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The Homeowners Column
Waiting for the thaw – Veggies that laugh at the cold
State Master Gardener Coordinator
As we muddle through this cold spring weather of discontent I am reminded of several mainstream mantras. "Be patient my child". "Learn to live in the season". "Good things come to those that wait". "There is a time for every season". "Patience is the companion of wisdom". "If I don't garden soon, heads will roll. And I don't mean cabbage".
Ok that last one isn't a mantra, but the inner chant of the chained spirit of a gardener waiting for warmer weather. Are you feeling the need to seed? The compulsion to cultivate? The necessity to nurture?
Fortunately some vegetables laugh or at least giggle at cold spring weather if we gardeners have the grit to venture outdoors to plant them. A quick reminder of frost dates and the vegetables that are cold-tough is helpful. However this year our cold temperatures have pushed plants about two weeks later than usual. If you tend to be the procrastinator gardener, this is your year. Now that we are almost into April we can plant our hardy vegetables with more confidence of success.
In central Illinois our average date of last frost is April 15-20 with the later date for northern counties. The date of last frost is May 15. The first vegetables that can be planted are the very cold hardy. They withstand freezing temperatures and hard frosts without injury and seeds will germinate readily in cold soils. They can typically be planted 4-6 weeks before average date of last frost so early March through mid-April.
Very hardy vegetables for extra early planting by seed include: collard, kohlrabi, kale, rutabaga, salsify, leaf lettuce, peas, spinach and turnips. Spinach and lettuce seeds may even be planted in the fall for spring crops. Hardy transplants include: cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, parsley, Irish potato sets (baby potatoes), onion sets (baby onion bulbs), asparagus crowns, and rhubarb and horseradish plants.
Frost tolerant vegetables can be planted 2-4 weeks before average frost date so mid-March through April. These vegetables withstand light frosts and seeds germinate in cool soils, but not as readily as the very hardy group. Frost tolerants include seeds of beet, Swiss chard, mustard greens, radish, parsnip, lettuce, carrot, arugula, green onions, Asian greens, and endive. Transplants of cauliflower, Chinese cabbage and leeks can also be planted now.
Early plantings of cool season vegetables produce the best quality vegetables. In addition many vegetables flourish and produce a crop before all the pesky insects wake from a long winter's nap.
In contrast we should wait until mid-May for warm-loving vegetables such as tomatoes, squash, peppers, sweet potatoes, watermelon, okra, lima beans, eggplants, and cucumbers. These plants don't grow well and their seeds often won't germinate well during cool weather. Their seeds germinate best at warm 70 degree F temperatures.
If you just can't wait to plant, there are ways to stretch the season for planting a few weeks earlier than usual by providing frost protection. Now before dreams of orange trees dance in your head realize frost protection will help only a few degrees.
One innovation for early season vegetable production is the floating row cover. Row covers are a type of fabric made of white ultraviolet-light-stable spun bonded polypropylene plastic. They are very lightweight and allow air, light and water penetration. In less windy areas place the cover directly over the crop and allow it to float as the plants grow. In particularly windy areas a hoop support may be necessary. The protection provided may amount to a 4 degree F difference in temperature on frosty nights. Plastic vented row tunnels offer more protection.
A gardener is part botanist, ecologist, agronomist and meteorologist, but luckily also optimist and pragmatist.