How early is too early to plant?

The Progress-Index - At Home - - NEWS - BY DEAN FOS­DICK

“Plant early and you’ll plant of­ten” is an old say­ing con­tain­ing more than a ker­nel of cau­tion. Tim­ing is ev­ery­thing in gar­den­ing.

Start too soon and you’ll lose your crop to lin­ger­ing spring frosts. Too late and you’ll gam­ble with win­terkill be­fore you can har­vest.

So when is the right time to put plants in the ground?

That de­pends on your lo­ca­tion; soil type and tem­per­a­ture; mi­cro­cli­mates, and plant se­lec­tion, said Shawn Olsen, an agri­cul­ture pro­fes­sor with Utah State Univer­sity.

“One of the most un­der­uti­lized tools in gar­den­ing is the soil ther­mome­ter,” Olsen said. “Plant your cool weather crops when the soil warms to 35 or 40 de­grees. Go with your warm weather crops when it gets up to 55 or 60 de­grees.”

Also pay at­ten­tion to the vari­abil­ity of ma­tu­rity dates listed on seed pack­ets and plants, he said. “Many radishes, for ex­am­ple, ma­ture in 30 days.”

Mi­cro­cli­mates play a large role, Olsen said.

“In this area, it makes a huge dif­fer­ence if you’re plant­ing on the top of a slope, the mid­dle or on the bot­tom, be­cause cold air tends to go down,” he said.

Any­thing that is heat-ab­sorb­ing or gives off in­frared ra­di­a­tion at night is use­ful. That means plant­ing along­side a house, stone walls or out­build­ings.

“Gen­er­ally speak­ing, the south side of a build­ing is warmer; the north side cooler,” Olsen said. “Learn to take ad­van­tage of that.”

Loose, sandy soil with a sunny ex­po­sure will dry early, he said, while “wet, packed soil takes longer. Your plants will just sit there.”

Have some sea­son-ex­tend­ing tools avail­able — cold frames, frost blan­kets, grow lights, high or low tun­nels, row cov­ers or a hobby green­house, said Lewis Jett, an ex­ten­sion hor­ti­cul­tur­ist with West Vir­ginia Univer­sity.

“You can get a two-week buf­fer with plant­ing aids,” he said. “Some give you as many as three to eight weeks.”

Raised beds or any­thing that warms the soil, like mulch, is go­ing to be help­ful, he said. “If a per­son is try­ing to be early, hav­ing some sort of a mulch down is crit­i­cal to the crop — es­pe­cially warm-sea­son crops like mel­ons or toma­toes.”

It also pays to know your USDA plant har­di­ness zone.

“Look to your state ex­ten­sion ser­vice cal­en­dars,” Jett said. “They’ll give you the dates of the av­er­age early frost and the av­er­age late frost. A good time to start plant­ing is right af­ter that spring date.”

Learn to dis­tin­guish be­tween cool-sea­son and warm-sea­son plants.

Cab­bage, broc­coli, onions, peas, radishes, spinach and turnips are typ­i­cal cool-sea­son crops. Th­ese hardy plants will tol­er­ate light frosts, pre­fer tem­per­a­tures in the 50- to 60de­gree range and lose some of their qual­ity in the heat. They can be planted again in mid- to late sum­mer for a fall har­vest.

Toma­toes, can­taloupe, wa­ter­melon, egg­plant and pump­kins, on the other hand, are ten­der plants crav­ing warmth, or read­ings at least 15 de­grees higher than the cool sea­son va­ri­eties. Start them early in a green­house or in­doors, trans­plant­ing them af­ter night­time tem­per­a­tures mod­er­ate.

“The eas­i­est way to get things grow­ing is to put them un­der flu­o­res­cent lights in a PVC pipe net­work cov­ered by green­house plas­tic,” Olsen said. “Sunny win­dows gen­er­ally don’t have enough en­ergy to grow plants.”

AP PHOTO/DEAN FOS­DICK

This photo taken on Oct. 5, shows radishes, car­rots, turnips, and beets, at a farmer’s mar­ket near Lan­g­ley, Wash. Cool sea­son veg­eta­bles like th­ese will tol­er­ate a light frost and can be planted when the soil warms to 35- or 40 de­grees. They can be...

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