Gardener: Tips for getting a jump on the gardening season, part 1 – Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

There is a season for everything, but this is ridiculous. Winter shows no signs of letting up in many parts of the country, and many people I know are “done with winter” as I’ve heard many times lately. Out of patience, many of us will try to defy the odds, throw care to the wind and accelerate the beginning of the planting season with reckless abandon.

Fortunately the downside of such a gamble is minimal. Perhaps a few flats of mushy annuals that will need to be replanted, along with repeating the time it takes to do so. Yet any time spent outdoors in the fresh air on a beautiful warm sunny day is never wasted. However, if you’d like to improve your odds of success in beating Mother Nature at her own game, try a few of these tricks to jumpstart your gardening season.

The first place to start if you’re digging in the dirt well ahead of the first average frost date in your area is to purchase plant varieties that are considered hardy. That’s a term that references a plant’s winter toughness for your area or growing zone. Keep in mind, a plant variety that is hardy in Atlanta’s zone 7 doesn’t make it hardy in Denver’s zone 5, for example. Know your zone and do your homework to seek out hardy varieties of the plants you want to add to your garden. The bonus is that you also will have plants more likely to last longer in fall and beyond than similar non-hardy options. If you still have seeds to plant, it works for this, too. Most seed companies list this information routinely in catalogues and online and frequently hype its hardiness tolerance.

Another technique I often use includes applying a thick layer of organic mulch around the base of all my plants. Not only does it keep the roots warmer, it also helps to maintain the soil temperatures at a more even level and can reduce the chances of the ground freezing or heaving. It’s important to note that mulch will do nothing for any winter damage above ground. Yet, as long as what’s underground is still alive, there is a good chance of partial or even full recovery above. On the other hand, when it’s practical, as with spinach or strawberries, you can cover the entire plant in a layer of straw mulch to add an additional barrier of protection for the roots and foliage. The mulch is light enough so as not to smother the plants and still allows enough light in for plants to function.

Physical barriers are another effective way to retain and capture a few extra degrees of heat while keeping killing frost off of young plants especially. There are numerous versions of protective covers you can place over plants for light protection, yet they often make the difference between survival or not, particularly for tender new plants placed in the ground before the last risk of frost has passed. One common choice is known as floating row covers. The material is typically made of fabric that is strong yet so light, it can actually lie directly on the plants as though it appears the fabric is floating, hence its name. Alternatively, you can support row cover material with metal wire, conduit, or PVC pipes stuck into the garden beds. The row cover material is placed over the frame supports, a few inches to a foot or so above the plants. It is then pulled tightly and secured around all the edges with bricks, soil or whatever you may have that is convenient and sturdy enough to hold it in place.

Row cover material made for such purpose is designed to allow light, water and air in but provide a protective barrier from frost and pests. When the sides are secured around the bed completely, several extra degrees of warmth can be retained and could make the difference in survival for marginally hardy plants.

Check back next week for more techniques designed to help extend your gardening season.

Joe Lamp’l is the host and executive producer of Growing a Greener World on national public television, and the founder of The joe gardener� Company, devoted to environmentally responsible gardening and sustainable outdoor living.

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