It is about time to start some of your vegetables in the home for transplanting to the garden this spring. Don't jump the gun. Be selective on what you start as some vegetables should be no more than 5 to 7 weeks old when they are planted into the garden. Some vegetables are best seeded directly into the garden instead of being started as transplants; some of these should have been planted last fall.
I spoke with Mike at the Roasted coffee shop on Tuesday when I stopped in for my regular vanilla latte. He already has spinach and lettuce up and its almost ready to eat. He planted last September and placed a makeshift high tunnel over the planting to enhance growth. With the warm days we have had recently these and other cold-hardy vegetables should get a great start on the season. The warm days in the Grand Valley have warmed the soil sufficiently for the planting of cool season vegetables in the garden. Even if the soil is frozen below the surface, if the top half-inch of soil is not frozen, you can plant the seed of spinach, lettuce, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes and cabbage. I would suggest you do this in mid-afternoon when the soil is warmest and then cover the planting with a thin layer of straw, hay, or compost as mulch. This mulch layer will help trap in some of the warmth and retain moisture so these vegetables can germinate at the proper time.
Tomatoes, peppers, beans and other warm-season plants should not be seeded into the garden until about a week prior to the average last spring frost. The Climate Information link at WesternSlopeGardening.org gives specifics on the climate of various sites in western Colorado. In Grand Junction I like to consider April 25th as the average last spring frost. We can plant the seed of warm-season vegetables one week prior to this date but should not set out warm-season vegetable transplants until after this date unless you protect them with walls-o-water or similar covers.
If you are starting celery from seed, these take 10 to 12 weeks of development before they should be set into the garden. Asparagus transplants should be started from seed eight to 10 weeks prior to the average last spring frost. These are some of the earliest vegetables you should start as transplants. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants should be started no sooner than five to seven weeks prior to April 25. Well, actually you need to add a couple weeks to this to account for the length of time it takes for the seeds to germinate.
Smaller, stocky plants that have not started to bloom and/or set fruit adapt to the garden more easily than leggy transplants that already have small fruits hanging on them. Small plants of the proper age grow and yield better than older transplants. Plants such as tomatoes should be stocky when set out in the garden. Plants that are 6 inches tall and 6 inches wide are the best producers.
Starting your own plants can ensure disease-free transplants, produce varieties you may not be able to locate in a local nursery, and give you a good feeling. Tomatoes are quite easy to grow as transplants while peppers and eggplants are slightly more difficult. Most transplants develop very well in the home if grown under lights, a topic I will be covering in next week's column.
Dr. Curtis E. Swift is a retired horticulture agent with the CSU Extension. Reach him at Curtis.Swift@alumni.colostate.edu or check out his blog at http://SwiftsGardeningBlog.blogspot.com. He owns Swift Horticultural Consulting and High Altitude Lavender.