Facing the challenges of growing during a cool spring

Plants are more resilient than you think, especially when given the chance to climatize to cool conditions such as these seedlings, growing under a mini-hoop. 

How’s everyone holding up?

I can’t remember a spring quite like this one, as if she’s dragging her feet.

Lawns around town are slow greening up, daffodils refuse to bust out, and has anyone seen a bumblebee yet?

And thre’s concern over seedlings getting too tall and leggy thanks to stubborn weather and frustratingly cool soil temperatures.

“Any guesses when the last spring frost date will be this year?” texted a fellow gardener itching to transplant broccoli and cabbage.

Aware that more than one gardener was frustrated with persisting cold, I posted the following question on the Kodiak Growers Facebook page:

Hi Growers! What challenges are you experiencing with our cool spring?

“I want to plant in the hoophouse,” said Lexa Meyer, “but it’s still a little too cold at night for things like peppers, tomatoes and squash. Snow hasn’t quite melted enough to begin construction of outdoor garden and low tunnels. My windowsills are crowded with starts! My raspberry plants I ordered are in my living room for now.”

Hopefully, her raspberry plants are house trained.

“Seedlings under grow lights look like they need larger post,” chimed in Deanna.

And then, “My cosmos are 12 inches tall! What should I do?”

“Soil is a complete ice block (yes I have been scraping with my hand and encouraging it daily as my starts overtake things inside,” added Tricia.

“Ditto the frozen ground comments,” said Claudia Anderson. “I went out yesterday to dig up primroses and prepare for the KMXT plant sale and some kind of bi-colored mint-looking groundcover and found the ground only thawed in the top two inches.”

If your seedlings are itching to be transplanted outside, they may be showing signs of stress. For example, if the lower leaves are beginning to yellow, it’s a sign that the plant might be root-bound (or getting too much water).

Gently slip the seedling out of the pot. If the roots are jammed together at the bottom or, worse yet, spiraling around in a spaghetti knot, then it’s time to pot them up.

Reading this, you might be thinking, “But aren’t the six-packs good enough? I don’t want to pot them up AGAIN!”

Thing is, we don’t know what Mom Nature will stop dragging here feet, so why make your plants suffer? How would you like to walk around in shoes that are two sizes too small?

Eliot Coleman, author of “The Winter Harvest Handbook,” addressed this very topic in an interview at his Maine farm: “Besides, the bigger the pot you put your transplants in, the bigger and better plants you’ll get.”

Former Kodiak resident and avid gardener Cowboy Cobis managed to grow some of the most beautiful, robust calendulas I’ve ever seen.

“I always pot them up into 4-inch pots,” he told me when I last visited his garden before he moved to Bisbee, Arizona. “Calendulas are root hogs and do much better with room to expand.”

And what if your plants are becoming leggy, tangled or even falling over themselves.

Then it’s time to cool ’em down.

Start by moving your plants out of warm spaces and into cooler ones. You’re doing them no favors by imprisoning them in a 70-degree room, all the while wishing they would stop growing. Think like a plant.

Better to be stout and strong than tall and timid.

And give plants more credit. They’re more resilient than you know.

Last week I left my broccoli seedlings in the greenhouse overnight. The weather forecast called for clear skies and temperatures were predicted to plummet to near freezing.

The seedlings would have fared all right (I turned the space heater on a low setting), except I’d left the tender seedlings on a shelf against a large window.

The next morning, when I opened the door and peered in, the first thing I noticed was the window, coated with a frost so thick that it filtered the morning light as if it was an overcast day.

I stepped over to the seedlings on the windowsill to check on the broccoli seedlings. My heart sank. The leaves were limp and drooping like basset hound ears.

“Oh, the sun will warm the inside of the greenhouse and they’ll be fine.” I thought to myself. Immediately, a mental “red flag” appeared. “No, don’t. It will get too warm in here and they will not recover.”

So, I carried three trays of little broccoli and kale plants back into our 50-degree garage and set them under fluorescent lights, all the while whispering a little “save the seedlings” prayer.

A couple of hours later, I slipped in to see how they were doing.

I shouldn’t have worried. The seedlings were standing at attention as if nothing had happened.

Moral of the story: Trust, but verify.

Speaking of “verify,” I will be at the Spring Women’s Show this Friday and Saturday (April 23 and 24) to answer all your gardening questions. Stop by so I can see how we’re both holding up.


Garden job jar:

A plea for plants: We need rhubarb, clumps of raspberries, gooseberries, and currants, perennials, indoor plants and seedlings plants for the May 8 spring plant sale. All proceeds go to benefit KMXT. So as your primroses and other perennials emerge, consider dividing them up, repotting them, and donating them to the plant sale. Contact me for more information: mygarden@alaska.net or 907-539-5009.

Begin hardening-off seedlings that are straining to be transplanted outside. 

Pull weeds, avoid walking on squishy lawns and help a neighbor who might need a little help in their garden.


If you’d like to join my Garden Shed newsletter, which is all about organic gardening with a few recipes and photo tips tossed in, visit my blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com. You can also find me on Facebook and Instagram. To get in touch by email: mygarden@alaska.net.

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