Last week, I gave the prediction that our warm weather will not continue uninterrupted, but that we would have cold spells before we do move in the long-term warm up as spring progresses. While I’m not one to name drop (ahem!) some of the biologists at the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) are expressing that same prediction, with some dire consequences for wildlife. Because it has been warm for so long, it’s tricked both hibernating animals like bears, as well as wild fowl, into thinking spring is here. For the fowl, it means that egg clutches that are now being laid risking the very real possibility of killing frosts. For bears, it means activity and foraging in populated areas, such as when one of the ski slopes was shut down last week due to a bear wanting to join the fun!
I’ve said all this to reinforce that fact that no matter what year it is, spring is different every year. Data shows that there is one thing that is constant: weather unpredictability. Sure, we know that as we get later in the year, warmth will get settled in. But getting there greatly varies from year to year. I remember shortly after we moved here from southeast Arizona, it snowed in June. Not just a little bit. It really blanketed our place and temperatures plummeted. I remember us looking at each other and saying, “What have we done? This place has just a few months of summer and its back to cold.” At that point, those 110-degree summers didn’t look too bad back in the Sonoran Desert.
Fortunately, that year was an enigma. However, every year, there are fits and starts of warmth, bright sunshine, calm skies, contrasted with bursts of wind, sleet, rain and snow. It’s just the way it is. There is no weather switch that turns on causing the weather to be what we think it should be each season. So knowing that, and taking into account our desire to get gardening for the year, what are some methods you can get started earlier, while protecting your young plants?
Let’s begin with plants that are started inside and moved to their outside home later in the season. This is the preferred method for a whole host of well-known garden crops such as tomato, pepper, eggplant, lettuce, watermelon, cantaloupe, cabbage, squash and so forth. If done properly, all of these will do quite well being started inside, potted, hardened off by gradual exposure to outside conditions, planting in the garden, and protecting until needed average temperatures are attained.
The first method is to have your starts on a movable rack. With the wide range of economical plastic or metal racking available, it’s easy to mount a unit on casters, and cover with flexible plastic for both temperature and humidity control. Add fluorescent lights and simple adjuster chains and you’ve got both an efficient starter set up and a mobile unit that can be rolled out during favorable weather to harden off your starts.
If you have starts, but no moveable rack, a cold frame is easy to construct. A good entry model can simply be three bales of straw (which you can get for $5 each at the self-serve supply in front of a home on West Erda Way), a sheet of plastic, and a three pieces of wood. Simply place the bales in a “C” shape, with the open side facing south in a sunny area. Place a piece of wood across the front of the “C” resting on the top of the bales and affix through a couple of holes on each end with some stiff wire or barn spikes. This will keep the plastic from collapsing into the middle of the opening. Cut your plastic large enough that it can be tacked down on the edge of the back bale and flow across the top of the adjacent bales, over the wood on the front of the “C” and onto the ground with about 12 inches left over. Then, affix the plastic to the back bale with a wood strip and spikes. Roll the front edge of the plastic around a piece of wood and staple it to create a combo weight and handle. Voila! You now have a cold frame. Place your starts in the enclosure and keep them slightly moist. Be sure to open and close the top both for day and night, as well as cold weather. This process is called “hardening” as it creates resilient tissues in the plant, making it much more likely to thrive during its transition into the soil.
Another approach is to use “Wall O’ Water” devices. This is conical shaped structure with vertical chambers that are filled with water. The thermal mass of the water absorbs cold that would otherwise be transmitted to the plant. This is even true when the water is frozen! Because a filled protector will weigh about twenty pounds, it also helps with wind protection, although I recommend a teepee of three stakes in the inside to help. While there are competing brands on the market, the original seems to be the best, simply because it’s plastic and “welds” that create the water chambers are more durable than others I’ve tried. They are a Montana company, so we can feel good supporting regional business! They can be placed and filled before planting (to prep and warm the soil beforehand) or after you’ve planted. Whenever you do place them, use a five gallon bucket, upside down if you’ve already planted, inside the Wall O’ Water to hold it erect during filling. Use a controlled water stream such as a spouted watering can, to avoid overfilling and soil rutting. Fill the chambers to 4/5th’s full, then gently remove the bucket. This type of device is especially good for tomatoes, peppers, cantaloupes, watermelon and eggplants. The company claims you can plant your seedlings 4 to 6 weeks earlier than you could without this protection.
You can also use wire hoops and spun polyester or plastics to both help protect your plants from wind and wildlife grazing as well as raising the soil and air temperature faster. Check out our video to see how to do this by visiting www.youtube.com/watch?v=voQnz5IHwRQ. A picture, or in this case, a video, is worth a 1,000 words.
Now, let’s talk about crops that you’ll direct sow in your garden plot. This includes corn, beans, peas, radishes, and carrots.
A common mistake we gardeners make is to think that just because it’s warm outside that it’s time to plant. What really matters is the soil temperature. Plant too early, and the seed won’t germinate, and may rot. Plant too late, and your crop will come in late or not at all. So, to get direct-sown crops in the ground earlier, your strategy must be to warm the soil and reduce temperature fluctuations. In commercial operations, this is done by using high tunnels (also known as hoop houses) and green houses.
So, how do we get the soil temperature up in our home gardens without the expense that these structures require? Simple! A sheet of inexpensive, clear (not black), light gauge plastic, often sold as a painter’s drop cloth. Prepare your seedbed for whatever you’re going to plant. Smooth the soil, and place the sheet of plastic over the surface and bury about eight inches of the border. Keep the plastic as wrinkle-free as you can as you do this. Let the bed be dormant until all the weeds germinate and are killed off by the high heat attained at the soil surface during the day. When temps reach 50 to 60 degrees two or three inches down, you are really to plant. Cut the plastic only where you are going to plant to maintain soil heat and suppress weeds. If you are using irrigation tape, place it under the plastic as well to assure water gets where it needs to. The plastic will degrade over the season and disintegrate.
There you have it! Five strategies you can use to get going faster. Let the games begin!
One more thing. With a low water reserve summer facing us, there’s no better time to learn how to economically and effectively make use of drip irrigation systems. Not only do these systems put water only where it’s needed and restrict water availability to weeds, you’ll save water ongoing. The Master Gardeners are hosting a free class on drip irrigation, presented by two active gardeners in the Grantsville area — Ron Haycock and Matt Bunkall. Come and see how they set up their systems, and get started in your garden this season! The class will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m. at the USU Extension Classroom at 151 N. Main. We’ll see you there!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.