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the Growing Season
Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! How often have you been heard to proclaim, "Maine sure is a nice place to live and raise kids but I sure wish we had a longer growing season!"? I’ve been known to repeat it myself—often. Well, based on the full moons this year, and the assumption (often erroneous) that a nipping frost happens in northern-tier gardens at about the last full moon of May and again on the first one in September, that usually means that we might—and I emphasize might—squeeze out between 115 and possibly 125 frost-free days during most seasons. An especially unnerving thought when you consider long days-to-maturity data printed on seed packets!
Most experienced gardeners know that it’s possible to "stretch" the season by starting seeds indoors well ahead of that presumed last frost in the spring. And, of course, before many more weeks flash by, rows of seedlings emerging from recycled Styrofoam cups and reusable plant containers will begin appearing in sunny windowsills all across the chilly northeast. Some folks I know install banks of special wavelength fluorescent lights above seedling trays.
But, you know, not too many of us so-called dedicated gardeners prepare and plant our vegetable gardens early enough to really reap the kind and quantity crops possible—even in such a brief season. Well, this year, I for one resolve to employ every advantage available to extend that growing season—on both ends! Here’s how I plan to do that:
First and most important was the preparation that occurred late last fall. All possibility for standing water was eliminated, and extra organic matter was incorporated into the soil. We used compost but any decomposed organic material—like old barnyard or stable manure, or shredded leaves—would have done almost as well (I try to avoid most animal wastes that haven’t been hot-composted to eliminate weed seeds).
Step number two involved application of a little math: calculating the correct time to sow seeds so transplants will be ready to move into garden soil about a week and a half before that last frost of early spring. I’m timing to approximately the middle of the second week of May. Earlier that week I plan to hand spade the garden to deeply re-mix last fall’s application of compost and aerate the soil. Artificial fertilizer won’t be necessary. After 2 or 3 days, it will be ready for planting. Note here that nothing was said about pummeling and repeatedly pulverizing the soil with a rototiller. A spade can be driven to about 12 inches; home-garden rototillers are lucky, indeed, to scratch the top five or six – and experts agree: that’s not deep enough.
This year I’ll be using a tough, spun-bonded polypropylene floating row cover marketed under the name of Typar T-518. With better than 70% light transmission and frost protection down to 26 degrees (F), this durable, reusable fabric will squeeze two valuable early weeks of growth for most of what we’ll be growing.
Typar T-518 is loosely laid over stiff wire or half-inch PVC pipe bows to hold the material well above fragile, new transplants, then either "pinned" or weighted on the edges with stones or soil.
Alternatively, Typar could simply be laid—loosely—over transplants which, as they grow, will simply "push" the material up. The edges would, of course, need to be secured with stones, earth or six-inch-long wire staples to hold it in place.
Later, as earlier and faster growing plants begin to produce flowers, the row cover will have to be pulled back to allow insect pollination, especially for squash, pumpkins, melons, watermelons and the like.
About mid-season, we’ll be totally removing the Typar and bows as fruits and vegetables fully mature and, as danger of frost returns early in September, we’ll be re-installing it to stretch the maturation and harvest at least two—possibly three—weeks after the first fall frost.
Finally, after all those crops—including artichokes, melons and lots of fully mature tomatoes are brought in and either preserved or stored, we’ll be carefully removing the row covers, to be stored with the bows for re-use during the next season. There’s no reason why Typar wouldn’t last three or four years given careful handling and proper storage.
Would you like to be the first in your neighborhood with fresh, homegrown, sweet and tender corn on the cob? Try this: deeply prepare your soil as outlined above and create a four- or five-inch trench where your rows are to be. Pre-start corn indoors, timed so they’re four- or five-inches tall a week-and-a-half before last frost, then transplant into the bottom of the trench at normal spacing (10" to 12"). Select your favorite early varieties or pick up some "Quickie" or "Fleet"—both of which mature in 65 days! Now very loosely spread Typar floating row cover over the trenches and allow your early corn plants to push the material up as they grow. Remove the cover immediately at the first sign of tassels. The big advantage? Along with getting a jump on the season, floating row cover will deny access to adult moths of the dratted corn borers and corn earworms so common in these parts.
So. . . why settle for a mere 119 days when you could be stretching the season by a full four additional weeks? I plan to be eating fully ripe sweet corn, and tomato and cucumber sandwiches on the fourth of July! How ‘bout you? Johnny's is a good source of row covers and mulching materials...and a lot more. Check 'em out: Johnny's. And make sure to ask for one of their brand new home-garden catalogs.
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