Gardeners in New York or New England cool their heels in May knowing that the soil is just too cold and damp to push their luck. But in the Mid-Atlantic, folks think that installing summer annuals in early May is a birthright. Not this year.
It is understandable that when unwary shoppers see tomato and pepper transplants for sale in early April, they think that’s the time to plant them. This is a form of consumer abuse. Even after the last frost, any warm season annual, herb or vegetable is going to be checked by chill nights and damp, overcast days.
But this spring, even those of us smart enough not to buy summer transplants before mid-April have had our smugness wiped away.
At a time of year when we might expect sunny skies and 75-degree temperatures, we have witnessed what is apparently the longest wet spell in the District’s recorded history.
This may make us emotionally overcast, but it has real effects on when we plant. The clouds block the sun, so the soil doesn’t warm, and the rain brings a wet coldness to our native clay soils. If you are eager to sow seed of cold sensitive plants or put in tender plants coming out of dormancy, they may rot. Transplants get stressed, they sulk and they attract pests and disease.
I plunged my soil thermometer into my garden bed in Alexandria on Tuesday morning. The air was at 56 degrees Fahrenheit, but the soil four inches down was a meager 49 degrees. This seems about three or four weeks behind. No wonder tomato plants are sickly. Peppers and eggplants would be in an even worse state — my pepper seedlings are still safely in the basement under lights (and I don’t grow eggplant). I planted some tomato transplants last weekend but only because they were getting fed up and sickly from waiting in their pots while hardening off on the porch.
I doubt half of them will be kept. They are heirlooms not known for their disease resistance, and if they don’t perk up by the end of next week, I will replace them. This is galling because I’ve been growing them from seed since March. But there’s nothing worse that trying to revive a tomato plant in June and July that has been seriously checked at planting time.
If your garden is full of sulking transplants of tomato, sweet basil, pepper, eggplant and cucumber — look for dark and curled leaves and a general mien of unhappiness — I would seriously consider yanking them and starting again. The beauty of our long growing season is that we have an additional three or four weeks to reset the summer garden.
A caveat: If you go to a retailer whose plants have been sitting out in the cold, rather than freshly arrived from a wholesale grower, you may be buying plants that are no better than the ones you are replacing.
Look for transplants that are perky and not overgrown. You might also get a 12-inch clay pot and sow tomato or basil seeds outdoors in a sheltered spot. As the weather warms, they will quickly germinate and grow, and can be carefully separated and planted out in early June. Peppers take longer to get going, I’d buy fresh transplants at this point.
Summer bulbs have offered their own challenge. If you have planted dormant dahlia tubers, poke around the soil to see if they have rotted. My friend and dahlia grower Nick Weber from Brookeville, Md., pots up tubers in the first half of April and keeps them growing in a sheltered location for six weeks before planting in garden beds.
Emerging tubers don’t like the cold, but more than that, he says, they don’t like wet, clammy soil. “Drainage is probably more critical than the temperature,” he said.
My tubers are in pots and would have been planted this weekend if the spring had been warmer. I’ll wait a couple of weeks.
On the plus side, the chill prolonged the tulip season, and the pea vines have never looked happier. But the best thing is that the constant rain has coaxed the parsnip seeds into life. They are notoriously reluctant to germinate — now I know the secret. Sow them early but keep them moist in well drained soil. Nature, obviously, can do a better job of this than the gardener with a watering can.
The summer forecast, incidentally, is for a scorcher because of the strength of the departing El Niño. We may look back on this gray spring with something approaching affection.
From Home and Garden: