by Judy Kautz, OSU Extension Master Gardener
Wouldn’t it be great to have earlier harvests for our favorite summer vegetables? Recent research has proven that our winters may be getting warmer by a degree or two, but that isn’t going to help much with creating earlier harvests. However, there are a number of techniques you can employ to enjoy home-grown vegetables earlier this summer.
First, select early-maturing varieties for your vegetables; seed companies advertise many options for shorter maturity times for almost every type of vegetable. Look for those that mature at least 10 days earlier than the normal varieties. ‘Sweet Zuke’ or ‘Sure Thing’ are zucchini varieties that mature early, for example; earlier yellow squash varieties like ‘Early Summer Crookneck’ and ‘Early Prolific Straightneck’ not only produce harvests earlier, but also have many other good traits. Most seed companies and nurseries offer similar choices for most vegetables.
'Sweet Zuke' is a variety of zucchini that will produce an earlier harvest.
'Early Summer Crookneck' provides wonderful yellow squash.
Another technique to use for early harvest is to plant as early as possible; watch forecasts and check the Mesonet (www.mesonet.org) for soil temperatures in Oklahoma. Watch the weekly forecast, and if you have already planted and cold temperatures are predicted, cover your tender seedlings with plastic or milk jugs, for example, to protect them. You can also warm the soil in your beds using black plastic mulch; although this is not a preferred mulch variety because it is not natural, it is still very effective for warming the soil. About two weeks before planting, spread the mulch over your bed, making sure the black surface is as exposed to the sun as much as possible. When you are ready to plant, simply cut a circle in the plastic and insert your seedlings.
Another option for earlier harvests is to start your plants indoors. Although some varieties are not recommended for transplanting, it is still possible for some varieties; for instance, using peat pots or pots of material that will be absorbed into the soil will offer little disturbance to them when you set them outside. It also helps to give your seedlings as much sunlight as possible, or to use a shop light or florescent desk light over them to aid their growth. Be sure to provide seedlings with a good plant food so they will keep growing until it is time to set them out in the garden.
Here’s a fun idea for starting seeds early, and it would be a fun project for your children or grandchildren, to get them involved in gardening. Purchase some ice cream cones, the regular cup variety, and not sugar cones. Place seed starting mix or potting soil in each cone and plant your seeds just as you would do in a peat pot. Once your seedlings are ready to transplant, just put the entire cone in the ground. It will disintegrate and you will be left with a healthy plant to nourish in your garden. What fun!
Start your seeds in ice cream cones for a biodegradable way to plant without disturbing tender transplants.
When you are ready to transplant your seedlings outdoors, it is important to allow them to become accustomed to the change in environment. Gradually expose them to the outside over a period of three days or so, increasing their exposure each day. Also, be careful not to damage the young, tender seedlings when you handle them. Place them at the same level they were growing in your pots; water and feed them again as well. Avoid planting your tender seedlings on windy days...late afternoon is a good time to plant.
If you follow the steps listed above, you can have earlier harvests, and don’t we all look forward to those wonderful, tasty veggies right from the garden!
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