season crops can be set out when the soil is 50 degrees but the warm season crops prefer soil temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees. Measure the soil temperature about three inches below the surface.
Raised beds usually warm up earlier in the season than soil at ground level and raised beds covered with black plastic are earlier yet. You can often plant in them a full two weeks before the rest of the ground. If you really want to get an early start on spring greens, cover a raised bed with black plastic mulch, make sure the edges are covered with soil and then cover that with clear plastic. The clear plastic acts like a magnifying glass and the black plastic will absorb and hold some of the heat. Cut holes in the plastic layers to stick your transplants in and place a one gallon water or milk jug over each transplant for an added “greenhouse” effect. (Remove the jug’s plastic cap or they will cook!) They used to sell “hot caps” which were wax paper covers that could be placed over new transplants but I have not seen them for sale in years.
You could also put some salad greens in a south facing window box and if you are really desperate for some home grown greens, just keep your seedlings under your fluorescent lights for 18 hours a day until they are big enough to eat. Sun porches and large, unobstructed south facing windows may also get enough light and heat to grow some early salads greens.
Two, four foot long, fluorescent shop lights, positioned no more than six inches over your seed flats or pots are ideal for starting seeds. Set them up in a cool location with daytime temperatures of 65 to 75 and night temperatures 10 degrees colder for best results. Position a small, oscillating fan nearby to provide a gentle breeze to the growing seedlings for stockier and hardier plants. The breeze will also help to prevent damping off and other soil borne diseases as it will keep the soil surface drier. Water the seedlings from below and fertilize with a dilute solution of liquid fertilizer every week or so. In a month or less, you will be rewarded with your first transplants that are guaranteed to bring a smile to your winter weary face.