The roller coaster weather of spring serves as a reminder that summer is on the way. To green thumbs, that summer weather means cucumbers, tomatoes, squash and corn — in short, a vegetable garden.
For some, it means looking forward to flats of plants purchased from nurseries bulging with green plant starts.
For others, it means finding exactly the plant they are looking for. Local nurseries will have a good selection of reasonably priced healthy transplants in popular varieties, but there are still some valid reasons to start your own. You might have a taste for an unusual variety not readily available locally. Starting vegetable transplants is one way to make sure you have just the plants you want by ordering seeds of newer varieties and grow plants that may not be available in stores.
It can be a fun watch-it-grow experience for children and adults. Sometimes going to the nursery will reward those exacting wishes, but sometimes it means doing a little preliminary work on their own.
The most important part of starting plants is timing. Plant seeds at the right time so they will be at the proper size for planting when the conditions are right. Decide first on the time for planting. The last frost is generally sometime around May 10 to 15 in Tooele Valley.
Then determine how long it takes from seeding to transplant size. Count back from the expected planting date that many days or weeks and start the seeds then.
Peppers and eggplants require eight to 10 weeks to develop. It is probably just a little late to start them unless you want to transplant them in June. You may still be able to start tomatoes for mid- to late-May transplanting because tomatoes need six to eight weeks from planting to reach the transplant stage. See the chart for transplant timing.
You may be able to hasten the growth of melons, squash and cucumbers by getting an early start, but some gardeners find that the setback of transplant shock gives very little advantage over planting seed. These plants, known as cucurbits, are very sensitive to transplanting. Do not start these plants too early, and do not let them get too large before planting them outside. They should not begin forming vines before you transplant them. These plants are best placed outdoors a couple of weeks after last frost (usually in late May) when the soil is warmer, so plan accordingly. Cucurbits do not stand transplant stress very well, so start them in peat pots, and place them directly in the soil without disturbing plant roots. Another option is to plant two seeds in a larger pot, select the best sprout of the two, and cut the other off at soil level. Slide the entire soil ball out into the garden before the plant becomes root bound.
Giant pumpkin growers often use this technique to get a jump on the weather.
Use the right soil mix. Garden soil is just fine in your garden, but it is much too heavy for starting plants in the confined area of pots. Starter mix is loose, well drained and light and usually contains a predominance of perlite or vermiculite.
Do not confuse starter mix with commercial potting soils that often lack drainage and stay too soggy for tender seeds.
My favorite homemade mixture is composed of equal parts peat moss, perlite and vermiculite. The components are already sterile, so there is no need to sterilize it. You can find good starting mixes by asking your favorite nursery to sell you some of whatever they use to start their seeds.
Pots or flats are the best items to use for growing transplants.
Milk cartons, yogurt or cottage cheese cartons, and other containers are not as good, but they can work provided they are clean and have a hole in the bottom for adequate drainage.
Sprinkle seeds close together and cover with about 1/4 to 1/8 inch of potting soil. Soak thoroughly, preferably by setting the flat or pot in a pan of warm water. Remove from the water and cover with a sheet of glass or layer of plastic to keep the moisture from evaporating too quickly.
Place the pots in a warm place (about 72 to 75 degrees). The top of a refrigerator or water heater is about that temperature. Remove coverings and place the seeds in better light as soon as the seeds germinate.
Sunlight is often the limiting factor in homegrown transplants.
A greenhouse window or greenhouse is ideal. Plants will often grow in a sunny south window but frequently they are spindly and weak. High temperatures also contribute to tall, spindly plants.
Get better results by using a bank of lights. An inexpensive shop light — fluorescent light fixture with cool-white tubes — is an excellent source of light. Hang the fixture no more than six to eight inches above the plants and leave it on for 12 to14 hours per day. Move the light up as the plants grow taller.
Lower the temperature at night by 5 to 10 degrees. Plants respire according to the temperature, so if the night temperature is too high, they use up the sugars photosynthesized during the daylight hours resulting in small, spindly plants.
The first leaves that appear on a new sprout are not true leaves. True leaves are the first that carry the shape of the adult leaf. Separate seedlings when the first true leaves appear.
Lift tender seedlings by their leaves to avoid breaking stems, and place them in their own separate pot or container in potting soil. Soil need not be sterilized but should be well drained.
When gardening weather approaches, begin “hardening off” the plants by gradually exposing them to cooler temperatures for 7 to 10 days before planting outside. Protecting the tender plants from wind damage is a good idea.
Plant transplants carefully, and protect them from early season chills and wind for a few days as they adapt.
Tips for the Week
• Get excellent garden advice and learn more about it from the experts at the Tooele Spring Garden Expo Saturday, April 16, hosted by the Tooele County Master Gardeners. Registration is at 9:30 a.m.; the seminar runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Shelley Zollinger, Temple Square gardener and co-author of Temple Square Gardening will be the special guest speaker talking about landscaping ideas. Master Gardeners will teach workshops on annuals, lawn care, water-wise perennials, trees, propagation, and shrubs and vines. A fee of $5 will cover the cost of materials. For more information, call the USU Extension Office at 843-2350.
• Gardening in this area requires specific techniques. If you have garden questions you would like answered in “The Garden Spot,” submit them to me via e-mail at “mailto:email@example.com” firstname.lastname@example.org or mail them to 883 E. Erda Way, Erda, Utah 84074, or submit them at the Transcript Bulletin office.
• Now is the time, if your soil is dry enough, to plant early season vegetables such as beets, carrots, radishes and transplants of broccoli, cauliflower and other cole crops for an early season harvest.
• Come to the spring bulb contest and show this Saturday, April 9, at the home of Barbara Barlow, 394 West 2nd South in Tooele. Flowers will be entered from 9-9:30 a.m. and the public is invited to the free show between 10 a.m. and Noon.
Anyone can enter favorite spring bulb flowers. Knowing the names of the flowers you are entering is ideal, but not necessary.
Entrance is free and prizes will be awarded. Everyone who comes has one vote for a favorite flower. First, second and third prizes of $15, $10 and $5 will be awarded based on the public vote. Bring your tulips, hyacinths, Siberian Squill, Muscari (Grape Hyancinths) Frittalaria, Glories in the Snow, Iris Reticulata, and any other spring flowering bulbs to enter. For more information, contact Mary Durtschi at 843-0144.