Vegetable starts, I love you. For years, I was under the illusion that since planting seeds takes longer, I should garden the slow way. Now I know better. Don’t get me wrong, planting seeds is a great option, especially if you want a particular variety or if you plan to do successive planting. For my style of quick and dirty gardening, getting something in the ground is key to my ability to stick with it. When the weather is unpredictable, as our Northwest spring can often be, waiting for seeds to emerge and then going back and filling in the gaps, can be very discouraging. If you want a garden jump start, head over to the farmers market or your local nursery, buy some starts and voila, instant garden and gratification.
This time of year — actually, all year at our house — we’re all about the greens. Can’t get enough of them. Last weekend at the University Farmers Market, River Farm had beautiful, organic vegetable 6 pak starts, 3 for $8. They assured me that these plants were hardened off and I was sold. I bought arugula, romaine, spinach, chard, kale and mustard and could have easily spent the same $16 on seed packets that I may or may not end using completely. Oh, and by the way, each pack had way more than 6 plants, most had between 12 – 15, so they were a great value too.
But, first things first. Amend your soil. There again, it’s not cheating to buy some bags of compost if you don’t make your own.
We have a compost “pit” that came with our house, along with my treasured wheelbarrow. We aren’t very scientific when is comes to compost. Just keep a container under the sink for vegetable scraps and dig it deep into the pile when the container gets full. Easy, peasy. For our large container garden, I used about 2 loads of compost to get raise the level and amend the soil. Last year in my vegetable garden I put down what I thought were straw bales as mulch. It turns out, it was hay instead and many of the grass seeds sprouted. Luckily, the roots are very shallow and are easily pulled out. This mulch cover has been composting down over the winter and so I just pulled it aside and added additional compost where I wanted to plant my new rows.
Now comes the fun part. Make sure your starts are well watered and if not, soak them before planting. Put on your reading glasses and take off your gardening gloves because you’re going to be doing some delicate surgery. As I mentioned, each of the 6 sections of the pak may have several seedlings, usually growing together. I enjoy untangling these Siamese twins and planting them as separate little plants. It takes a gentle touch and you have to move quickly so that the roots aren’t exposed to air for long. Then, make sure they come in direct contact with soil and pat them in well. Finally, get your watering can and give them a very thorough shower. I planted my seedlings late on a warm sunny day with rain and mild temperatures predicted for the rest of the week. If this whole separation process doesn’t sound like fun to you, you can always go ahead and plant the intertwined seedlings as one and thin them out later once they get established.
Once you’ve got your babies in the ground, you’ll need to give them a little added protection while they get established. Even though they aren’t quite as vulnerable as seeds, a whole row of starts can be quickly destroyed by a neighboring cat or even a raccoon looking for a convenient litter box. Charlie put up some temporary fencing using scraps from previous projects. The containers are more likely to be burial grounds for squirrel bounty or feed for birds — crows can be especially destructive. You can’t exactly blame them when you see all the big juicy worms in the soft compost.
A roll of chicken wire over the top of the container held in place with bricks should do the trick to keep the squirrels and birds away. And then there are the ever present slugs to contend with. Slug patrol anyone??