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Starting the Season Early

(This article is re-printed from a 2008 SSCG Newsletter.)

I’m forever starting my vegetable plants too early...

I’ve been guilty of setting little sixpacks of soil on my windowsill in late January, peppered with tomato seeds. I tuck myself under the down comforter at night with visions of plum tomatoes dancing in my head. But by mid-March I find myself panicking over the giant, gangling tomato vines that need to be put out in the garden right now! I prop them up with bamboo sticks and wish for the snow to melt and the frosty nights to end. Last year I showed great restraint, and I actually waited until February before starting my tomatoes inside. Surprisingly, it all worked out very well, because I had discovered “Walls-O-Water”.

What fabulous things! I filled and set the "Walls-O-Water" out to warm the soil a week before planting. I still had gigantic, spindly plants, but I’d read someplace that tomatoes will root along the stem. So I picked off all the leaves on the lower 8 to 10 inches of stem, and buried them really, really deeply. Then I replaced the watery little greenhouses, and hoped for the best. Despite snow and frost and freezing nights, all but one plant made it... And I suspect that a cutworm was the culprit in that one case! I was very fortunate to have the first tomatoes of the season in my own community garden plot, which of course attracted the mice to my plot first - but that’s another story.

Anyway, I was interested to see "Walls-O-Water" mentioned, along with several other tips, in an article in “Grit” magazine this month. There are actually quite a few early season starters that gardeners can try out. Former gardeners, Miguel and Danielle, set up a plastic tunnel in an insulated bed in their plot. It was costly to do the insulated bed, but they were then able to grow greens all winter long. (Be sure to open the ends of the tunnels for air circulation on warm days, or your plants might get overheated!) Floating row covers can also be used, and they won’t overheat, but they also won’t stay as warm in the winter. Hoop frames a system made from hoops of wire or PVC pipes bent over rebar stakes can keep fabric off of delicate plants. Cloches are another option for small plants. Jugs with the bottoms cut off, large jars, or bell-shaped commercially produced cloches can be used. These are best used when severe freezing temperatures are over and frost is the only danger. Again, it is important to open or remove them on warm days. And of course if you’re feeling ambitious, a cold frame can be built. This is a wood box with an angled window in the top to let sun and warmth in. The box can be painted a dark color for the most solar benefit, and the window/ lid should be able to be propped open on warm days. (If you decide to go this route, it might not be a bad idea to try the local recycling places for used windows!)

Good luck with your early gardening projects!

Kristen - a long time SSCG gardener

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