Getting a jump on the vegetable season

Posted: Friday, March 09, 2001

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. (AP) -- If you want vegetables real early, a lot of state-of-the art aids promise to speed you on your way.

Catalogs abound with contraptions, simple to complex, to get a jump on the season, especially with early greens like lettuce and spinach that can stand frosts once they're transplanted into the ground.

We're talking of annuals and not the few perennial vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb that, after an initial planting, show up early year after year.

Chives, a perennial herb, also comes up before the chill is out of the ground.

Some appliances come with fancy names, like Bio Dome, a seed starter featured by Geo W. Park Seed Co., Inc. of Greenwood, S.C., 800-845-3369; www.parkseed.com.

A 60-cell planting block is topped by a clear plastic dome with two adjustable vents to regulate air flow. With it you get 60 so-called bio sponges, a rooting medium for planting one seed per cell. Cost $18.95.

Not to be outdone in nomenclature, Gardener's Supply Company of Burlington, Vt., 800-427-3363; www.gardeners.com, offers what is calls an Accelerated Propagation System. This involves a 24-cell tray with a clear plastic cover, but the unusual feature is a capillary matting under the tray that draws water from a built-in reservoir for a week's supply. A kit including a germination mix and a fertilizer costs $29.95.

For an early start, use of these devices presumes you'll be working indoors under lights until the weather warms up outside to allow for transplanting your seedlings. But once outdoors, there are other tried and true ways of pushing the season.

At the simplest and lowest-cost level, fabric row covers, cloches and hot caps will warm your plants and also protect them from wind and insects.

A coldframe, especially a heated one, helps greatly. Transplanting seedlings to this covered space can be done even in March to get super-early greens. Prefab coldframes are available from seed houses, but at a cost that can top $200 if you want to link a couple together to make a 6-foot-long container. But you can make serviceable frames cheaply yourself with a few boards and a window sash.

Electric heating cables are also available from providers like Charley's Greenhouse Supply, Mount Vernon, Wash., 800-322-4707; www.charleysgreenhouse.com. These are inserted a few inches under the soil of a coldframe and come equipped with thermostats to turn off the heat automatically. For prefab frames, solar props are available to raise the sash for ventilation.

Growing the earliest spring vegetables means a lot of winter work.

You may have two feet of snow out in the garden when you start lettuce -- indoors, of course -- in late February or March. If all goes well, you'll have nice plants to put outside early in April.

The same goes for spinach, arugula, cabbages like chois and other hardy greens. Such vegetables can stand severe frost in April and will give welcome harvests long before it's safe to plant tender crops like tomatoes, beans, peppers and corn.

But some of these tender crops -- tomatoes, peppers, eggplant -- also are started indoors in March or April in the North to get good sturdy plants by planting time in May or June. While sunny windowsills can be the starter site, fluorescent stands are more reliable for their steady supply of light. Such equipment is available from many suppliers -- Charley's having an especially wide range of growlight possibilities.

In using lights, it's important to remember that after your seeds have germinated you must keep the seedlings close to the tubes until they become sturdy. This is because tube light is nowhere near as strong as the sun. Most stands come equipped with devices to lower or raise the tubes.

Some tender crops like beans and corn are normally grown by sowing the seed directly in the ground.

Looking for the proper time, don't be fooled by a balmy day. It's the soil, not the air, that must be properly warm. A soil thermometer is the best gauge of this.

If you want an early vegetable that doesn't require all this fuss, do radishes. Planted as soon as the soil can be worked, radishes take only 18 days to mature.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy.

End advance for Thursday, March 8



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