Starting a Spring Garden

by Jennifer McCharren
February is the perfect time to get ready for your spring garden. With only intermittent frosts, and no danger of frozen soil, our warm weather crops can start months earlier here in Florida than farther north. If you’re still harvesting cool weather crops such as kale, brussels sprouts and cabbages, like we are here at Down to Earth Farm, you’ll just have to plan around them. The benefit of being able to grow almost year round comes with the slight burden of extra planning at intermediate times like this transition from winter to spring.
A few good crops to start indoors (in seedling trays or small pots), are local favorites: tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. If you’re starting seeds indoors, the warm temperature should enable them to sprout within a week. As soon as they do, they need light! Apart from making sure the soil doesn’t dry out completely, light is the absolute, number one need of baby plants.
Last fall, a member of a gardening class I helped teach sent me a photograph of his seedlings, complete with ruler. “What’s wrong,” he asked, “why are they so tall?” This phenomenon is called “legginess”, and is simply the plant’s reaction to insufficient light. The plant is like a simple computer program, set to react in certain ways to a few different stimuli. One line in the code is: I need light to produce my food. Typically the light is up. When its sensors aren’t receiving enough, it extends its stem like a telescope in the direction of whatever light it can find.
Once you’ve supported your wee baby pepper or cucumber through its first month of life, it ought to have grown a set or two of true leaves. These leaves look like miniature versions of the adult plant’s foliage, which are distinct from the first seed leaves that poked out of the soil. As soon as the plant has a few of these mature solar panels, it’s ready to move into roomier accommodations in your garden, or in a larger pot.
Hopefully I haven’t made this seem too simple. There are many, many ways to kill a plant. If you’re new to gardening you can expect and enjoy some magical beginner’s luck (which is especially likely to visit you if you choose indestructible crops like basil, or arugula, hint hint). But after that wears off you’re bound to learn a thing or two on your way to an abundant harvest. Pitfalls to anticipate include: surprise frosts (bye-bye tomatoes!), hungrier-than-thou critters that beat you to the fruits of your efforts (birds, bugs, children…), the nasty effects of over-watering (rotten roots), the nasty effects of under watering (dead plant), and the question that haunts all successful zucchini growers: who is going to eat all of this squash?
Whenever you come across a problem or question call your county extension agent and ask them what to do. I cannot stress this enough. It’s one of the only sensible things the government does with your tax dollars, namely, fund knowledge centers for agriculture in every county.