Common Errors in the Vegetable Garden
Ah, the vegetable gardener in early spring. Like a caged lion that has just been released, the dedicated home vegetable gardener cannot wait to get down to business. Oh, there likely were distractions along the way; pouring over the seed catalogs and websites, mapping out the different beds, starting the transplants indoors and so forth. But nothing compares to getting some garden soil on the boots and fresh air in the lungs. Keep in mind, however, there are potential problems lurking among the raised beds in the early days of spring.
It is sound gardening practice to turn the soil as early as practical in the spring, but to do so when the final frost date is weeks away, just because there have been a few mild days and the ice is off the beds is not practical, it is counterproductive. It is backbreaking to turn that saturated muck to begin with, and the result will be gooey clumps of spade sized soil that will solidify with the next freeze. These will set up much like adobe bricks and will have to be broken just so that the gardener will be able to turn everything over again. Wait for that sun-warmed, relatively dry soil to appear before sprinting to the tool shed for rakes and spades.
The seed packet reads, “Sow directly in the garden two to four weeks (sometime, six to eight weeks) before the final frost date, as soon as the soil can be worked.”
You can certainly do this, but depending on your climate, it is really a crap shoot. Weather four weeks before the final frost date is subject to all sorts of variation, and there may be snow, hard frosts, sleet, freezing rain and stubborn cold spells on the horizon. As a result, seeds sown as early as possible may simply rot in the soil, and you will inevitably have to plant them all over again.
If they do germinate, it may take so long for them to do so that hardy weeds will beat them to the punch, making the task of thinning the seedlings, which will often look much like weed seedlings, unusually difficult.
In areas with variable climate, it is better to plant no more than two weeks before the final frost. The crops will arrive later, but the germination and early growth phases will be many times more secure.
While you might get away with sowing kale, cabbage and turnip seeds at or before the last frost dates, this will never work with corn, cucumbers and zucchini. The plants are doomed from the beginning. They are warm weather germinators and cannot thrive in early spring conditions. Always take time to read the seed packet to avoid losing seed and wasting your efforts.
Failure to harden off transplants:
Many plants, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and others, are first started indoors in pots and then transplanted to the garden beds at the proper time. This gives the gardener a jump on the season without risking premature direct seeding disappointment.
But transplants should not be taken from quiet greenhouses or window ledges and planted straight into the garden. They are not prepared for the variable temperature conditions and breezes that prevail in the great outdoors. Plants should first be exposed to a few hours daily of outdoor conditions over a period of five to seven days to allow them to acclimate to the conditions which prevail in the garden.
The process is called hardening off and is essential if the transplants are to survive. A mild breeze can kill a bed of transplanted, unhardened seedlings overnight, and few garden disasters are more frustrating to the average gardener, or more easily avoided.
Patience is a virtue:
It is obvious that there are many potential pitfalls awaiting the gardener in early spring. Almost all of these are the result of rushing the season, an understandable but ultimately counterproductive activity. This is one time when “hurry up and wait” is sound gardening practice.