One thing I’ve learned (the hard way) is that it pays to be patient. Rushing the season usually results in cold-stunted plants, reduced yields, or, even worse, losing an entire crop to a late frost or snowstorm.
For example, most garden guides tell you to plant broccoli and other crucifers early—two weeks before your average last frost date—as the young plants can stand some frost. What they don’t tell you is that prolonged exposure to cold temperatures will ruin your chances for a harvest. Two to three days of temperatures that stay below 40 degrees will fool the seedlings into thinking they’ve experienced winter (can’t blame them a bit!). Instead of growing up and producing the nice, succulent head you’re anticipating, the broccoli will try to force the issue and “button.” That is, it will rush to bloom while still small, and all you get is a one-inch (or smaller) head with a bitter taste and tough texture. Bleah!
Many gardeners assume that if the big box garden center has the plants for sale, it must be all right to set them out. That might work in California, but we live in Colorado! I’ve seen tender tomato transplants, some even sporting a few blossoms, for sale in early April, yet they can’t be safely left outside until late May, of even later. Sure, you can swathe them in plastic. Water filled hot caps offer several degrees of protection. But until the soil warms to at least 60 degrees, the roots won’t grow. The plants will just sit there. (Of course, if your plants freeze, you’ll need to buy new ones, which makes the stores happy!)
Even waiting to the proper time doesn’t guarantee success. I vividly remember the year I spent a morning in late May setting out peppers and tomatoes. The toasty sunshine was perfectly balanced by the light breeze wafting through the garden. As I dug into the warm, fertile soil, I carefully placed each seedling and tucked it in. By lunchtime, my garden was planted.
Then the weather changed. At two o’clock the thermometer had plummeted to a frigid 27°, snow was flying, and I was back out in the garden hurriedly digging up my tender transplants and stuffing them back into their pots. You’ve gotta love Colorado gardening.
Waiting to plant is a challenge after a long, cold winter. Even experienced gardeners jump the gun and start seeds too soon. I’ve visited friends with stringy squash plants snaking out of six-packs, leggy tomatoes languishing on windowsills, and paper cups holding cornstalks a foot tall. Of course, you can intentionally grow larger transplants, moving them into bigger pots as they grow. Just make sure you have enough space and enough light to keep them stocky and healthy.
I prefer to distract myself by using the early spring sunshine to cut back perennials and ornamental grasses, prune deciduous shrubs, sharpen and oil my tools, and rejuvenate my houseplants. There’s always plenty to do.