Well folks, its that time of year when a lot of gardeners thoughts turn to spring, regardless of the dusting of snow on the ground this morning or Paxutany Phil’s winter prediction tomorrow. In six weeks, it will be time to start planting early root vegetables like potatoes, onions (seed), garlic (if it wasn’t planted last fall), radishes and turnips. (Click here to go to the GIEI calendar for central Maryland. If you are not in central Maryland, click here to go to the dynamic calendar, where you can enter your last frost date and get an adjusted planting calendar). Other vegetables that can be sown or planted in mid-March are peas, fava beans, cabbage (transplants), leaf lettuce and spinach. Late March and early April is a very busy time of year as a lot of cool season root crops like carrots, beets, horseradish (roots), leeks (transplants or seed), onion (sets or transplants), parsnips and shallots (sets) can be put into the garden. Other cool weather crops like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, celeric, celery, collards, head lettuce, parsley (all transplants), kale, kohlrabi, mustard, and Swiss chard (seeds or transplants) can also be planted this time of year.
In early spring, a large number of the vegetables we plant are transplants. We can buy these transplants at the local nursery or big box store and take the chance the store will have the variety of vegetable we are looking for or we can grow our own transplants. I prefer to grow my own transplants because it allows me to grow vegetables (like Packman broccoli, Snow Crown cauliflower, and buttercrunch lettuce) I won’t find anywhere and I know do well here in Clarksville.
It’s not hard or expensive to grow your own transplants, all you need is your preferred vegetable seed, a fluorescent light fixture, a stand to hold the fixture, seed starting media (think soil-less mix), containers, water and a warm place to germinate the seed. The GIEI website has a lot of information on starting seeds under lights. (click here to go to this information and links to videos on seed starting.) My fluorescent light setup is made up of older, recycled T-12 fixtures. Fluorescent tubes for these fixtures are being phased out in favor of newer, more efficient T-8 tubes which require T-8 fixtures. T-8 fixtures are relatively inexpensive. A four foot, two tube fixture (shop light) costs between $20-$25 and will provide light for two 11 by 22 inch flats, while a four tube fixture (two by four feet) costing about $40 will provide light for four flats. So a PVC stand, two tube fixture and fluorescent tubes will cost around $50. This may seem expensive, but remember that two flats of transplants can cost $30 and that these lights will allow you to raise transplant for many years in the future.
In my garden, I use a cold frame to protect tender seedlings and harden them off. On cold windy days and at night, I lower the top to protect the seedlings. On nice days, I leave it propped open as shown in the above photo. If you don’t have a cold frame, introduce your seedling to the outdoors gradually by placing them in a sheltered place out of direct sun and wind for the first couple of days and then moving them into less sheltered area with more sun. For a full discussion on hardening off, click here or here. And don’t let your transplants dry out.
After about a week of hardening off, your transplants can be planted in the garden. Plant them at the same depth that they are growing in the container and water them in with a half strength water soluble fertilizer solution. In late March and early April, I place wire hoops over my raised beds and cover my transplants with row cover. This protects my early broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kohlrabi seedlings from pests and provides an extra four degrees of temperature protection from fickle spring frosts.
I use my fluorescent lights starting in early February through late July to early August. I raise transplants for initial planting in spring and summer as well as for succession planting during the summer and fall. For example, I know that squash vine bores will get my early planting of zucchini so when I take the row cover of the zucchini so that they can be pollinated, I’ll start a set of replacement transplants in four inch pots under lights. In June, I’ll start some broccoli, cauliflower and collard seeds for planting sometime in early August.
So, if your interested in growing transplants for vegetable varieties you select and maximizing the use of your garden by having succession transplants ready to go into the garden when space becomes available, get a couple of T-8 fluorescent fixtures and start growing.