Monday, January 14, 2013

Winter Wonders - Making a planting schedule

Last week, I wrote about how fun it is to page through the newly arrived seed catalogs. I talked about the process of deciding what you wanted to plant, and figuring out how much of it you need to have on hand. Once you've gotten all your seeds ordered, you have to figure out when to plant them, and where to plant them. You have to know whether to start them indoors or put them straight into the ground in your garden. You need to be aware of whether they need full or partial sun, which means knowing what types of plants are growing next to one another.

When figuring out planting dates, the first task we have to complete is finding out our last frost date for the winter. According to the almanac, here in New Hampshire our last spring frost date is around May 20th, and we have a growing season of about 124 days.

Our seed catalog tells us that tomatoes take 40-60 days to mature, and do not do well until the soil temperature hits about 60F. This means that planting tomato seeds directly into the ground is going to yield few, if any, tomatoes. We'll need to start this indoors. We know that by Memorial Day the soil is about the right temperature, and our seed packets will tell us that sowing about six weeks before the last frost date is just about right. Counting six weeks back from May 20 puts us at an indoor sowing date of around April 1 through 8.

If we sow our tomato seeds indoors between April 1 and 8, by May 20 they will be ready to start hardening off (putting them outside in the sun for a couple of hours a day). By May 27, Memorial Day, we can be assured that they'll survive. If we do happen to have a frost past that date, and it sometimes happens up here in the North, we can cover our seedlings with floating row covers or tarps, or even an upturned bucket for the night.

We also know tomatoes need full sun in order to produce well. This means we have to make sure that they aren't shaded by anything else in the garden. If you plant something tall near tomatoes (like sunflowers, for instance), be sure to put the tomatoes on the sunny side, so the towering flowers don't hide them from the sun.

Each plant you want to grow needs to be given the same attention to detail, counting back to plant dates based on the last frost date. Some vegetables, such as peas, actually enjoy a little frost and will sprout better in cooler soil. Read the information on the back of each and every seed packet you purchase, and read up on the plants on the internet, too. If you're still not sure, call your local Agricultural Extension and they will have the answers you need.

When planting indoors, remember that you will need to water frequently. Some seeds may need special circumstances in order to sprout properly. These might include overnight chilling in the fridge or a snow bank, a warm seed mat to raise the temperature, or a breeze to make the stems work out once they do sprout.

I've found that putting plants into clear plastic bins works wonders for sprouting and growing. Drill a few holes in the side for air circulation, then put your seed pots into the plastic bin(s) and put the lid on. The miniature greenhouse will help keep moisture in and temperatures fairly steady. They also allow you to pick up your seedlings, en mass, and take them outside on particularly warm or sunny days, or move them from window to window as the sun moves. Watering can be done from the bottom (something important for seedlings, as it encourages root growth downward) simply by pouring water into the bins and letting it soak up into your plants. Don't let the seedlings sit in the water, though - pour it out if they haven't absorbed it all in 30 minutes or so. Too much water can encourage mold growth.

Once you know all the dates you ought to be planting on, write them onto your calendar or in a prominent place. I put mine both onto my desk calendar, and onto my Google Calendar (which emails me 24 hours beforehand to remind me to do things!). I know when to plant things indoors, when to move them onto the porch to harden, and then when to plant them out in the garden. I also make note of where in the garden they should go, so that when the time comes it's just a matter of going out, digging up a spot, and putting them gently in their new home.

The more planning you do now, the better your garden will be in May. Once spring rolls around, you'll be busy with other things, and there won't be as much time for all this planning. By putting the time in now, you save yourself time and effort later!

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You may also be interested in:

Winter Wonders - the seed catalog
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Winter is here!