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FEW THINGS in life surpass the pleasure of tasting that first vine-ripened tomato picked from the garden you planted, cultivated and nurtured--or those fresh sweet peas cooked to perfection in your favorite stir-fry, or some recently harvested new red potatoes well, you get the idea.
But rather than make everyone impatient for the coming growing season to arrive, let's talk about how to get a head start on planting your vegetable garden--or more specifically, how to properly sow the seed that will eventually reward you with a bountiful harvest.
Vegetable seed can be started indoors to get an early start to your garden or can be sown directly into the garden soil. In either case it's important to know the last frost date in your area, which can be a little tricky around here. According to the planting map on page F5 , Fredericksburg sits squarely on the line dividing the Mountain Area from the Piedmont Area.
These two areas differ by as much as three weeks in their last frost dates. The average last killing frost date in spring for the Mountain Area is May 10 to May 15, while the average last killing frost date for the Piedmont Area is April 20 to April 30. Spotsylvania County is in the Mountain Area while Stafford County is in the Piedmont Area, with Fredericksburg on the line between the two regions.
With such a wide temperature differential in a relatively small area, one must use common sense to estimate the last frost date. For gardens in Spotsylvania I would use the earlier part of the range in the Mountain Area, or May 10, and for those in Stafford the later part of the range in the Piedmont area, or April 30.
Of course, the weather pays no attention to the map, and keep in mind that these dates are averages. In some years a killing frost can occur much later than these dates.
Once you settle on a date on which you feel it'll be safe to plant tender seedlings in the garden, you can determine when to sow the vegetable seed indoors by counting backward from that date. The particular vegetable for which you want to provide a head start will determine the actual sow date. For example, cucumbers take about three weeks to reach transplant size. If you live in Spotsylvania, you would count back three weeks from May 10, sowing your first seeds around April 19.
Most vegetable transplants need about six weeks before they are ready to set out in the garden. Cucurbits (cucumbers, cantaloupes, squash and watermelons), however, need only three weeks.
Keep in mind that if you start your plants too early, they will probably become too spindly to plant into the garden. Transplants should be about 4 inches tall, well branched and stocky, rather than skinny and 10 to 12 inches tall, before setting out in the garden. This will ensure faster regrowth with the least amount of transplant shock.
Most seeds should be planted from a quarter-inch to a half-inch deep except small seeds, such as celery seed, which should be planted inch deep. Seeds that require light for germination should not be covered at all. After sowing, place them in a sunny room or back porch with a southern exposure. Seedlings must have enough light to grow properly. More homegrown seedlings are probably lost to this one factor than to any other.
Before transplanting into the garden, transplants should be hardened off so that they will easily adapt to environmental change. This can be done by restricting the amount of water they receive and by slowly exposing them to more sun.
When they are ready to set out, transplant on a shady day, in late afternoon, or in early evening to prevent wilting. Protect the newly planted transplants for the first few days by placing cardboard or newspaper on their south sides to protect them from wind and direct sunlight. Water once or twice a week for the first few weeks if it doesn't rain.
Although it may seem that there are many factors to take into consideration when planting a vegetable garden, it's not rocket science. If you take a little time and follow some simple steps, you will certainly be rewarded with a bountiful harvest.
Guy J. Mussey is an agent in Virginia Cooperative Extension's Stafford County office, specializing in environmental horticulture. Phone 540/658-8000; fax 540/658-8006; e-mail email@example.com.