By Jim Janke
The last frost date is many weeks away, but everyone is anxious to get vegetable seeds and plants in the ground. Here are a couple of ideas to get a head start on the growing season.
Black plastic. Cover the planting bed in spring with black plastic for a week or two before planting. The soil will heat up, speeding germination and growth. Remove the plastic before planting rows of seed, or plant individual seedlings right through the plastic. Most black plastic covers are not perforated, so watering is more difficult if you leave the plastic on the bed.
Floating row covers. Spun fabric row covers allow light and water to penetrate, but provide protection against frosts by creating a mini greenhouse over the plants. Row covers prevent wind damage to seedlings and keep insects away from young plants. They are especially good for early plantings of salad crops.
Cut a piece of fabric large enough to cover the bed plus room for at least a month’s growth. Place the cover directly over the seeds or plants. Make U-shaped staples out of clothes hangers and use these to keep the edges of the cover in contact with the ground. Remove the cover in late spring when temperatures are consistently warm. For plants requiring pollination remove before flower buds open. Because the mini-greenhouse environment is conducive to plant growth, frequently check under the cover for weeds that might compete with your crop for water and nutrients.
Water-filled plant protectors are a great way to get a head start on the season (a popular brand is ‘Wall O’ Water’). The protector forms a cylinder of water around the plant; the water has to freeze before the air next to the plant freezes, so the plant is protected quite well. These are available at many mail-order gardening companies for $3 to $4, and are simple to use: put the protector around the plant, and fill each tube with water. Use a tomato cage or a stake to keep the protector from falling over on the plant on a windy day.
Keep the protectors in place until the plants grow through the top. They will moderate both daytime and nighttime temperatures even if no frost occurs. Then carefully remove, hose them off, and store for another season.
I transplant tomatoes into the garden on April 1st, each plant in a water-filled protector. Peppers are transplanted April 15th, with protectors around the entire perimeter of the pepper patch. Row covers are draped over the protectors for a couple of weeks to prevent sunscald. The combination of protectors and row covers allows me to transplant directly from the greenhouse to the ground without hardening off the seedlings.
In 2007 when the record cold of less than 20 degrees hit us on April 10th, I covered the protectors around the tomato plants with heavy blankets. The water in the protectors froze solid, but the plants were fine.
Our vegetable garden at 3,000 feet typically produces edible peppers by June 20th and vine-ripened tomatoes by July 4th. These things really work!
Where to buy. Black plastic can be found at local home centers. Row covers and plant protectors are available at many mail-order seed companies, including Burpee, Cook’s, Jung, Park, Stokes, and Territorial.
Jim Janke is a Master Gardener Volunteer in Haywood County. For more information call the Haywood County Extension Center at 828.456.3575.