by Camille Cody
It’s not news to anyone that this spring has been a cold one, late to warm up and late to dry out. But it may be news to some that this has been the coldest spring on record since the 1950’s! Normally our temperatures are hovering in the mid-50’s by this time of year, with a possible last frost threatening to squeeze itself in until sometime in the middle of May. This cold weather has meant a slow bloom and sprouting process for many of the plants in our area; wild, native an cultivated alike.
Row covers are coming in handy more than ever this year as tender little plants just can’t get themselves going when the weather (and the soil) is below a good growing temperature. You can count on adding two weeks to any regular seed-starting date this year, as the weather is at least that far behind schedule!
Farmers in the area make use of not only greenhouses and unheated high tunnels, but also solid or woven plastic row covers to fit the length of their field rows and soak up the few rays of sun we’ve seen so far this year to help heat up the area inside and the soil directly beneath. Row covers can add a good ten degrees to the area they clothe.
Mulches of all sorts also come in handy for heating up the soil, black plastic mulch in particular is good at soaking up heat and warming up the soil considerably. Many farmers use black plastic for mulching their rows of strawberries, summer and winter squash, and tomatoes. Starting seeds indoors, they will raise up the seedlings (except the squashes, which are temperamental when uprooted and don’t do well with transplanting) to a hardy height and age before setting them out sometime mid-May or early-June. Some black plastic is biodegradable, some is not. Many certified organic farmers use black plastic, many farmers using sustainable practices do not. For capturing heat and giving plants ‘warm feet’, you can’t beat black plastic, but some other mulches to consider for warming up the soil (and allowing in more moisture and air) are wood chips, straw, soaked cardboard, newspaper, crushed seashells and coffee bean hulls (talk to your favorite local roaster about procuring some of these.)
So with all this in mind about soil and air temperatures, here is a list of crops being planted directly outdoors, under row cover and indoors to be planted out later:
In-ground now: carrots, caraway, cilantro, parsnips and dill, chives, leeks, onions, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, radishes and greens, beets, roach, spinach, Swiss chard, lettuce, peas (the last of them!), dry shelling beans, and potatoes.
Under cover crops: basil, cucumbers, pumpkins, summer and winter squashes.
Indoor starts: tomatoes*, eggplants*, peppers*, tomatillos, celery
*Be warned that this is NOT the climate that these tender crops prefer; you’ll be met with a lot of resistance and a good chance of little pay off for your efforts. But it’s always worth a try! Be extra diligent about hardening off these guys before you plant them out (and plant them out under a row cover, or in a high tunnel or straight into a greenhouse) since nightly temperatures even in the 50’s can shock or stunt these Mediterranean heat-lovers.