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Gardening and More: Green thumbs itching to get planting? Get a jump on the season with a container garden

Moisture condenses inside this easy-to-make mini greenhouse. Just cut the bottom off a clear plastic bottle with a box cutter. Set the bottle over a plant to help protect the plant from the cold. Leave the cap off to allow air circulation.
HAMBURG — If you’re like me, you’re wondering if you really have to wait until the end of May to plant your tomatoes. Or maybe for you, it is the tender annual flowers that you are itching to get in your garden. It has been such a cold spring and we really want to get our summer plants in.

“Every year we go through this, whether it’s a warm spring or cold spring,” said Teresa Buchanan, garden center manager at Lockwood’s Greenhouses, located at 4484 Clark St. in Hamburg. “What I always tell people is that, if you’ve lived in Western New York long enough, you have to know these few weeks – from Mother’s Day to Memorial Day – are tricky.”

The weather could break in mid-May and your tender plants could be happy in your garden, or we might get a frost at the end of May and they could be damaged.

“It’s a dance with nature,” Buchanan said.

Besides frost, you have to be concerned about soil temperature. If you plunk a tomato plant into cold soil, it won’t do anything, Buchanan said. It won’t be any farther along than if you had waited until Memorial Day to plant it.

Trying to plant a little bit early means extra work for you, she added.

Having said all that, if you really want to try to get a jump on the season, there are a few things you can try.

Warm the soil with black plastic. Farmers call the early corn crop “plastic corn” because it is made possible by the use of black plastic to warm the soil, Buchanan said. Get some black plastic and lay it down over your garden. If we get a few sunny days, it will really warm the soil.

If you want to keep the soil warm, instead of removing the plastic, you can cut slits in the plastic and plant your plants through the slit. The problem is that the plastic will block rain water. In the spring, moisture isn’t a problem because the ground is already moist. But as the season continues, you want to either remove the plastic or make sure the plants are getting sufficient water by poking holes in the plastic to allow water to get in. If you peel back the plastic and the ground is too dry, remove the plastic.

Watch the nighttime temperatures, as well. If we get some nice warm daytime temperatures, people want to get their plants in, but it’s the nighttime temperatures that are cause for concern, Buchanan said. If we get a straight week with nighttime temperatures that are at or above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s probably safe to put out your tender plants.

Protect your plants if there is a frost warning; the weather can be changeable. If there’s a frost warning, protect tender plants that you have in your garden. Before it gets cold, cover them with a sheet to hold in the warm air. Unless you have a tomato cage or other support, don’t use a blanket; it might be too heavy and break your plant, she noted.

Use a mini greenhouse or cold frame. A cold frame is a wooden box with a glass or Plexiglas top. You can make one out of scrap wood and an old window. Set it on top of seedlings to help protect them from the cold. The window part opens so that if we get a warm, sunny day, you can let in cooler air so you don’t cook your plants. A cold frame can also be used in the fall, to extend the growing season for lettuce and other plants that can tolerate cooler temperatures.

An even simpler project is a miniature greenhouse made from a plastic pop bottle or other plastic bottle. Just cut off the bottom of the bottle with a box cutter. Set the bottle over the top of a plant to help keep the plant warm. Don’t leave the cap on; you want some air circulation.

“You have to be careful,” Buchanan said, of these methods. “It’s always a guessing game.”

Connie Oswald Stofko is publisher of Buffalo-NiagaraGardening.com, the online gardening magazine for Western New York. Email Connie@BuffaloNiagaraGardening.com.


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