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When is it too soon to plant?

When it comes to early season gardening, I'm afraid I've just failed the "Marshmallow Test." You know, the test where researchers offer a child two marshmallows later, if he'll just wait and not eat the one he already has.

Last month's freakishly warm weather made me eat my marshmallow ... I've already started my tomatoes and Delicata squash indoors. 

The timing on the tomatoes could prove fortunate if we have a warm April, but the squash has progressed farther than I would have liked. Today, I had to transplant them from the peat "plugs" into larger "natural" containers that I can drop into the garden bed. But, unless I can find still larger biodegradable containers, I may have to put them in the garden before the temperatures are ideal. 

Squash seedlings under fluorescent lights

If I've learned anything about growing squash it's that you shouldn't plant them until the threat of frost is gone and you should take care not to disturb the roots. I also wanted to wait until our compost is "ripe," since squash needs a rich soil, but compost is still a couple of weeks away. So, if I do have to plant them early, I'll probably use some plastic milk jugs as a form of "cloche" to protect them until the threat of evening frost diminishes and I'll cover them with mulch to protect the roots. Mulching opens me up to the dreaded Squash Bugs, but I don't think I have an option, given the threat of overnight frost.

Back in the garden, we're still waiting for a shipment of lumber to construct four more raised beds. This week, I planted a section with radishes and bibb lettuce, under a sheet of row cover. I sowed some spinach out in the open soil as an experiment to see if it germinates. I'll sow some more in about two weeks.

The rest of the soil is covered by black plastic to speed up the warming of the bed with the sun's energy. A quick test for soil temperature at a depth of about two inches for just 20 minutes showed the temperature under the black plastic had already warmed several degrees above that of adjacent soil that was not covered. As the sun gets higher in the sky, the warming impact will be much greater. Black poly is a cheap tool to warm your soil prior to planting, and I can't recommend it too strongly.

Of course, all the work I've done so far might be in vain if the temperatures don't continue to warm up. As a TV news reporter might say, "It remains to be seen."

Posted: April 4, 2012