The Shed

The Shed
The Shed

Saturday, February 18, 2012

FARM GIRL'S CORNER - Common spring gardening mistakes

Hi! I'm Farm Girl and I help Uncle Mac in the garden and around the shed and stuff. Sometimes he helps me too, especially with things like wardrobe malfunctions. Why just this morning he said to me:

"Farm Girl! You haven't had a wardrobe malfunction in nigh on a week! Do you need some help?"

That's our Uncle Mac, always ready to give a girl a helping hand or two! But today I'm here to talk to you about the pitfalls that await the over anxious veggie gardener in the early days of spring.


Gardeners cannot wait for the last of the winter snows to melt away. Like a caged lion that has returned to the wild the dedicated home vegetable gardener cannot wait to sink his or her teeth into something rewarding. Oh there have been some distractions along the way, pouring over the seed catalogs and websites helps a bit, mapping out the different beds, starting the transplants indoors and so forth, all somewhat satisfying but nothing compares to getting some garden soil on the boots and fresh air in the lungs. Keep in mind however there are potential problems lurking among the raised beds in the early days of spring!

Frozen muck:

It is sound gardening practice to turn the soil as early as practical in the spring, but to do so when the final frost date is weeks away, just because there have been a few mild days and the ice is off the beds is counterproductive. It is backbreaking labor to turn that saturated muck to begin with and the only result will be gooey clumps of spade sized soil that will solidify with the next freeze. These will set up much like adobe bricks and will have to be broken apart just so that the gardener can start from scratch and turn everything over again. Wait for that sun warmed, relatively dry soil to appear before sprinting to the tool shed for rakes and spades.

Rotted seeds

The seed packet reads: “Sow directly in the garden 2 to 4 weeks before the final frost date as soon as the soil can be worked.” 

You can certainly do this but depending on your climate it is really a crap shoot. Weather 4 weeks before the final frost date is subject to all sorts of variation and there may be snow, hard frosts, sleet, freezing rain and stubborn cold spells in the future. As a result seeds sown as early as possible may simply rot in the soil, and you will inevitably have to plant them all over again.

If they do germinate it may take so long for them to do so that hardy weeds will beat them to the punch, making the task of thinning the seedlings which will often look much like weed seedlings unusually difficult. 

In areas with variable climate it is better to plant no more than a week before the final frost, the crops will arrive later, but the germination and early growth phases will be many times more secure.

Inappropriate crops: 

While you might get away with sowing kale, cabbage and turnip seeds at or before the last frost dates it will never work with corn, cucumbers and zucchini. The plants are doomed from the beginning; they are warm weather germinators and cannot thrive in early spring conditions. Always take time to read the seed packet, instructions are always available there, and avoid losing seed and wasting your efforts. 

Failure to harden off transplants:

Many plants, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and many others are first started indoors in pots and then transplanted to the garden beds at the proper time. This gives the gardener a jump on the season without risking premature direct seeding disappointment.

But transplants should not be taken from quiet greenhouses or window ledges and planted straight into the garden; they are not prepared for the variable temperature conditions and breezes which prevail in the great outdoors. Plants should first be exposed to a few hours of the outdoors over a period of five to seven days to allow them to acclimate to the conditions which prevail in the garden.

The process is called hardening off and is essential for healthy transplant survival. A mild breeze can kill a bed of transplanted, unhardened seedlings overnight and few garden disasters are more frustrating to the average gardener, or more easily avoided.

Patience is a virtue:

It is obvious that there are many potential pitfalls awaiting the gardener in early spring. Almost all of these are the result of rushing the season, an understandable but ultimately counterproductive activity. This is one time when “Hurry up and wait!” is sound gardening practice. 

That's all for now, thank you for visiting Farm Girl's Corner!

2 comments: said...

Great advice. My last frost date is May 15th but I had a freak freeze spell on Memorial day that killed all the tomato plants I already had set out. Now I wait until June first, just to be safe!

Raymond Alexander Kukkee said...

Mac, this is valuable advice, even for pro gardeners like Farm girl. We get pretty excited and want to get out there in the spring first thing.
Fact is, it's best to stay off of the garden until it's easily handled and reasonably dry.
If your soil has a lot of clay, it takes all summer to beat the resulting clods hard as bricks apart again if you dig or rototill too early. We wait as late as June 5th to put out the most tender plants, even though cabbage peas and such can be planted as early as May 20th some years. An enjoyable read!