How to grow early vegetables

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

Over the years, a number of techniques have been used to produce early vegetable crops. Many of these “tricks of the trade” were originated by growers and universities. By using one or more of these “tricks,” you can increase your annual vegetable yield. Check out these seven tips for growing vegetables early and getting a jump on the rest of the growers:

Multiple plantings

This system is limited to crops with a low seed cost such as watermelons, muskmelon, cucumbers and summer squash. Bed-up rows with a broad level surface. Starting 2 3 weeks before normal planting date, and each week thereafter, seed a row 6- 8 inches away from the row seeded the preceding week. Be sure to keep rows equal distance from rows on adjoining beds. Allow all plants to emerge and grow after the danger of frost has past. Destroy all but the oldest healthy plants that will permit a satisfactory stand.

Start plants in a greenhouse or cold frame

In addition to plants normally transplanted, like tomatoes or eggplant, this system is most applicable to melons, okra, squash and cucumbers. It could also be used on sweet corn, and pumpkin. You will need a growth structure such as a greenhouse or cold frame. Use peat or plastic containers. The larger the container the longer you can delay transplanting to the field that will minimize transplant shock.

Be sure to use a good, sterilized greenhouse potting medium and fill the containers uniformly. Punch holes in the bottom of all containers. Depending on the crop, seed into containers 4 to 6 weeks prior to the desired transplanting date. Under some conditions, it may be necessary to suppress the growth to avoid overgrown plants. This can be done by lowering temperature and/or withholding water; never withhold fertilizer.

Hot caps

Hot caps may be used on almost any crop on a small scale. When the area to be protected exceeds garden size, the use of hot caps should be restricted to high value crops such as melons and tomatoes. Hot caps, which you can buy at a wide variety of agricultural supply houses, are generally constructed of plastic, cardboard or waxed paper. Place the hot cap over the plant. Secure the cap with a handful of soil or some device to keep it from blowing away. On very warm days, the cap can be removed or slit in the top to allow excess heat to escape.

Row covers and tunnels

This system is used widely to protect early-planted vegetables in areas with stable spring temperatures. It requires constant attention during North Carolina springs when temperatures vary drastically. Its primary disadvantage is the cost of installation and constant vigilance to guard against excessive heat buildup and consequent damage to the plants. It may be used with either seeded vegetable or transplants. Purchase or form pieces of wire or conduit into arcs or half circle hoops. The width and height of the arc depends on how large or how long you will grow the plants before removing this protection. Usually 24 to 30-inch widths are adequate.

After seeding or transplanting, the hoops are placed over the row 6 10 feet apart and clear plastic film is draped over them. Some growers use two strips of plastic held at the top with clothespins. Others use a tie down system and vent from the bottom. This permits the tunnel to be opened during warm days.

Still others buy plastic with slits that does not require ventilation. Reemay or similar spun-bonded materials have been developed that offer some frost protection and make good row covers and require no hoops. Be careful to avoid heat buildup on bright clear days since plant injury can quickly occur.

Other tips for early vegetables:

Use raised beds. Raised beds result in higher soil temperatures, better soil drainage and reduced seedling diseases for many seeded vegetable crops.

Choose early maturing vegetable varieties.

They will produce ripe tomatoes several days before many other later varieties. Hybrid squashes and cucumbers are often 2 to 4 days earlier than open pollinated varieties.

Choose light colored sandy soils.

They hold less water, warm much faster in the spring, and will aid in speeding up early growth. Light soils are even more effective when used in conjunction with other techniques such as mulching with plastic.