It’s almost March. Don’t let this winter weather dampen your spring gardening plans. In eastern North Carolina you’ll be out working the soil before long. Just remember to plan and don’t try to do too much too soon. Invest in a soil thermometer. That can save you lots of replanting.
Many vegetable plants should probably have been started indoors already. I usually seed celery near the end of January. Cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli should be started indoors now if they haven’t already. Don’t plant them outside until soil temperatures remain above the 40 and always harden off the seedlings first.
Hardening off is important for vegetables and flowers. Plants need to be acclimated to a new environment. Taking seedlings from a heated greenhouse and planting them directly into an open field can be costly. I’ve seen many people lose a lot of hard earned money planting flowers and vegetable seedlings only to see them struggle or maybe die.
Unless weather changes drastically and long term forecasts call for mild weather with no more than light winds, greenhouse produced seedlings should be hardened off. Set your vegetable plants in a sheltered location for a few days and make sure not to over-water them. If weather forecasts are favorable you can plant them into the harsher open environment and they will have a greater chance of success.
More tender plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and okra should not be set outside until soil temperatures remain above 50. Continue to monitor late spring freezes. March 1st is a good time to begin planting these vegetables inside. You might push that a couple weeks for peppers and eggplant because their seedlings grow slower. That should give you six to 8 weeks before young plants must fend for themselves outdoors. Soil temperatures should be at least 55 degrees by then especially if you have sandy ground.
I wouldn’t even sow cucumbers, squash, watermelons, or cantaloupes indoors until about April 1st. Seedlings should be ready for transplanting when they are about four weeks old. Soil temperatures should approach 60 degrees at planting time or plants may show signs of shock after transplanting. If you choose to sow directly into the garden, then wait for soil temperatures of 55 degrees at a two to three inch depth
The most critical thing about successful gardening is not to get in a hurry. It doesn’t matter if you’re seeding directly into prepared soil or transplanting seedlings. When young plants are stressed they sometimes never fully recover.
Nothing depresses yields worse than a poor stand. Nearly all vegetable gardeners lust for that first ripe tomato. However, even if pest and disease conditions are minimal you won’t be successful if you try to push the calendar too much.
Temperature is a critical factor but so is moisture. Never try to work a soil if it is wet. You will destroy the natural structure unleashing numerous additional problems. Usually temperature and moisture are more or less coupled. When soils are wet they don’t heat up as fast.
Fellow vegetable gardeners let’s be patient. The same goes for flower enthusiasts. There’s light at the end of the tunnel and spring will come. We don’t want to ruin it by jumping the gun.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.