Every year at the beginning of cooler weather, I make the same mistake. I’m so eager to get fall and winter veggies into the garden beds that I start seeds at home and also purchase the first ones available at local nurseries that don’t seem to already be lengthening their stems and bolting. It’s wonderful to have several nurseries carrying these early seedlings, but tricky to choose the tiny ones that lingering hot daytime temperatures won’t send their hormones into bolting and setting seed.
It’s just as tricky timing with starting seeds in your own garden: starting them too soon in September or October means they’ll bolt before or shortly after you transplant them. Sometimes I have to start seeds at home a couple of times before the cooler weather finally settles in, and I also purchase a couple of six-packs that bolt before I get them in the soil.
Adding to the mix is the timing of incorporating manure and compost and any other amendments into the garden beds before planting the new seedlings. After years of digging in these additional nutrients and tilth-building elements including my own compost every fall to the depth of my garden fork (about 10 inches), now I layer them on top of the soil that I’ve barely loosened with a hand fork (about 2 inches). This recent technique allows those deeper layers of soil to remain undisturbed except for roots growing there, fostering lots of continuing micro-organism development. To say nothing of less work!
But you have to wait a good two weeks after amending the soil and watering it in before you plant the seedlings to allow the amendments to heat up with that initial micro-organism frenzy, and then for the heat to dissipate sufficiently so transplants’ roots don’t burn.
When both my hand set on the soil surface and my finger stuck into the soil are barely warm, indicating that the temperature is fine for transplanting, I gently turn the top two inches with my hand fork, and set in the new transplants at spacings that allow mature-size plants’ leaves to barely touch. For lettuce, this means planting seedlings closer than I would plant them in the spring, since winter growth is considerably slower than in spring, so I can harvest the outer leaves more frequently. After transplanting, I water in the whole bed to settle the plants in, enabling the roots to make good contact with both soil particles and air pores that get filled with water each time I irrigate.
The timing trick with these five elements – starting seeds at home, purchasing young transplants, incorporating amendments, time waiting for the initial heat to dissipate, and finally transplanting – is why I make mistakes every fall. But this guessing and redoing is just a part of gardening, and hoping that the ultimate match works for the earliest fall harvests and overwintering through to spring.
I’m there now, seeing the perky transplants happy in their beds, and I’m already salivating in prospect of harvesting five varieties of lettuce, three of spinach, three of kale, chard, leeks, cauliflower, broccolini, bok choy, beets, artichokes, asparagus, rhubarb, parsley, cilantro, and kohlrabi. Yum!