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To plant, or not to plant? May 8, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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That is the question, at least here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. Days here are predicted to be in the 60s and 70s this week, but nights drop from the 50s into the 40s later in the week. This isn’t a problem for our greens, alliums (bulbing and walking onions, garlic, shallots, chives, and garlic chives), herbs, celery, cole crops (cabbage, kale, broccoli, etc.), and perennial crops (asparagus, rhubarb, potatoes, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, comfrey, strawberries, etc.). They’ve all been in the ground since April (or, for the perennial veggies and many of the herbs and alliums, for years now) and are doing fine.

The issue for us is our warm-season transplants: tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, sweet corn, tomatillos, basil. Should we set them out now or wait? Warm-season crops don’t like cold air or cool soil. Test after test has showed that waiting to plant until the nights are mild and the soil is warm gives your warm-season plants a better advantage than planting them in cold soil.

This makes perfect sense, but there’s an issue here that’s not addressed, and it’s about the plants’ roots. If you choose (like us) to buy your transplants rather than grow them from seed, most likely you’re looking at a 1-by-1 or, at best, 1-by-2-inch pot, with a healthy plant coming out the top and a rootball crammed into an unimaginably small area. We love the diversity, health, and heirloom variety we can purchase locally, and we love supporting businesses in our community. But those plants really need to go in the ground ASAP so they’re not set back by those tiny rootbound spaces.  

If our temps were going to stay in the 50s at night, this would be a no-brainer: Give those roots room to spread! But low 40s is a totally different situation. We don’t have any hotcaps, Wall’O’Waters, or row covers to toss over our raised beds. Once our plants are in the ground, they’re on their own.

We do have a greenhouse, and can set our flats out to harden off during the day (as we’ve been doing), then haul them back inside on cold nights. We could pot up every single tender transplant to avoid root-binding. We could plant them out, then cover them with sheets or other protection when the temps dip into the 40s. Or we could just step off the cliff, plant everything, and replace the plants if the weather kills them.

What would you advise?

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