Saturday, March 1, 2014

Spring Planting Time

Spring does not begin officially for another 20 days, but March 1 marks the beginning of spring vegetable gardening season in the Tennessee Valley. Although we are far from out of the woods as far as frost is concerned, the spring temperature oscillations are not likely to bother the most cold-tolerant crops.

Chief among these is spinach, which will germinate in cold soil. Plant in succession from now through the middle of April. Thin plants to stand at least six inches apart for the largest leaves. Thinned seedlings can be transplanted and will be ready to pick a week or ten days later than the ones left undisturbed.

Arugula and corn salad can also be planted now. Arugula only takes about 3 to 4 weeks to be ready to pick, and small succession sowings should be made every few days, as often as you think you'd like to eat arugula. Corn salad grows more slowly and tolerates less heat, so you can only get in a couple of sowings before the weather gets too warm.

Now is also a great time to start lettuce seedlings in cell trays for transplanting in 2 to 4 weeks. Sow three seeds on the suface of the growing medium, water thoroughly and place under artificial light or in a south-facing window. When the seedlings have true leaves, thin to one per cell. Transplant to the garden when they 2 inches tall or larger. The secret to growing lettuce is to start a few plants every week or so, for a continuous crop. As with arugula, the amount to sow each week depends upon how much salad you plan to eat. Mature butterhead and loosehead lettuce typess will make two salads per plant, as a rule.

Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower plants can also be transplanted during March. Be sure to keep them dusted with Bt powder to prevent damage by cabbage worms. Bt is a bacterial insecticide approved for organic gardening.

Anyone who has lived in the Tennessee Valley for very long knows we have unpredictable weather in early spring. It is wise to have some means available to protect your plants from frost, because our spring warm spells encourage buds to swell and flowers to bloom. When one night of frost returns, the show can be ruined for good. You can purchase frost blanket, which is about the same as floating row cover material. You can also use old bed sheets. One of my favorite ways to protect emerging plants is to cover them with three or four inches of loose pine needles. The fluffy needles provide frost protection and can be left in place as mulch. They are also easy to remove with a leaf rake, and they look much better than cloth covers. Pine needles work well for perennial flowers and small shrubs. Larger shrubs and flowering trees with require the artificial covers.

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