The Garden Patch: Never too late to mulch

Is it too late to talk about mulch? No, indeed! We’re coming up on the hottest part of the year when mulch can help keep roots cool and growing (remember – grow the roots, the rest of the plant will take care of itself) and when we need to conserve moisture.

Mulches have changed over the last few years. Not the theory of mulching, but the way we go about it.

Summer mulches, such as straw, help to conserve moisture, cool the soil and control weeds. Apply a 2- to 4-inch layer over the soil after it has warmed up (no problem with that this time of year) and do not apply too early as you may keep the soil cool and slow the growth of warm-season crops.

Plastic mulches especially in reference to raised beds, now have taken on a new meaning. Black plastic laid over the soil a month before traditional planting date will allow the soil to warm earlier and may allow you to plant as much as two weeks earlier. This means harvest dates will arrive sooner, and in many cases, the yield will be greater. Put this in your memory system for next spring!

To get the biggest jump on the season, you will need to warm up the air temperatures as well as the soil. Materials called floating row covers, commonly made from spun polyester, or similar devices made from clear plastic film, can be used to trap radiant heat from the sun. These covers, used in conjunction with plastic mulch will give the earliest returns.

Be sure to remove the row covers when spring temperatures increase to 80 degrees F so that temperatures under the covers do not build up too high and damage the plants.

The floating row covers can also help reduce insect feeding on early season crops.

Raised bed gardens are a popular way for today’s gardener to produce fresh, high quality, good-tasting vegetables. It allows for more efficient use of space to maximize your investment of time, energy and money.

As with any gardening product, the fun and rewards come with your own experimentation and finding the techniques that work best for you. To get more information, contact your local county Extension office for additional resources to help you produce the finest garden on the block (or on the section, for you country folk)!

Do you transplant? Vegetables, that is!

Transplants are used in vegetable production for two main reasons, especially if you’re a commercial grower and if you sell your excess produce at a farmer’s market or even a roadside stand, earlier production from a plant that is partially grown can result in higher prices for early vegetables and establishing market contacts sooner. Uniformity and consistency of the crop can also result since direct seeding crops in our Great Plains climate are subject to heavy rains, wind and fluctuating soil and air temperatures.

Vegetable crops differ in their ability to be transplanted. The ability of the crop to survive, develop a new root system rapidly and recover from the transplant process all influence transplanting. It is possible to group vegetable crops into several categories.

Easy-to-transplant crops: Are efficient in water absorption and rapid
formation of new roots (beets, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes).

Moderately easy-to-transplant crops: Do not absorb water as efficiently
when young, but new roots form quickly (cauliflower, eggplant, onion, pepper).

Difficult-to-transplant crops: Resume growth slowly after root system is
injured. Require special care and handling (cucumber, melons, squash).

Do you know about transplant growth “cycle”? Growing plants for field or garden setting can be divided into three stages: germination, plant growth and hardening or acclimation.

Germination: Most vegetable crops are grown from seed. Seeds will germinate when supplied with water and an appropriate temperature. A few vegetable crops, such as lettuce, require light. A minimum temperature below which no germination will occur, and optimum temperature and a maximum temperature is known for most crops.

Germinating seeds the optimum temperature offers several advantages:

Greater germination percentage: Important for high-value seeds to get the maximum number of plants per quantity of seed.

Speed of germination: Important to keep a plant production schedule and start crop quickly.

Concentrated germination: Plants will germinate within a few days of each other, ensuring a more uniform crop.

Keep the temperatures at or near the optimum temperature for best results. Remember: The optimum is near the maximum in most cases, so watch your seeds and monitor temperatures with a probe thermometer. Locate seeded flats in a warm area, cover with plastic at night (or an insulation “blanket”) to reduce evaporation and hold in heat, or use a germination chamber with a heat cable or heat source.

Here are the germination temperatures for vegetable seeds:

Crop Minimum Deg. F Optimum Deg. F Maximum Deg. F
Asparagus 50 75 95
Cabbage 40 85 100
Broccoli, cauliflower 40 80 100
Eggplant 60 85 95
Lettuce 35 70 85
Muskmelon 60 90 100
Onion 35 75 95
Pepper 60 85 95
Squash 60 95 100
Tomato 50 85 95
Watermelon 60 95 105
Source: Knott’s Handbook      

Plant growth: Plants require water (minimal nutrients or fertilizer), favorable temperatures and light to grow. Adjust temperatures for day/night conditions. On dull, dreary days when light levels are lower, reduce temperatures to reduce weak, spindly plants.

Hardening or acclimation: During the last week of growing (before setting out in the garden) plants can be acclimated to the shock of stress of field setting by slowing the growth rate. This is done by lowering temperatures, withholding water or both. This acclimation slows growth and encourages physiological changes within the plants to enable them to withstand the transplanting process. A thickening of leaves, their waxy covering and changes in the constituents of the plants will ensure better field (and garden) and frost tolerance for cool season crops.

Shift fertilization schedules to reduce nitrogen fertilizer (which encourages vegetative growth) and increase phosphate fertilizer (which encourages root development) for three to five days before setting. Excessive hardening or acclimation should be avoided since transplanting and production shock can result.

Well, that’s it for this time, folks! Hope your gardens are doing well! At this writing, I harvested carrots and onions (big ‘uns) today. This has been a great garden season so far this spring and summer at our humble abode. In a couple of days we’ll get our second harvest of bush beans. Hope you and yours are doing well! Till next week!

stevehallerSteve Haller, of Osage City, a K-State Research and Extension Master Gardener, writes The Garden Patch featuring gardening ideas and tips for gardeners in northeast Kansas. In his words: “I am not a horticulturist. By education I am an economist. By experience, I am a marketing guru from a local to an international scale. Gardening was taught to me by my grandfather and my Mom, and I’ve been doing it since World War II was going on.”

Steve can be contacted at [email protected], or leave questions or comments below.

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