By Carey Restino
Last week, I woke the morning after Memorial Day to a glittering, sunny day. A bit too glittering. The lawn was covered with frost. There went the idea that it was safe to plant outside after Memorial Day weekend.
We made it through with minimal plant loss, but not without quite a bit of manipulation. While it’s hard to predict what the rest of the season has in store for us, there’s this saying about the best predictors of future action being past action. After several cool spring and summer seasons, I’m going on the assumption that it’s going to stay that way.
So how do you convince tender young starts to turn into edible plants when the air temperature is hovering around 45 degrees? While nothing can replace a nice, warm summer, here are a few tactics for dealing with the more standard Alaska “summer.”
Harden off your plants with a heavy dose of patience
Plants aren’t super keen on change. If you’ve been growing starts inside, or purchase some from a greenhouse, where temperatures are probably around 70 degrees and humid, you have to help these plants ease into the transition gradually. The best way to do this is to carry your plants outside in their trays for a few hours for several days before plopping them in the ground, which is referred to in
gardening circles as hardening off your plants. Even if you are moving plants from inside your house to inside a high tunnel, it’s a good idea to leave them in their pots for a couple days to adjust to the more varied temperatures before shocking them by putting them into the ground.
If you are hardening off outside, be aware of what conditions you are putting them out into. You want to start hardening off plants with a two or four-hour stint outside on a calm day. Cloudy is fine, in fact, bright sun can be a bit much for some very sensitive plants at first. Wind is deadly, as these plants probably haven’t had to build up much resistance to air movement yet, so make sure they are in a sheltered place at first.
Gradually extend the amount of time you leave them outside for several days before leaving them out overnight. After they have been outside overnight for a day or two, most are ready to be gently plopped into the ground.
The amount of time you need to harden plants off depends a lot on their size and their species. Some plants, like spinach, hardly need any coddling, while others, like larger zucchini and squash plants, like to take their time adjusting. As with just about any other part of gardening, patience is generally rewarded.
Have I mentioned row covers?
If you haven’t discovered the wonders of row cover cloth, otherwise referred to by the brand name Reemay, this is the year to do so. This light-weight white polyester fabric allows 75 percent of the light through, allows water to permeate it to some degree so you don’t lose the benefit of a natural soaking rain, but increases the soil temperature significantly while protecting plants from wind and cold. Reemay can be your best friend, especially on crops that like it a little warmer, like strawberries. I know some professional farmers who cover pretty much everything all year long up here. Garden supply stores sell it in little packets for an outrageous price. I recommend dropping the big bucks for a large roll – usually in the $40-$60 range. It lasts several years if you take care of it. You will use it. Trust me.
I’ve seen two ways of putting Reemay on your rows – construct hoops to separate it from the plant, or just toss it over everything. I’ve tossed it over brassicas and lettuces with no negatives, but you might consider constructing wire hoops over your rows to keep the Reemay from resting on your more fragile crops.
One note on Reemay – I have found that when the fabric is brand new, it doesn’t let much moisture through. One year, I covered my rows with it after planting seeds and didn’t realize that the rain wasn’t getting through as it should to soak the soil properly, which resulted in poor germination. After a month or so, this isn’t a problem, but be careful and check your soil’s moisture levels at first.
Pick your battles
There are some crops that love cold weather. Broccoli, kale, chard, spinach, carrots, peas, Brussel sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower all thrive in cool temperatures. Tomatoes? Not so much. Cucumbers? Meh. Basil? Just grow it on your windowsill and cut your losses.
If you want to be a successful gardener, part of success is being aware of when your expectations may be exceeding your latitude. There is one farmer in Homer that I know of who grows corn successfully outside, and he lives in the warmest spot in the whole town — you know, that spot with southern exposure where the trees green up first every year? Without a greenhouse or plastic row cover of some sort, many things are just out of reach. Most places where you can buy starts locally sell things that naturally do well here, and can advise you on what works and what generally doesn’t, but be careful if you are buying starts in large stores up the road. Their plants aren’t locally selected, and are often unrealistic for our climate.
There’s no doubt this spring has been frustrating at best for gardeners, but it will warm up, at least a bit, and with a little TLC and attention you can still enjoy fresh produce from your garden before the frosts move in again.
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