Column: Readying spring gardens, even when it is damp

Ed. — Originally published in the Sunday, March 14, print edition.

Jane Bloodworth Rowe [Courtesy]

VIRGINIA BEACH — It’s getting to be spring gardening season when the days get longer and the late afternoon sun seems to shine at a different angle.

Or maybe not.

While local gardeners like to begin preparing the soil for cool weather crops about mid-February, this year’s wet winter may have turned your garden spot into a water-logged sea of mud, too wet to plow, dig and sow seeds.

Still, there’s a narrow window in which to plant cool weather vegetables, including most leafy green vegetables, beets and cauliflower, as well as some herbs such as parsley and chives. These plants can tolerate some frost but need to get their growth before the hot weather begins. 

The Virginia Cooperative Extension Service recommends planting potatoes in February and March, and other very cold hardy vegetables – including lettuce, onions, May peas and radishes – should be set out in early March.

So what to do when the weather’s too wet for planting? 

Master Gardener Jessie Basso has found a solution. She plants her spring vegetable seeds in plastic clamshells, or small food containers with small ventilation holes. She fills the containers with potting soil to create a “mini-terrarium,” plants the seeds and leaves them outside.

Sunlight can penetrate the plastic, but the soil is protected at least a little from the cold, so the seeds begin to germinate in about 10 days. When the young seedlings put out a couple of true leaves, they can be set directly into the ground.

If you want to get a jump start on your summer vegetables, including tomatoes and peppers, you can plant them in containers indoors in March.

“Start indoors in March to set out in May,” Basso said, and remember to put them in a sunny window. A southern exposure is ideal, and on warm days you can set them outside in the sun. Just remember to bring them in at night.

You also have the option of buying vegetable plants from nurseries. If you do this, you can wait until late March or early April to set them out. Don’t wait too long, though, because most cool weather vegetables can’t tolerate summer heat. 

Still, while most leafy green vegetables will bolt and go to seed after a few hot days, my experience has been that kale and mustard can tolerate some heat as long as the outer leaves are frequently harvested. 

Of all of the different types of lettuces, I’ve had the best luck with romaine, which I have sometimes coaxed along until about July 4. 

Some leafy green vegetables and herbs are also more cold-hardy than others, and, if you planted a fall garden, you probably still have some collards, kale and mustard greens. My dill, although a little cold-burned, is also still growing. My parsley is now returning from the roots after the top portion succumbed to cold, or perhaps to a visiting rabbit or rodent.

I had very little lettuce left this past month, though, and Basso said that her lettuce plants suffered when the leaves became waterlogged in this winter’s heavy rains.  

“Some of the leaves just melted,” she said. 

Of all cool weather crops, she and I both think that spinach is probably the most finicky because it seems to thrive only in a very narrow range of temperatures.  

Very young spinach plants don’t thrive when the nights are still consistently below freezing, but the plants also don’t fare well if the daytime temperatures reach into the 80s. 

That makes it a little high risk in either the spring, which can be pretty cold in this area, or in the fall, which can be balmy. Radishes, on the other hand, are less picky and can germinate in both very cold and fairly warm temperatures, Basso said. 

The author is a contributor to The Independent News. Her journalism has also appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.

© 2021 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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