Since I’ve been waxing eloquent (or maybe not very eloquent) the past few days about taking seedlings inside and outside and inside and outside and whether or not I’m abusing them in the process, I thought now would be a good time to talk about hardening off seedlings. We’ll use what I did as a comparison against what you actually should do. (Isn’t it comforting to know that even though I supposedly know what I’m doing, I still sometimes decide to do something different? Luckily, plants are usually forgiving!)
So if you start some seeds indoors, they need to be acclimated to our Kansas weather before planting in the garden. This process is generally called “hardening off.”
The RIGHT way to harden off plants:
1. On a nice, warm day, set the plants out in a semi-shady, protected area for a few hours, then bring them in. Do this for 2-3 days.
2. Gradually move the plants into a sunnier, less-protected area over a period of a week.
3. After about a week, start leaving the plants outside all day and overnight to adapt them to both high and low temperatures.
4. In about 2 weeks, plants will be mostly adapted to the highs and lows, full, bright sunlight, and at least moderate wind.
What I actually DID this week:
1. Put the tomatoes out in the middle of the garden on a warm, sunny day, then left them overnight and into the next day.
2. Put the peppers and eggplant out in the middle of the garden the next day.
3. Took them inside when the weather threatened.
4. Put them back outside again, even though they were looking a bit scorched.
5. Brought them back inside for the weekend.
I don’t know about you, but going into the fertilizer and chemical section of a garden center can be a daunting experience. Even though I am knowledgable about fertilizers and I always go in knowing what I need, it can still be hard to find what I want. All the swirling colors and confusing slogans make it hard to figure out what I should be buying!
So if it is hard for me, how should a new gardener figure out what to buy? Here are some keys to understanding fertilizers:
- Those numbers on the bag mean something. 25-4-6 is not some kind of secret code, but rather your key to know what is in the bag. The numbers stand for Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium (N-P-K), the three most important nutrients your plants need.
- The numbers refer to the percentage of nutrient. So a 25-4-6 fertilizer is 25% Nitrogen, 4% Phosphorus, and 6% Potassium.
- Synthetic vs. organic fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers are usually mined and processed rock or a chemically synthesized form. (Nitrogen frequently is a petroleum by-product.) Organic fertilizers come from an organic source (decomposed or processed plant or animal matter, such as bloodmeal or bonemeal). Both types are good fertilizers, but organic fertilizers are frequently more expensive.
- Vegetables need a lot of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need a balanced fertilizer, such as a 10-10-10. You should take a soil test to determine if your soil is deficient in phosphorus or potassium. Why apply a fertilizer if you don’t need it?
- Liquid or granular? You can buy a granular fertilizer that you incorporate into the soil before planting or sidedress (sprinkle around the plants on the soil surface) after planting. You can also buy a fertilizer that you mix with water and apply regularly throughout the growing season. It really depends on what you find easiest.
- “Extras”. For your vegetable garden, do NOT buy a fertilizer that also contains an insecticide or herbicide. Those products are not meant to be used for edible crops.
- Can I use manure? Compost and well-composted manures are great for your garden, both as a source of organic matter and as a source of nutrients. (Manure should be composted. If using raw manure, you should wait 180 days before harvesting any produce from that garden.) However, it is hard to know exactly how much of any given nutrient compost or manures contain.
Many first time gardeners (even many experienced gardeners) prefer to buy plants (often called transplants) to start their gardens in the spring. This is a great idea for many plants, while others do much better grown from seed sown directly in the garden.
Here is a list of vegetables that should be planted in the garden as transplants:
- Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Brussels Sprouts
- Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplant
- Onions (or plant onion sets – the small bulbs you can buy in bags)
- Sweet potatoes
Often you will see vine crops sold as plants – cucumbers, melons, squash, pumpkins. Vine crops do not transplant well if the plants are more than 3 weeks old. They often do poorly even at that age. I always recommend planting vine crops from seed directly into the garden. They will be up and growing quickly in the warm May soils, so there is little advantage to buying the plants.
So if you will be purchasing plants this spring, what should you look for?
- Stout plants with thick stems that are not tall and leggy.
- Dark green plants that appear healthy. Pale green or yellow plants indicate poor nutrition or disease problems.
- Plants that are not over-mature. You should be planting a relatively young plant. You don’t want the tomato to have flowers or small green fruit on it yet because you want it to put on good vegetative growth after planting.
- A good quality variety with characteristics you desire. If you are planting in a small space, make sure you are buying a plant that will fit that space.
Another tip – don’t be tempted to buy plants too early! A good quality plant will become a poor quality plant if you have to keep it inside for more than a week or two before planting time arrives!
Here’s a fun video about a man who started a garden in front of his “white house” in order to lobby the President to put a garden in front of the White House. The organization behind it is Eat The View. Obviously this is a bit after-the-fact, since it was in the news a couple weeks ago about Michelle Obama out starting a garden with a school class. But the video is an interesting look at starting a garden and the history of gardens at the White House.
CNN has this story today about people turning to gardening in the recession. I don’t know if they coined the term “recession garden,” or if they got it from someone else. I’m not sure I like that term, but I’m all for gardening regardless of the reason behind it!
There is a lot of hype about how much money you can save in food from a small vegetable garden. Part of the goal for our Family of 4 Garden this year is to keep great records of how much we are harvesting and equating the harvest with food costs and savings. I will be very interested to see what the results are!