There might be six inches (or six feet!) of snow on your garden plot this morning, but that’s never stopped diehard gardeners from dreaming of fresh sweet corn and tomatoes still warm from the afternoon sun. Seed companies know the syndrome quite well, which is why their catalogs are just now beginning to show up in mailboxes. Now that you have all the garden tools cleaned and sharpened and have repaired the tomato cages and bean poles, isn’t it time to start preparing for the annual average last frost date? Here are some products that can help you get a jumpstart on the growing season.
The Germination Station
As Margaret Atwood says, “In spring your hands should smell like dirt.” I say that in late winter, your hands should smell like dirt. You should be planting your own seeds for bedding plants like tomatoes, peppers, squash, and herbs – and you should plant them in a Hydrofarm Germination Station. This handy device is designed to let you start six dozen plants, each in its own little cone-shaped cell. It includes a heating mat to warm the soil, thereby fooling your seeds into thinking Mr. Sun is out. The kit also includes a watertight tray to hold the little cells and a cover to maintain a nice, moist environment.
Just add some good-quality soil to your seed-starter kit, like this potting soil from Miracle-Gro that’s specifically designed for starting seeds. It has extra vermiculite pellets to hold water longer without getting soggy like high-clay soils. A little added fertilizer (0.03 – 0.03 – 0.03) promotes the growth of roots in both seeds and cuttings alike.
Your plants will need light to grow (remember the formula for photosynthesis?), and the overhead light in your basement or spare bedroom just can’t provide enough illumination. Be smart and invest in a grow light system such as this one from Hydrofarm. The four-foot fluorescent lights can be raised as the plants grow, maximizing “sunlight” for your little green babies. This design rests on sturdy T-shaped poles at each end. The hood holds two T5-style fluorescent bulbs, which are included, and has a six-foot cord. Just plug it into a timer, set it for twelve hours of “daylight,” and sit back while the seedlings fluorish.
Once those seedlings have their second set of leaves, master gardeners tell you to pluck the little guys out of their cribs and transplant them to larger pots that will give the roots room to stretch out. When spring (finally) arrives, you’ll transplant them again into the soil beds you’ve prepared in your garden plot.
Or you could just bury the entire pot – that’s what I do. I use Jiffy Peat Pots, made of compressed peat moss. I just bury the entire pot, which saves the tender plant from the shock of being transplanted again. The pot essentially disintegrates in the ground, in the process adding a little organic fertilizer. When I plant them, I make certain to cut off the bottom of the pot and make a couple of knife cuts in the side. This speeds up the disintegration process.
It never fails: you check the calendar for average last frost date and, once it arrives, slip those plants into the soil. Except “average” means that about half the time, there will be another frost after this date. How to protect tender plants? With a Wall-o-Water, you can be certain your plants will survive a cold snap; they even allow you to get a couple of weeks’ head start on transplanting.
The idea is simple: plastic, water-filled tubes surround the tender greenery, holding in heat that would normally escape. When only partially filled, the “wall” tilts inward to form a warming “teepee.” Once the danger of frost has passed, you can fill them entirely to make an upright cylinder. The cylinder of warm water helps hold soil warmth even overnight. Once the plants are fully established, you just lift the Wall-o-Water, pour out the water and store them for next year’s transplants.
Your garden will most likely contain row plants that don’t normally grow from bedding plants – root crops, sweet corn, berries, beans, and the like. Protect them from unexpected cold snaps with a Garden Quilt. This frost blanket holds in the heat from the soil (a smart gardener waters thoroughly before using the quilt) when air temps take a late-spring (or early-summer) dip. You can mount your quilt on hoops or simply drape it over the plants. We’ve had good luck with ours down to several hours in the low twenties. The quilt can be stored for next season after you air dry it and clean off any dirt and debris.
OK, gardeners: get out those seed catalogs, sharpen up your tools, and let’s get out hands dirty!