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After fighting months of cabin fever, by the time the first pretty weekend arrives in late winter, we find ourselves at the garden center or nursery, buying up seedlings and planting them outside, far too early. Last month, I addressed what to do to try and keep them alive until temperatures warmed up.
But no matter when you plant, the goal is the same: get those plants off to a fast start and enjoy the bounty that is sure to come…or will it? With a few important steps at planting time and along the way, the chances of enjoying your harvest go up tremendously.
Location, location, location
Vegetable plants need full sun, which means a good eight hours to get the most out of your plants. Can you get by on less? Sure, but your results will decline significantly based on fewer hours of light. And although young plants may not be shaded at the start, as they grow up and plants around them grow up more, it’s common for the larger plants to crowd and shade out slower growing or smaller plants. It’s also common for overhanging tree limbs to become a problem later in spring, once they leaf out completely.
The bottom line is, your plants need good sunlight now, as they use this energy to grow deep roots and strong shoots. There’s a lot going on as a plant establishes itself in the ground. Sunlight is the energy source that is responsible for allowing everything else to happen. Plants deprived of sufficient light early have a harder time recovering.
It’s all about the soil
Place seedlings in soil that stays either too damp or too dry and your plants will never produce the results you hoped for. The general rule for nearly all vegetable seedlings is they need soil that’s moist but not wet. Too wet and they’ll rot. Conversely, extended periods of dry soil between watering can stunt growth and disrupt the healthy growth cycle that is so dependant on the proper level or moisture being available to the plant.
There are two things you can do to ensure the water issue is properly addressed. First, before you stick the first plant in the ground, invest in the soil. It doesn’t necessarily require any financial outlay. But what is required is plenty of organic matter, in the form of rotted leaves, shredded bark or mulch, rotted manure, or true compost. If your original soil is either sandy or heavy, adding organic matter will improve those conditions and create conditions in the soil that will allow water to drain more freely while holding sufficient moisture as well.
Once you’ve improved the soil and growing conditions for your plants, make the most of it. The most efficient use of water, and the best way to keep your plants healthy when it comes to irrigation, is to install soaker hoses or drip irrigation. Either way, the goal is to deliver water to the root zone, not the leaves, at a measured rate and frequency. Plan on providing about an inch and a half of water each week to the roots. How long does that take? Time it. Drop a tuna can under your hose or drip emitter and see how long it takes to provide an inch of volume. That’s how long it takes. However, since the desired goal is to maintain consistent soil moisture, you’ll want to spread this out, maybe every other day or every 3 days and adjust your timer accordingly.
As important as it is to keep your soil moist, do what you can to help keep it there and reduce the amount of water you need to add. A layer of mulch, such as wheat straw, rotted leaves, bark, etc. spread about one to two inches thick will insulate the soil, hold moisture in, reduce weed competition and even suppress soil-born diseases from splashing up on susceptible plant foliage.
Easy does it on the Fertilizer
As tempting as it may be to add an extra dose of fertilizer on your young plants, be careful. Too much of a good thing here, is NOT a good thing. Synthetic, water-soluble fertilizers are salt-based and can easily burn tender young plants. A better option is to focus on building your soil with organic matter before adding plants. Again, compost, aged manure and even worm castings are just a few of the amendments that will provide important nutrients in a non-burning, natural way, while improving the soil at the same time.
More often than not, we’re so anxious to get our gardens off to a fast start; we take shortcuts and try to fix the problems in ways that just aren’t conducive to a truly productive garden. This season, if you want to get your seedlings started off right and enjoy a bountiful garden, don’t love them to death. Stick to the basics and you’ll have your best garden yet.