Use transplants for early garden start

Published 4:56 pm Thursday, March 12, 2009

Even when winter is still chilling the air, you can still start your summer vegetable garden. You just need to know which vegetables you can plant directly into the ground and which you need to plant outdoors as small seedlings or transplants. Seedlings have to be started indoors five to six weeks before planting outside. So, the end of winter is a good time to start vegetable transplants in the house for summer crops outside. Some crops are almost impossible to start from seeds

outdoors. These include peppers, tomatoes and eggplant. Others just get a better start in the spring if started indoors first. Still others fare as well or better when planted directly into the outdoor soil. Sweet corn, snap beans, peas, Irish potatoes, radishes, carrots, beets and okra are good examples. Finally, some vegetables can be done either way, such as cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupes and squash.

If you buy transplants, carefully inspect them before you buy. Look for insects or diseases on the plants, and don’t buy them if they have either or show such damage. Growing vegetable transplants in your home isn’t hard, but it does require some attention to detail. One advantage to growing your own is that you can select the variety you want. You don’t have to depend on whatever the local garden center has. If you start early enough, you can order specific varieties from seed catalogs and start your plants in time for spring planting.

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Another advantage is that you can know the source of the transplants. You can be sure they’re healthy and vigorous. Most crops should be grown in a sterile medium that includes a mixture of sphagnum peat moss, vermiculite and perlite. Straight potting soil will work, but be careful not to keep it too wet. Don’t use soil from the garden. It’s not sterile and can harbor soil-borne diseases that may hinder the growth of your transplants. Most seeds like tomatoes and peppers should be planted about a quarter-inch deep. Larger seeds such as watermelon and squash can be planted up to a half-inch deep. You can start seeds in flats, plastic foam cups, flower pots or any container that’s clean and will hold the growing medium. If you use cups, punch holes in the bottom for drainage. Peat pots and peat pellets are available from many garden centers.

Give each plant room to grow. A couple of square inches per plant is good. After planting the seeds, moisten the soil and place the container in a warm, sunny spot in the house. As the transplants grow, you’ll need to fertilize them with a soluble solution such as 20-20-20. But don’t overdo it. As the time approaches for planting, cut back on water and fertilizer and expose the plants to cooler temperatures to prepare them for the harsher outdoors.