Prepping the Garden for Early-Season Planting

by Lewis W. Jett, Commercial Horticulture Specialist, WVU Extension Service

As the spring gardening season approaches, gardeners are preparing for early-season planting and harvesting.

Benefits of early-season planting

Many popular vegetables are cool-season plants, meaning that the best yield and quality is produced in cooler weather. Early planting allows for early harvest, which provides fresh vegetables over a longer period of time. Also, if you are selling vegetables at a farmers market, prices are typically higher for early-season produce. Finally, the presence of vegetable pests becomes more prevalent in warmer weather and with vegetables planted later in the gardening season.

Try transplants

transplants Starting the season with a healthy transplant is an effective way to establish cool-season leafy vegetables, such as head lettuce, bok choy, Swiss chard, cabbage, kale, broccoli, spinach, and cauliflower. Even though all of these vegetables can be seeded in the garden, transplants accelerate growth and harvest for most crops.

Indoor transplant growing options

cold frame While many of these transplants can be grown indoors near a well-lit window, a cold frame (miniature solar greenhouse used to acclimate plants to cooler temperatures) can be used to successfully start vegetable plants. A hotbed can also be constructed, filed with composting material, and topped with a layer of topsoil or peat moss. Vegetables can be seeded in the bed and later transplanted into the garden. To maximize light and plant growth, both hotbeds and cold frames should be oriented in an east-west direction.

Once in the garden

raised beds Raised beds warm the soil significantly, allowing the plants to grow rapidly in the spring. Raised beds should be approximately 10- to 12-inches tall and 3- to 4-feet wide. Leaf lettuce, carrots, beets, radishes, and turnips can be seeded in rows 4- to 6-inches apart or simply broadcast-seeded over the bed and watered in with a watering can or sprinkler hose.

Head lettuce, bok choy, Swiss chard, broccoli, and cauliflower can be grown on dark colored mulches, such as black plastic or paper mulch, which warms the soil. Avoid placing straw or hay on the dark mulch, because it can shade the mulch and cool the soil, which will delay transplant establishment.

To trap heat during the day, place gallon jugs filled with water around the plants. Drape row covers (spunbonded fabrics) over the crops for frost and freeze protection. A cloche, or hot cap, can be placed over the tender transplant to warm the air and soil around the plant.

For more tips

Consult the WVU Extension Service Garden Calendar to find more information about planting dates for vegetables in your region.