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Intrepid Urban Farmer: Warm weather entices, but don’t dress up plants when they have no place to go

A record-breaking temperature of 72 degrees on a recent Saturday did little to cool off my keen anticipation to get on with Gardening 2016. It caught me short. I went outside early afternoon and was astounded by the warmth and beautiful sunshine. I’ve got a bad itch that needs to be scratched.

I had to do something. So, since I don’t have a greenhouse (yet!), and I have many packets of seed just picking at me and driving me to get on with it, I jumped into my Jeep and visited one of my favorite greenhouses, Jackson Florists in Latonia.

There wasn’t much going on there just yet, but in addition to a full range of fertilizers and seed, they did have soil mix for seedlings and bags of chicken manure. So, in order to feel like I was doing something, ANYTHING, to further the mission of Gardening 2016, I bought some. I am ready.

plant hardiness

But when? When to start? I have spoken with several of my gardening compatriots and they are champing at the bit. They are, in fact, I believe, ready to start right away. It’s just the end of February!

Whoa Nelly! Put the brakes on that horse! Unless you have a greenhouse or somewhere to put plants out in a protected manner before the last frost date, you’re going to find yourself with plants that are all dressed up with nowhere to go. Or, even worse, you’ll take them out and a very nasty Mr. Frost will ruin the whole party.

Now, everybody has a different gardening setup and philosophy. Bear in mind that this is mine. What works for me may not fit in with your ideas or setup. This is the great thing about gardening. Your garden is your universe. You are the king of all you survey.

My kingdom runs on this schedule:

First, I refer to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. We, in Covington, Kentucky, are in zone six. The exact date for the last frost on the current USDA chart is April 15th. Even though this is the specified date, there is still a 50/50 chance that frost will squelch your efforts. Also, erratic weather patterns can occur. I prefer to give that date a little wider berth.

USDA zones

It is generally agreed, among experienced gardeners, that waiting until Mother’s Day to set out seedlings is a safer plan. The chance of experiencing the heartbreak of that masher, Mr. Frost, is less. I don’t like to do things twice, so I wait for this date. And even then, after having followed this dictum for many years, there have been a few scares. Not pleasant. But fortunately no disasters.

Also, practically speaking, it is easier to remember Mother’s Day as that most important date. I guess I could focus on April 15and remember it as tax day. But, like preparing taxes, this requires more computation and, in addition, makes me grumpy. I’m sticking with Mother’s Day.

Having established the last frost date, we can now decide when it is good to start the seed. It takes roughly six to eight weeks for seed to germinate and mature to the point where it is ready to join the garden party. Hence, seed starting is marked on the calendar between March 15th. to around the first week of April. This is when the second-floor office/nursery on Russell St. kicks into high gear.

During this six to eight week period, there are a flurry of different activities, both on my part and the effort of the plants staking out their claims to join the natural world. I am the grunt that does the heavy lifting and they perform the miracles.

Since I take my role as chief grunt very seriously, I’m going to be the best grunt I can be.

I bet right now you’re wondering how I’m going to do that. Well, to be a good grunt you’ve got to have a plan backed by a well thought-out philosophy. Be a thinking grunt.

Pay no attention to that Dorothy Parker quote, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”

I have found that if you foster a consistent, continuous, steady growth cycle for your plants, you will have the healthiest and highest yielding results you can get.

Seed started from a previous year.

Seed started from a previous year.

Start your seed in small pots. Cowpots (made from sterilized cow poo) are my favorites. Plant two or three seeds in each one. When they are starting to form their first set of true leaves (the second set you’ll see), thin each pot to the best one, using small scissors to clip the losers off. This is the least disruptive way to thin the seedlings. How does it feel to be a king-maker?

I have to mention that using heat mats and clear plastic covers will kick-start germination. I always go this route. It cuts down the germination time for all seed, and in some cases, it can be by as much as 50 percent.

When the little plants look like they are happy and on their way, I move them from the heat mat to the grow lights. Don’t leave on the plastic covers. They need air circulation. Otherwise, a tragic condition called “damping-off” can occur. It is a type of fungal disease. One day everything looks great, and the next, every little plant you have is lying over dead on its side; roots totally rotted. “What fresh hell is this?” you say to yourself, quoting Dorothy Parker. If this happens, not only will you be back to square one, you will also have to disinfect every part of your seed-starting apparatus.

Be certain that you keep the moisture in your plants consistent. Do not allow them to dry out. And don’t allow the roots to stand in water. There is a distinct balance, and you can only maintain this by being engaged and observant. Plants can drown, too. If after you water them, and after about a half-hour there is water standing in the trays, get rid of it. I water my plants by pouring it into the trays that my pots are in. The water wicks up into the soil, and conversely, the little roots of the plants reach down to drink. I believe that this promotes a good root system.

Plants transitioned to large pots and put outside to 'harden off'

Plants transitioned to large pots and put outside to ‘harden off’

Be certain to fertilize the plants weekly. Use a diluted mix of your choice of plant food. Young plants need a weaker dose. There is nothing that can make you feel as ineffectual as burning up little seedlings. I’ve done it. All that work . . .dashed. Pathetic. As they mature, you can kick it up a notch.

Do not allow your plants to become root-bound. When you see little roots stretching out for more space, it’s time to transplant them into larger pots. Cowpots make this chore much simpler. You just drop the entire pot and plant into a larger container, with added dirt. The Cowpot will disintegrate with the additional benefit of being good fertilizer.

These larger pots should be the last stop before the garden. You will be transitioning your little wards to the vicissitudes of the outside weather in these pots. This process is referred to as “hardening off” the plants.

About a week to ten days before Mother’s Day, put your plants outside in a protected area. The goal is to gradually get the plants accustomed to bright sunlight, cooler temperatures, hotter temperatures and wind. You can do this only by keeping a close eye on the plants and monitoring the conditions. Too much sun right off the bat is a deal-breaker. For the plants, this is, literally, a fresh hell.

So, however you decide to proceed, get a plan in your head and pay no attention to Dorothy Parker’s “horticulture”. This one can think. So can you.


Intrepid Urban Farmer Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington, Kentucky since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it.

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