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Get Growing: Getting a head start on spring

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By Cheryl B. Wilson

Gardeners who are discouraged by lingering snow and frigid temperatures should take heart from a lively lecture last week by Ron Kujawski at Annie’s Garden & Gift Store in North Amherst. There are many tricks to getting a head start on a late spring, Kujawski said.

First, warm up your soil. Raised beds and sandy soil warm up a lot faster than clay on flat ground. The critical factor is soil temperature, not air temperature. Kujawski said that even in the Berkshires where he lives the soil was 39 degrees on March 27. Lettuce, onion, parsnip and spinach will germinate at that temperature and at 40 degrees you can plant Swiss chard, kale, leeks, parsley, peas, carrots and cabbage among other veggies. However, it takes a while for soil temperatures to reach 50 degrees, optimal for tomatoes, squash, peppers, etc. So they need to be started inside.

You can warm your soil by putting down clear plastic, weighted with rebar, bricks or stones. The film needs to make contact with the soil, not float above it. Even better is red plastic because it allows infrared rays to penetrate while excluding other radiation that would germinate weed seeds. Remove the plastic when the soil warms and before you plant garden seeds. Or cut holes in the red plastic for ease in planting tomatoes and other heat-loving species. Another method is using floating row covers of varying thicknesses to protect seedlings from frost.

Finally you can pregerminate some seeds such as hard-covered carrots and parsley by soaking them in water for a few hours — never more than 12 hours — or sprouting them in damp paper towels in a plastic bag. Plant the sprouted seeds when they produce a quarter-inch-long root.

An easy way to handle the seeds for sowing is with a gel. Mix a cornstarch gel by bringing to a boil 1 tablespoon of cornstarch in a cup of water. Whisk until dissolved and then cool. Place the pregerminated seeds into a plastic bag or dispenser with the gel and squeeze the seeds and gel into a prepared furrow. Cover with a floating row cover.

Spring is coming — really it is. And you can have peas by the Fourth of July and tomatoes shortly thereafter if you do some planning and indoor preparation now. Kujawski has lots of good tips to share. Check out his book “Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook.”

BAY STATE LECTURES: Two wonderful gardeners shared their expertise in transforming landscapes during a program in Whately last Saturday. Bay State Perennial Farm staffers Dan Zima and Anne Marie Kostecki have very different gardens in very different settings, Chesterfield and South Deerfield, but both have exceedingly green thumbs. Zima started totally from scratch, cutting down scrub woodland to create beautiful gardens and lawns. Kostecki visited gardens in England, Italy and the United States and emulated them on a smaller scale. Her husband built stone walls and terraces as backdrops for gorgeous gardens. I left truly inspired to try new ideas this season. Peter Flynn, the farm’s owner, announced this week, however, that Bay State is opening a week late — next Saturday — because of the recent frigid weather.

HADLEY GARDEN CENTER ANNIVERSARY: Local arborist Kyle Longtin will give a pruning demonstration and workshop tomorrow from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Hadley Garden Center. The event is part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the business. On Wednesday from 1 to 4 p.m. you can get your soil tested for your lawn and learn about lawn care as well as Coast of Maine soil amendment products. All events are free.

MASTER GARDENER HOT LINE: The telephone hot line of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association is now open Mondays from 9 a.m. to noon at the Berkshire Botanical Garden. Call 298-5355 to ask a trained master gardener your questions about vegetables, perennials, lawns, fruit trees and other garden topics. On other days, you can leave a message with your name and phone number to be contacted the following Monday. Or you can email your questions to wmmga10@yahoo.com. The annual symposium in Holyoke is tomorrow at Holyoke High School from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Note the change of venue.) Some workshops may already be filled, but walk-ins are accepted. Fee is $40 for walk-ins. The Berkshire symposium is April 13 at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School. There will be three workshop sessions and a pizza lunch is included in the registration fee of $35. For more details go to wmassmastergardeners.org.

AMHERST PUBLIC SHADE TREE COMMITTEE: The town committee is busy these days with three projects. First, there is a tree planting ceremony and demonstration tomorrow at Mount Pollux in South Amherst. This is the first of the First Saturday Tree Plantings. Second, the committee is seeking neighborhoods in need of public shade trees where there are also several households willing to help select, plant, water, mulch and learn to care for the newly planted street-trees. Contact Nancy Higgins at nehiggins@amherst.edu for more information. Finally, the committee is once again sponsoring an Arbor Day poster contest for school children in grades 4, 5 and 6. The theme is “Celebrate at Tree” and the deadline for submissions is April 12 at 5 p.m. There are drop boxes in each elementary school principal’s office and at the Conservation Department in Town Hall and the office of the DPW on South Pleasant Street. First prize is $50 donated by the Garden Club of Amherst. For rules, go to amherstma.gov/trees or email Linzy Rodriguez at linz.sav@gmail.com.

FLOWER FESTIVAL: The Springfield Museums will hold a flower festival this weekend featuring area florists and garden clubs’ floral-arrangment interpretations of works of art. This popular kind of event has been held for years in Boston and Worcester. Among the exhibitors is Barbara Schuman of Sunset Farm in Amherst. Tomorrow from 1 to 3:30 p.m. a lecture will be given by Ruth Loiseau, the White House’s special events floral designer from Reagan to Obama. Fee is $7 in addition to museum admission.

TULIP TIME: Join other avid gardeners to discuss “The Tulip” by Anna Pavord at Tower Hill Botanic Garden Library in Boylston on April 13 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. For more information call 508-869-6111, ext. 116, and ask for Kathy Bell.

PLANT SALES: If your nonprofit organization is sponsoring a plant sale in the upcoming weeks and would like a listing in Get Growing, email information to valleygardens@comcast.net. So far, I have heard from Northampton with its S.O.S. sale set for May 11. There are also sales in Williamsburg that day and in Amherst on May 18. Let me know dates, hours, site, special offerings and whom to contact for more information.

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