March 7, 2013 in Washington Voices

Protection is key to early gardening

Pat Munts
 

A simple hoop house made with PVC pipe and floating row cover can help warm-season crops get started in a cool spring and protect them from late frost.
(Full-size photo)

Growing a vegetable garden in our region is always a gamble with late frosts, cold soil and unpredictable weather. However with a little planning and staging, it is possible to keep the elements at bay and start your garden early.

Mid- to late April is the perfect time to plant some of the cool-season vegetables like carrots, members of the cabbage family, beets, potatoes, spinach, peas, parsley, radishes and cilantro. They don’t mind cool soil and some will be ready to harvest by early June. To help them get a good start, cover them with some floating row cover to hold in the heat a bit. The spun polyester fabric lets in light, water and air and can be left on until the plants are really up.

Our biggest vegetable gardening challenge usually comes with getting our warm-season crops in at the end of May. Crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, corn, squash, melons and cucumbers all need warm soil (60 degrees) to germinate properly or allow starts to grow well. Our past two springs haven’t been very conducive to getting warm-season crops off to a good start. Last year both corn and tomatoes weren’t ready until September – about the time the first frost showed up.

One way around this is to plant your warm-season crops in protective shelters to hold in heat and warm the soil. Called low tunnels or temporary hoop houses, these are hoops of wire, PVC or curved electrical conduit pipe that are covered with the floating row cover. Crops are planted under it and the cover is left on until the weather starts warming near the end of June. The row cover again lets in the light, air and water and holds in the heat just enough to help the plants get a good start.

To build simple hoops, buy 10-foot sections of three-quarter-inch PVC pipe and some two-foot lengths of rebar. Sink the rebar sections along your raised beds or in-ground beds across from each other. Insert the PVC pipe over one piece of the rebar and carefully bend it to fit over the other piece. Tie the hoops together at the top with some twine. Place the section of floating row cover over the hoops and anchor it to the ground with staples or rocks to keep it from blowing off. Leave enough at the ends to enclose the end section. Hold the top in place by clipping a bit of the fabric over the twine with a clothespin.

If you use wire, use a heavy gauge and set the ends inside pieces of narrow PVC pipe. You can also order premade wire hoops from garden suppliers like Johnny’s Seeds and Territorial Seed. Metal conduit pipe can be bent by setting an end over a piece of rebar set solidly in the soil and, with the help of a partner, holding the middle carefully bent into an arch.

Pat Munts can be reached at pat@inlandnwgardening.com.


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