Diggin' in the dirt

February 24, 2003|by MEG H. PARTINGTON

While the snow-covered ground may make spring seem like a distant dream, gardening enthusiasts can start digging in the dirt now - mostly indoors - to push the season along.

To get in the spirit, growers can start planning their gardens, says Jeff Semler, a Washington County-based extension educator for 4-H youth development, agriculture and natural resources for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.

Determine what types of plants you think you want to grow, then read books or seed catalogs to determine their height and spread at maturity, Semler says. Armed with that information, use graph paper or a sketch pad to map out where you want to put your flowers and vegetables, he says.


When studying up on your plants, make sure you know what kind of production you want and buy accordingly, Semler says. Otherwise, you'll be begging neighbors to take fruits and vegetables from you all summer long.

Those who plan to start some of their homegrown crops from seed should order them now through catalogs or off Web sites, Semler says, especially if they want a specific type.

"Not everybody carries every variety," Semler says.

The great indoors

The time is ripe for seeding cold-tolerant plants such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, peas, onions and some tomatoes, Semler says.

Flowers such as marigolds, petunias and pansies also can be seeded now, Semler says.

Don't trust your precious seeds to just any soil, warns Charlie Linton, owner of Boltz's Hardware in Martinsburg, W.Va. Use quality potting soil, not the cheapest brand you can find, he says.

"You only get what you pay for," says Linton, whose merchandise includes gardening supplies. "Your plants are going to reflect their start in life."

Seeds can be grown in peat pots placed in leak-proof plastic trays for use indoors or in perforated trays suitable for greenhouses, Linton says.

Those who don't have greenhouses can keep their planted seeds in a fairly well-lit room that gets eight to 10 hours of artificial or natural light per day, Semler says. Keep them at "room temperature for human beings," between 68 and 72 degrees, he says.

If the room you've selected for seed growing isn't quite warm enough, use heat mats run by electricity or small water heaters, says Carla Ay, an employee at Colonial Farm Nursery in Martinsburg.

Heat mats, which are kept under flats of plants, come in various sizes and range in price from around $25 to $320, depending on the accessories that come with them, Semler says.

Be sure to turn plants if they start to grow toward their light source so they aren't lopsided, Semler adds.

Don't be disheartened if you see plants growing higher than yours at stores, Semler says. They probably were started sooner, and when they are put in the ground, the buds likely will fall off because of transplant shock, Semler says, a perfectly normal reaction.

Outdoor preparation

If you're itching to get into your gardening beds outside - after the piles of snow are gone and you can actually see them - go ahead.

If you haven't already, cut down perennials to promote new growth, Ay says.

Clean out any leaves left behind from autumn if you'd like, Ay says. If you choose to let them decompose, though, they create a nice mulch. Some people start mulching as early as March, Ay adds.

If you've had a soil test and know you need lime, pulverized varieties can be put in the soil now, Semler says.

How do you know when it's OK to let the seeds you've sown inside meet their outdoor homes?

It depends on the plants.

As the old adage says, potatoes can sometimes be planted around St. Patrick's Day - March 17 - Semler says.

Onions sometimes can be planted in mid-March, peas a few weeks later, Linton says.

Cold-tolerant crops can handle ground temperatures as low as the 50s, but others, such as corn, tomatoes and peppers, prefer their dirt to be warmer, in the 60s or 70s, Semler says.

Most people plant after the last frost, about May 15, Linton says.

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