Farmers: ‘Be patient,’ don’t plant yet

Posted March 05, 2010, at 8:49 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Got spring fever? With plenty of sun on the way and temperatures near 50 predicted for this weekend, farmers are warning backyard gardeners to rein in their enthusiasm and hold off before planting seeds.

“Wait,” advised Lois Labbe of Snakeroot Farm in Pittsfield.

“Be patient,” said Katie Clarke of Clarke’s Garden Patch in Greenbush.

“We have developed a rule of thumb that we don’t plant the gardens until the skiers begin to look sad,” added Tom Roberts, also of Snakeroot Farm.

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These experts said this week that without greenhouses, hoop houses or plastic tunnels, gardeners’ early planting would not see success.

But this advice wasn’t stopping Jane Haskell of Islesboro, who stuck her hand into her raised beds last weekend and found that the soil was not only free of frost, it was warm.

She began planting little 1-foot test plots. “I put in arugula, beets, kale and lettuce,” Haskell said. “I’ve got nothing to lose here.”

The day after she planted, it snowed an inch and a half.

“You know what they say: Snow is a poor man’s fertilizer,” she said.

Haskell is no novice. She has been gardening for 40 years and put herself through college with a market garden.

But many gardening experts and farmers warn it is way too soon to begin planting.

“It is often painful to watch new gardeners eagerly planting their gardens during the first warm spell in March,” Roberts said this week. “Maybe they are unaware of the probability of coming freezes … or maybe they just like taking chances. But they better have backup seeds ready to replant should their dreams not come true.”

Roberts said it is a temptation, even for seasoned gardeners, to plant too early.

“Skills derived from experience allow the longtime gardener to watch more signs than the thermometer when deciding when to plant,” he said.

“The ground is letting loose of the frost already, but that means mud season, not planting season,” said Jean Hay Bright at Bright Berry Farm in Dixmont. “I wouldn’t put a tractor or tiller on that ground just yet. And I’m not trusting the season to be consistently ahead of schedule, having been burned by late cold spells in other years. So, no peas in just yet, but if the ground settles down some, that may happen sooner than it has in other years.”

An early spring would be welcomed by farmers and gardeners, many of whose crops were damaged and in some cases destroyed by persistent rain last year.

One of Maine’s foremost gardening experts is Eliot Coleman of Harborside. Coleman maintains a year-round organic garden but uses greenhouses and low plastic tunnels to extend his growing season.

Coleman called this time of year “the hungry gap,” and said it might be an interesting experiment for eager gardeners to put in some short, little rows of peas, carrots or onion seeds this weekend.

“I think they might come up. Not now, but later, since in nature these seeds would have fallen off naturally last fall,” he said. “The question is: Would our modern seeds do as well as our ancestors’ seeds?”

Still, he advised those just itching to get planting to “go to a movie instead.”

Even though she advised against early planting, Labbe admitted this week, “I’m getting antsy myself.”

She has started some seedlings indoors and already is seeing lettuce and spicy greens sprout in her farm’s six greenhouses.

“Those kind of crops don’t mind the cold,” she said.

Bright has begun tomato seedlings in a deck greenhouse and soon will transplant them into hoop houses.

“The big question for them is if the season will be consistently warm enough to transplant them from our crowded deck greenhouse into the unheated hoop houses any sooner in May than normal,” Bright said.

“The lack of snow is helping us get ready for spring planting,” she added, “since a lot of that involves moving bags of potting soil and soil amendments, and various pieces of equipment from parts of the farm where they were stored for the winter to more active work areas. So in that respect we are getting a little ahead of the season.”

Roberts said there are plenty of chores to get ready for planting season that can occupy eager gardeners.

Garden preparation, spreading and tilling compost and making the beds ready for planting are chores that can be done way ahead of planting time, he said.

“Another trick for the too-early planter is to cover the planted beds with sheets of clear plastic, held in place with sandbags, rocks or via buried edges,” Roberts advised. “This will warm the top layer of soil where the seeds await warmer temperatures required to germinate. Once the seedlings emerge, immediately remove the plastic, otherwise a sunny day could fry them, even in March. This trick works because seedlings will grow in cooler temperatures than is required for seed germination. The sheets of plastic can be used again and again for the next several plantings before finally being rolled up for storage until next spring.”

But Roberts is a realist.

“Of course, as the snowflakes fall on a Monday following a warm weekend,” he said, “you’ll still be asking your friends and co-workers ‘Got your peas in yet?’”

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