It’s that time of year when I, like many gardeners, am chomping at the bit to get vegetable seeds and plants in the ground.
Currently, it’s a balmy 80 degrees outside. But tomorrow night will be below freezing. So don’t be lured into planting too early; we can have below-freezing weather as late as April.
When it comes to spring planting dates, I’ve learned that patience is rewarded more often than is haste. You could say that I’ve learned a lot about when to plant in the Pee Dee from trowel and error. Even if your plants survive, they will grow very slowly in cold weather and not thrive until the weather is consistently warmer. That means that a crop planted later can actually catch up with an earlier-planted crop.
Now, it’s true that early plantings could translate to an earlier harvest. But early plantings can also lead to complete failure and the need for replanting later. It’s OK with me if my garden is a little bit delayed, as long as it’s productive. My gardening ego won’t be crushed if the neighbors have zucchini before I do.
I have created a Planting Date table for the Pee Dee region, based on data obtained from seed packets, the Clemson Cooperative Extension website and other online resources. But remember, no planting schedule guarantees success. The average “last frost date” in the Pee Dee is usually around late-March, but it freezes later than that date every once in a while.
If you grow your own transplants from seeds, now is the time to start those under fluorescent or LED grow lights in a garage or other climate-protected structure. Ambient light from a windowsill may not be adequate for good growth, and the seedlings will bend toward the light and be leggy. Give your seedlings 12 hours of overhead light per day.
Transplants need to be started from seed approximately six weeks before their garden planting dates. An easy way to remember this is that Valentine’s Day is a good time to sow your seeds indoors.
Next, let’s talk about the ideal temperature for starting seeds indoors. Room temperature is fine. Beets, broccoli, collards and other cool-weather crops can sprout at temperatures as low as the 40s or 50s. But tomatoes, peppers, watermelons and other warm-weather crops need temperatures above 55 or 60. If you want better, faster germination and growth, keep the soil temperature between 70 and 80 degrees. You can do this by putting the seed starting tray on a heat mat specifically designed for plants.
Your delicate seedlings will be vulnerable to heat, cold, wind and other factors. Therefore, before planting them in the ground, you will need to start hardening off the transplants. A week or two before planting them in the ground, take the trays of seedlings outside to a shady spot, for 30 minutes on the first day. Increase this by 30 minutes each day, and give them gradually increasing exposure to direct sunlight.
Alternatively, you can save time by buying transplants for everything, but it will cost more money than starting from seed. If you go with transplants, you can plant them at the time I recommended in the table for planting seeds.