We've moved the clocks ahead and at one time that was my signal that spring was here. But because we perform that task nearly a month earlier than those days, it's almost depressing.
Don't get me wrong. I love driving home when the sun is still shining, but it seriously makes me pine for spring to arrive sooner than it should. No matter how much we try to predict the best time to start those tomato seeds, I am convinced it is the calendar and not the sunshine that rules the garden schedule. I blame the long Memorial Day weekend. A three or four day weekend for many people, the last few days of May is still the best time to plant directly into the garden. Although our average last frost date is mid-May, the long weekend that comes up a couple weeks later not only gives gardeners ample time to put it all in at once, but also the soil has had a couple extra weeks of sunshine to warm things up for those tender seedlings.
Planting that weekend is the tradition of the average backyard gardener in northeast Ohio. This is the gardener who browses garden centers for the best plants as well as the best tried and true varieties that have done them well over the years. These plants are strong and healthy-looking because they've been grown under the best conditions.
But the rest of us, also backyard gardeners, can't help ourselves and are constantly looking for ways to get a jump on the season. We also look for our favorite varieties, but instead of plants, we buy seeds because what we want usually can't be found as seedlings. To compensate, we put up all shapes and sizes of fluorescent lighting contraptions and fill every available space, including all the windowsills and tabletops. We buy heating mats and seed starting trays. We even go as far as collecting toilet paper tubes throughout the winter so we can trim and fold them into compostable seed starting containers.
The hard part is the waiting. If we start our seeds too soon, we'll end up with weak-stemmed plants that fall over. If we wait too long, we've lost part of the season. To determine the best time to plant, read the seed packet and count backwards from Memorial Day weekend. That's when you want to start your seeds.
But that's not even the biggest challenge for anxious gardeners. The sun is shining brightly on these early days of spring, but it's still not enough for our plants. Without enough light, the seedlings become tall and thin. There is no window, no matter how bright, that can allow enough sunlight to give young plants a healthy start.
The best plants aren't necessarily the tallest, but are those with the strongest stems. Referring back to those lighting contraptions, even fluorescent lighting isn't enough, but it's better than nothing. The important thing to remember when starting seeds under lights is to keep the light as close to the plant as possible. I've always recommended no higher than two inches from the top of the plant, but closer is better. Rigging light fixtures with chains is convenient because the lights can be raised as the plants grow.
Another important seed starting tip relates to soil and moisture. I've also advised covering the containers with plastic wrap to create a mini-greenhouse and many purchased starter kits come with clear covers that create that greenhouse effect. These are great to help keep seeds moist while they germinate, but once those tiny plants stick their heads out of the soil, immediately remove the cover and let the plants breathe. Otherwise, you could end up with fuzzy, mildewed baby plants that fall over and rot away.
Last year I put out a seed starting calendar with recommendations of the best time to plant in our area. These calendars are all over the Internet and can be found with a simple search.
Mid-April is the best time to start tomatoes and peppers in our area. If you absolutely must start seeds now that spring fever is at its peak, try long season vegetables such as onions, leeks, and kale and slow to germinate herbs, such as parsley.
Leave the rest alone until next month.