By Mark Barnes
As my thumb turns a deeper shade of green this time of year I spend a lot of time in the nurseries scanning the seed racks and taking a look at what plant starts they have. I want to make sure I get the varieties I want before they are sold out. But that same eagerness too often makes me want to plant them early. Often much too early for my own good.
So over the years I’ve experimented with a few ways to get an early start on the garden and keep my plants from getting fried by the frost monster.
Naturally, anyone who is a hard-core gardener probably already has snow peas in the ground. For that matter, garlic should already be a couple inches tall because it was planted last fall. My green onions planted from seed last fall are already close to four inches tall. Starts or seeds for kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage and all the Brassica family should also be fine to put in the ground.
Other seeds can be planted early as well. A trick I learned from an old gardener was to take lettuce seeds and sprinkle them on the snow covering the garden in February. As snow melts and freezes, expanding and contracting the soil, the seeds find their own way down. Then, when nature decides they are good and ready, they’ll sprout and you will have the earliest lettuce of all your neighbors.
Other things I like to plant early are spinach, some types of Asian greens and beets. Carrots are also OK to plant a little early.
So what happens when the weatherman says to expect a light frost and your seedlings are up? Same thing you do in the fall. Take your plant blankets, plastic, or coverings and simply cover them up. Make sure to remove them in the morning or the Spring sun will bake your precious darlings.
For summer vegetables, I suggest waiting on squash, melons, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers and any of the larger vegetable items until after the average last frost date. You will notice a huge difference when you transplant them in to warm soil. I’ve found that planting them early gives very little boost to yields. I just wait.
Tomatoes are another beast altogether. I challenge myself every year to see how early I can get a ripe tomato from my vines. I get big transplants and plant them deep, as any stem under the ground will develop roots. And deep roots will help sustain my plants through the hot summer.
I used to put Walls-O-Water, a plant insulator available at local nurseries, around my tomatoes but have invested over the years in Aqua Domes. These are hard plastic shells that have a hollow wall filled with water. I used to find them at D&B Supply but they are also available on Amazon.com. They cost more but are durable and well worth it. They heat up during the day, warming the soil and then at night it keeps the plant warm and protects it from frost. By mid May I usually have flowers on the toms and I’ve been known to snack on cherry tomatoes from my garden before the end of May.
A cheaper alternative to Walls-O-Water is to take five milk jugs. Fill four with water and place in a square pattern around the plant. Take the fifth one and cut the bottom out and remove the cap from the top. On cold nights, place the cut out one over the top of the plant. This acts as a frost protector while the gallon jugs surrounding the plant keep it nice and warm at night.
Mark Barnes is a former University of Idaho Extension Service Master Gardener.
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