by Connie Oswald Stofko
The weather will be warmer this week and it will be great to get outside and work in your garden.
There are many things you can do in your garden right now, and, if you’re an impatient gardener, we have a few tips on how you might try to push the season from Teresa Buchanan, garden center manager at Lockwood’s Greenhouses, 4484 Clark St., Hamburg.
- Now is a great time to plant trees and shrubs, Buchanan said. Create an edible landscape with attractive trees and shrubs that also bear fruit or nuts. You can grow almonds and pecans in Western New York, and even if you don’t have a lot of space, there are blueberry bushes you can grow in a container. You can buy trees and shrubs now.
- Now is also the time to plant cool weather vegetables outside, if your garden is dry enough. You can buy those plants now as well. Lockwood’s has lettuces, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, peas, onions, potatoes and shallots.
- Plant things in containers. If we get a frost, you can move the container to a sheltered location such as an unheated garage. Lockwood’s sells the EarthBox® Garden Kit that has wheels so you can roll it where you need to.
- You can clean up your yard. Rake leaves, pick up sticks, cut away dead stems from perennials and dig out weeds. You might even be able to mow your lawn if your yard is dry. And if you don’t compost, now is a great time to start. (You don’t need any particular kind of weather to compost. The best time to start composting is last year. The second best time to start composting is today.)
I suspect that some of you are eager to get in your garden and plant those tender plants such as tomatoes. We know that we’re not supposed to put them in our gardens until Memorial Day, but many of us are tempted to push the season, especially if we see a few warm days.
Remember that we might still get a frost, and tender plants such as tomatoes will be harmed by frost.
In addition, the soil may not be warm enough for the plants, Buchanan said. If you plunk a tomato plant into cold soil, it won’t do anything. It won’t be any farther along than if you had waited until Memorial Day to plant it.
Having said all that, if you really want to try to get a jump on the season, there are a few things you can try. Keep in mind that it will take extra work, she noted.
Warm the soil with black plastic. Farmers call the early corn crop “plastic corn” because it is made possible by the use of black plastic to warm the soil, Buchanan said. Get some black plastic and lay it down over your garden. If we get a few sunny days, it will really warm the soil.
If you want to keep the soil warm, instead of removing the plastic, you can cut slits in the plastic and plant your plants through the slit. The problem is that the plastic will block rain water. In the spring, moisture isn’t a problem because the ground is already moist. But as the season continues, you want to either remove the plastic or make sure the plants are getting sufficient water. You can try poking holes in the plastic to allow water to get in. If you peel back the plastic and the ground is too dry, you should remove the plastic.
Watch the nighttime temperatures. If we get some nice warm daytime temperatures, people want to get their plants in, but it’s the nighttime temperatures you have to watch, Buchanan said. If we get a straight week with nighttime temperatures that are at or above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s probably safe to put out your tender plants.
Protect your plants if there is a frost warning. The weather can be changeable. If there’s a frost warning, protect tender plants that you have in your garden. Before it gets cold, cover them with a sheet to hold in the warm air. Unless you have a tomato cage or other support, don’t use a blanket; it might be too heavy and break your plant, she noted.
Use a mini-greenhouse or cold frame. A cold frame can be constructed with an old window and some scrap wood. See directions for building a cold frame here.
You can protect individual plants with a mini-greenhouse you make by cutting off the bottom of a plastic two-liter pop bottle or other plastic bottle. It will help keep the plant warm. Don’t leave the cap on; you want some air circulation. In the photo at the beginning of this article, I made a mini-greenhouse for celery that I started from a stump. It’s been so cold that I waited until now to transplant it outside.
The idea of a mini-greenhouse has been used for decades. In the 1960s, the Lockwoods used little plastic tents called tomato caps to protect their tomato plants in the field. Check out the photos at above left and below. By the way, congratulate Lockwood’s. They’re celebrating their 100th anniversary this year!
Finally, be cautious. The weather could break in mid-May or we might get a frost at the end of May.
“What I always tell people is that if you’ve lived in Western New York long enough, you have to know these few weeks from Mother’s Day to Memorial Day are tricky,” Buchanan said. “Every year we go through this, whether it’s a warm spring or cold spring. You have to be careful. It’s a dance with nature. It’s always a guessing game.”