Get Out and Plant!
By Steve Reiners, Professor and Chair, Horticulture Section, Cornell University, Cornell AgriTech. This is part of a series of columns that he wrote about vegetable gardening during the pandemic that ran Spring-Summer 2020. Read more articles from 2020 | Read later articles in this series.
April 24, 2020
It may not feel like spring has truly arrived. But despite the cool weather, now is the time to seed peas, spinach, carrots, radish, beets, and Swiss chard directly in your garden.
Peas and Carrots
Pea seeds are large, so they can go into a relatively rough seedbed, about ¾ to one inch deep and an inch or two apart in the row. The other crops have much smaller seeds, so they require a finer seed bed. They’ll struggle if you force them to come up through a cloddy soil. Plant these small-seeded crops shallow -- about ½ inch deep.
Of these, carrots take the longest time to germinate, often up to 3 weeks. I like to add some radish seeds to my row of carrots. Radishes germinate quickly, marking the row, and break up the soil crust making it easier for the more tender carrots to emerge. By the time the carrots are up, it will be time to harvest the radishes.
Another thing you can do to speed germination is to warm the soil. Take a piece of clear plastic and place over the row. Once you see the first plants sprout, remove the plastic.
Onions and more
Transplants of lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, parsley, and onions can also be planted this week. When transplanting it’s important to set the plants in the garden at the same depth they are growing in the transplant container.
For onions, you can use onion sets (which are just small onions) instead of transplants. If you are new to gardening, sets are a safer way to go. Plant medium sized sets, about ¾ inch in diameter. Larger sets have a tendency to produce an onion flower rather than a bulb. Plant the sets about 1 inch deep, 2 to 4 inches apart.
Avoid setting out transplants when it’s sunny, hot, and breezy, as this will dry them out and put them into “transplant shock.” Keep all transplants well-watered until they recover from transplanting. For a list of variety recommendations and other great gardening info, visit the Cornell Garden-Based Learning website.
Often overlooked in the home garden is the lowly potato. Spuds are not as glamorous as some other high-profile vegetables, but they are easy to grow, and a home-grown potato has excellent flavor. Potatoes are unique in that you don’t plant seeds or even transplants but the actual tubers themselves. Don’t plant tubers bought at the grocery store as they won’t be the best variety for the area and could have disease problems. Go to a garden center and purchase seed potatoes that have been produced for seeding this spring. If you like white potatoes, try Superior, Salem, or Katahdin. For red potatoes go with Norland or Chieftan. Yukon Gold or Keuka Gold are good choices for yellow-fleshed potatoes.
Once you get your seed potatoes, keep them at room temperature until ready to plant. You can plant the whole potato but that’s wasteful. Instead, cut the tubers to ensure that each piece has one healthy eye. That eye will produce the vine.
Dig a trench or furrow about 3 to 4 inches deep and set seed pieces about 10 inches apart. Cover the row with soil and your done until they emerge. About one week after you see the green sprout, hill some of the soil around the plant, covering the tip. A few weeks later, hill again, this time leaving the top of the plant exposed. This increases your yield and ensures the developing tubers are not exposed to sunlight, which turns them green. Keep the patch weeded and watered and you’ll have about 10 to 15 potatoes from each tuber you planted.
If your space is limited, here’s an easy way to have potatoes. Take an 8 to 9 foot section of chicken wire or fencing, 2 to 3 feet tall, and roll into a 3-foot-diameter cage. Place this over your garden bed and add a 2 to 3 inch layer of soil or compost at the bottom. Plant 4 to 5 seed potatoes, cover with soil, and line the side of the cage with straw or newspaper. As the potatoes grow, spread soil over the plants and keep lining the sides. Do that until you reach the top of the cage. Keep it well watered and by fall, you’ll have 20 to 30 pounds of potatoes from the cage.
Next week we’ll focus on ways to protect your garden from late frosts, letting you get an earlier start on warm-season crops like tomatoes, peppers, and squash.