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Give seedlings time to acclimate to spring

Posted: May 22, 2013 - 3:42pm  |  Updated: May 23, 2013 - 3:35pm

The seedlings have been lingering in the greenhouse longer than intended. Gee, I wonder why ... They are close to root bound and need more space. My Internet connection to Yahoo Weather is overheating (I’m glad something is) and the tentative forecast is for overcast/rain/warmer, just exactly what we need. So the question is:
Do I move seedlings to larger quarters or hang in there and wait? Larger containers it is (I tossed a coin).

If you have a greenhouse you may notice there is greenish mold, at least I think it’s mold, developing on the surface of the growing medium of your seedlings. I use a pencil and rough up the surface, that seems to forestall the growth and gives the root system room to breathe. In the bins where the tomatoes, lettuce, basil, radishes and beans are ever so happy, I use my hands to aerate the surface. Give this a try.

In combination with using your vents and even opening the door, which I did today (Sunday), and setting the thermostat for the fan at about 85, you should be able to keep everything looking hale and hardy.

I like to plant four lettuce seedlings every 10 days along with a short row of radishes. The catch here is to know when to stop. At the moment the lettuce is gorgeous but soon it will be too hot in there. Lettuce loves cool, so a warm greenhouse will eventually produce weak, tasteless lettuce.

I took the seedlings out for some fresh air this morning. The thermometer crawled above freezing and I shot out the door and hauled the flats out. The green beans and artichokes stayed in, they will be going under solar umbrellas once they get planted in their permanent spots. They do not want this cold and wind, no way.
The cole crop plants — broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, beets and Brussels sprouts — need to be covered with floating row cover even though they are in flats and just being tempered to the weather. If the fly that lays the dreaded root maggot is out and about (or cowering under cover waiting for better weather) they will infest the seedlings even before they make it to their designated living space.

That said, I’ll explain the necessary process of hardening off your seedlings. There is nothing more unhappy than a tiny plant that is thrust into the ground straight from a nursery. We need to be patient. Give them a little time to acclimate to the horrors of a Homer spring.

Try to find a protected location, somewhere that will minimize wind and direct sun. Leave them out there for a few hours, bring them back in. The next day add a little more time, bring them back in. This can go on for as long as you have the patience. Ultimately they will spend the night outside.

When they reach that momentous occasion I will cover them with floating row cover for the first couple of nights. The third night they are on their own. Then they go into the ground. All this is well and good as long as you are watching the temperature. Be vigilant. Whether you started your own seedlings or purchased them from any one of our excellent local growers, you need to give them a fighting chance.

So much of gardening is instinct and intuition. Saturday evening, after dinner, I took a look outside and decided it was time to cultivate the raised beds in the vegetable garden. Off I went. If you do this when the soil is too wet you will end up with stubborn clods that will refuse to break down all season long. Resist the urge if your soil is still wet.

The long-handled cultivator gets a work out in the spring. The raised beds do not get mechanically tilled, those days are long over. That is just one of the beauties of raised beds. Once we had the basic design of the garden in place 15 years ago we gave the tiller to our son. Now each fall I put finished compost on the vegetable beds and call it good. In the spring I break up the surface with my cultivator and off I go. Excellent.

Today found me planting just one bed. I had soaked the pea seeds so they were ready to go, radish, lettuce, chard and spinach all went in as seed. I kept these all in one bed because then I covered the whole shebang with floating row cover. I love this stuff. It raises the soil temperature a tad, keeps pests at bay, allows water to pass through and abates the wind. What more can we ask for?

I do not offer it any support, I just lay it over the beds (even the seedlings) and secure it around the edges with Earth Staples (a bent piece of wire), quite efficient. Tidy. The entire vegetable garden, once planted, will be covered with this material. It will be serviceable for years. Be sure to keep it out of the way of your lawn mower/weed eater, these tools can do some serious damage. The trick is to not leave it on too long. Once the plants are pushing against it you will want to remove it. It can actually make the broccoli too hot and it will “button” i.e. not produce the glorious heads that you are anticipating. Keep that in mind as the season progresses.

My raised beds are structured. They are about two feet high by three feet wide by 15 feet long, made from rough cut lumber. Do not use treated lumber. Whatever chemical “they” use to make lumber last forever is not compatible with food plants. Rough cut will serve you well for 10 to 15 years. I really like the three foot width, think about how wide you want yours in relation to how far you are willing to reach.

It is looking like we will be planting our gardens later rather then sooner. Memorial Day is what you are shooting for. It is one of those challenging springs that really is not all that uncommon. Every region has its hurdles to overcome, ours is a short growing season. It could be worse.

Note: Homer Garden Club meets at the Bidarka Inn conference room at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 26. The featured presenter will be ... me. My intention is to encourage new gardeners or those who are new to the area.

Rosemary Fitzpatrick is a longtime Homer gardener.

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