Planting Your Vegetables

When getting ready to plant, the first rule is to pay attention to which items are cool-season vegetables and which are warm-season vegetables (see the earlier section on "Growing vegetables by seasons"). You can start cool-season vegetables earlier and put them in the ground earlier because they're more tolerant of cooler temperatures (some can even go outdoors before the last frost). However, you should put warm-season vegetables out or sow them only after all danger of frost is past. After you figure out which veggies are which in your planting plans, you're ready to determine when to start planting. (For info on location, please refer back to "Working with the sun: Where to plant vegetables.") And then, of course, you're ready to plant!

Deciding when to plant your veggies

Determining the date of the last frost is your green-light date, the date when you're now free to plant vegetable seedlings or direct-sow vegetable seeds into the garden. The last frost date is in late spring, but the date varies from year to year. You can find out down at the local garden center or from the nearest office of the Cooperative Extension Service.

When to plant transplants

If you have seedlings ready to go into the garden after the soil is ready and sufficiently warmed up — seedlings of your own or ones you've bought — your garden can get off to an earlier start. This timing puts fresh food on the table sooner. In the final analysis, your garden will be more productive this year! Vegetables that you can start early indoors include cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.

Remember, if you start too early, your seedlings may be too big too early, making them a little hard to accommodate and care for — you may even have to start over. Here's a general list to get you started; you can tinker as you get more experience raising various sorts of seeds. Yep, get out your calendar — some counting backwards is in order:

1 Onions: 12 to 14 weeks before the safe planting-out day (which in the case of onions is 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost)

1 Broccoli, collards, and cabbage: 5 to 6 weeks before the safe planting-out date (which is after the danger of snow and ice is past but while nights are still chilly)

1 Lettuce: 5 to 6 weeks before the safe planting-out day (which is 4 to 5 weeks before the last frost)

il Peppers: 8 to 12 weeks before the last frost I Tomatoes and eggplant: 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost I Cucumbers and melons: 2 to 4 weeks before the last frost

When to sow seeds directly

Gardeners generally sow seeds directly in the garden after the last frost, after the soil has warmed up and the weather seems to have settled into an early-summer groove. Direct-sowing in cold and/or soggy soil is a bad idea — it's muddy work for you, and the seeds usually sprout poorly or rot; then you have to start over. Best to wait for the right time.

Though you can buy tools and gadgets to help you with this work, there remains something so primal and satisfying about going out with a seed packet and digging in the dirt with your hands.

Vegetables that you can direct-sow include lettuce, onions, peas, radishes, turnips, beets, cabbage, carrots, beans, corn, parsnips, cucumber, lettuce, and tomatoes (in warm climates).

Sowing and planting your veggies

How to plant vegetables really depends on the form in which you've acquired them. Do you want to plant seeds, or do you want to plant transplants that you've acquired? Or do you want to combine both approaches and create your own transplants from seeds? Here I give you information on all three approaches, starting with creating your own transplants from seeds.

Starting your own seeds indoors

A sure way to banish the winter blues, as well as get a jumpstart on your vegetable garden, is to start some seeds indoors early. To find out how early, consult the back of the seed packet; you want to time it so you have several-inch-high seedlings in late spring, after the danger of frost in your area has passed. Refer to Figure 13-6 and follow these steps:

1. Select a good spot.

In milder climates, gardeners can sow seeds early in a cold frame or greenhouse, if they have one. Everyone else has to make do indoors. The best spot is an area out of the path of household traffic. You don't want people bumping into your tender sprouts or curious pets coming around. The spot should also be warm and out of drafts. A basement, sun porch, and spare room are all good options. Some people even raise seeds on the tops of dressers, cabinets, or refrigerators!

2. Provide light.

Some seeds germinate under a thin layer of soil mix and some are pressed lightly on top, but in all cases, the seedlings that sprout need between 12 and 16 hours of light per day — that's a lot.

Sunlight from a window is not at all ideal. It's pale and limited in late winter and early spring. To make your seedlings work, you need artificial light. Fluorescent is best, and a timer at the outlet can help you regulate the hours it's shining on your baby plants. See Figure 13-7 for a good light setup.

3. Prepare pots or flats (which need drainage holes).

Begin with sterile seed-starting mix. (This mix is available in bags wherever gardening supplies are sold. It looks like very fine potting mix.) Fill the containers about three-quarters full with dampened, not drenched, mix (Figure 13-6A). Tamp the surface flat and level with the flat of your hand or a small piece of wood before sowing.

The back of the seed packet can tell you how deep and whether you should cover the seeds with mix. The packet can also tell you how far apart to place the seeds. Sow carefully by hand — a pencil tip is a useful tool when placing small seeds (Figure 13-6B).

Don't sow too many seeds! This overplanting can lead to a forest of seedlings, growing too thickly for you to thin them without damaging some.

If you're sowing into a flat, make little furrows with the pencil tip or a finger and space the seeds up to an inch apart (Figure 13-6C).

Cover the container the very day you plant. Plastic wrap is great, but depending on the size of your starting containers, you can instead use a plastic bag (Figure 13-6D). This covering holds in warmth and humidity, giving the seeds the best chance of absorbing moisture and getting going. Don't seal too tightly, though. A tight seal causes condensed water to drip back down into the mix, making things too soggy.

6. Check back daily.

Don't let the planting mix dry out, or the seeds' growth will come to a halt. Open the bag a couple hours every few days to let the soil breathe some fresh air. Then close it back up. The best way to keep developing seedlings evenly, consistently moist is with bottom watering. Just set the container into a few inches of water (in the sink or a tray) and let it wick up the water it needs before returning the container to its spot.

Figure 13-7:

Seedlings growing under fluorescent lights.

Figure 13-7:

Seedlings growing under fluorescent lights.

The first little seeds usually take a week or two to poke up their heads. But what a thrill! Here's what to do now to ensure that they survive and thrive:

1 Snip away extras. Use tiny scissors (fingernail or beard-clipping ones work well) to gently cut weaker seedlings away at soil level. Pulling, rather than cutting off can damage the roots of the surrounding seedlings. The properly spaced survivors gain better air circulation, which is important for their health, and their developing roots don't have to compete for precious resources.

1 Water from above with a fine spray. As the seedlings grow bigger, bottom watering may no longer be practical. You can shift the flat's plastic covering on and off for ventilation — after a while, the young plants become too tall, and you have to remove it completely.

1 Start fertilizing. A diluted, half-strength flowering-houseplant fertilizer delivered with a regular watering is just fine. Fertilize about every two weeks.

1 Check that the seedlings are well-rooted when they're several inches high. Never tug on the stem! Gently tug on the true leaves (not the first, or cotyledon, leaves that come up). If the seedlings hang on and otherwise look husky, they're ready to get hardened off (see the next section).

Planting transplants in the garden

Regardless of whether you grow your transplants yourself or purchase them from a supplier, the first step toward getting them into the ground is the hard-ening-off process. This interim step in the life of your precious baby seedlings is a way to ease them from their plush indoor life to the realities of life in the real world — outdoors in the garden.

After the threat of frost has passed, move your seedlings outside to a place that's sheltered from sun and wind. Start with an hour a day, and gradually work it up to 24 hours over a two-week period. (Bring the seedlings indoors or cover them on chilly nights or if frost threatens.) Stop fertilizing them. If you bought your transplants from somewhere else, you may be able to shorten this process by asking the seller whether they were hardened off (or if they were displayed for sale outdoors, you can pretty well assume that they were).

When the seedlings are hardened off, you're to get the seedlings off to a good start. Ideally, work on an overcast day (or plant late in the day) when the hot sun won't stress them or you. Here's what to do:

  1. Water the seedlings well the morning you plan to plant.
  2. Dig individual holes.

The holes should be at least as deep and wide as the pot the seedling comes in. How far apart to dig depends on the plant. The tag that comes with should have this information, but when in doubt, allow more elbow room rather than less. Seedlings may look puny, but if you give them a good home, they'll soon take off like gangbusters.

3. Pop each plant out of its pot carefully, handling the seedlings by gently gripping the leaves.

Tease apart the roots on the sides and bottom so they'll be more inclined to enter the surrounding soil in their new home. Place the roots gently in their hole and tamp the soil in around them firmly to eliminate air pockets.

You can plant tomato seedlings deeper than they were growing in their pot; in other words, you can bury much of the stem with no harm done; just keep one or two sets of leaves above ground and gently remove the lower ones. Not only does this planting depth lead to better stability in the hole, but the stem also responds by making more roots along the buried part.

4. Water; then mulch.

Gently soak each seedling quite well, using a wand attachment on your hose or a watering can. Then lay down an inch or two of mulch an inch out from the base of each seedling and outward to conserve soil moisture as well as to thwart sprouting weeds. Don't let the mulch touch the stem, or you risk insect and pest problems later on.

Offer a little protection. Sudden exposure to sun and wind can stress out little plants. Get them through the first few days by setting some boxes or boards nearby to create a barrier — or set a few lawn chairs out in the garden over the seedlings. It helps.

Sowing seeds directly into the garden

All danger of frost is past, the air and soil have warmed up, and the ground is slightly damp or even somewhat dry. In other words, it's very late spring or early summer, and you're ready to sow your seeds.

Assuming that the garden area is prepared and ready to go, head outdoors one fine day with seed packets, a trowel, a planting dibble or hoe (depending on the size of the project), and something to sit on. Be prepared to get a bit dirty and sweaty and to feel the warm sun beam down on your head and shoulders as you work. Don't rush — putting seeds in this good Earth is a wonderful, soothing, productive feeling!

Follow these steps:

1. Make planting holes or furrows.

Recommended planting distances are noted on the seed packets.

2. Follow the "three friends" rule — plant three seeds per hole.

At least one will likely sprout well. If all three do, you can thin out two of them later to favor the most robust one.

3. Cover each hole as you go, tamping down the soil to eliminate air pockets.

The now-empty seed packet, stapled to a small stick, is a long-time labeling favorite, but you can simply write the name of the vegetable (and variety if you're growing more than one of the same kind) as well as the date on a stick with a marker and plunge it in at the head of the row.

5. Water well with a soft spray so you don't dislodge the seeds.

A wand hose attachment is good, as is a watering can with a rose head. If your vegetable garden is fairly big, use a sprinkler.

Lay down an inch or two of mulch after watering over the entire bed; keep the mulch an inch away from your new planting so that the seeds don't have to try to get through the barrier. Mulching conserves soil moisture and discourages sprouting weeds.

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