How to Avoid 5 Common Spring Gardening Disasters

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Hardening off seedlings

Spring always arrives in fits and starts, aggravating eager vegetable gardeners like us. From hail to rabbits to human clumsiness, hazards lurk around every corner, but so do opportunities. With the growing season stretching out ahead, every spring disaster comes with a second chance for success. What could go wrong? From damaged seedlings to injured gardeners, here are several likely disasters, and how to recover from them.

Tender indoor-grown seedlings begin hardening off in a translucent bin

1. Stressed Out Seedlings

Every year I relearn the importance of minding the details when hardening off seedlings started indoors under lights. Hardening off must be a gradual process that allows time for the delicate leaves to bulk up with chloroplasts, and for stem cells toughen up and twist. Exposing seedlings to sunshine or wind too suddenly won’t kill them, but will seriously set them back.

Instead, take the slow and steady approach to hardening off seedlings. For their first days outdoors, I like to use a deep translucent storage bin, placed in filtered sun. The slug-proof bin is easy to move in and out at night with minimal toppling. When the weather is right and the plants seem ready, I move them to a “greenhouse” bed outdoors, covered with vented plastic or horticultural fleece.

You can make a cloth table box for hardening off seedlings from a folding table turned upside down and covered with an old sheet, horticultural fleece, or vented plastic

Plastic enclosures easily overheat, but this does not happen with seedling condos covered with cloth. If you have no cold frame or other safe place to harden off seedlings, try this throwback technique from the 1970s called a cloth table box. Take a folding table, turn it upside down, and use the legs to support row cover or a light-coloured cotton sheet, tucked in or weighted around the edges. If needed, use string to connect the legs for more support for the cloth.

A cloth table box will accumulate a several degrees of heat on sunny days, but this is offset by its cooling shade. Pull back the sheet on calm, cloudy days to give the seedlings more exposure to the elements. A cloth table box also works great as emergency accommodations for containers that have grown too big and heavy to bring back inside.

Labelling plant containers works better than little stakes, which often fade or get lost

2. Flying Seedlings

Most often seedlings get dropped when you stumble while carrying a tray or try to carry too many at a time, but I know, I know, you couldn’t see your feet! Little plants also can become airborne when wind or curious pets topple their table. Prompt repotting can save many of the casualties, but matching markers to plants can be tricky. As a fail-safe measure, label the containers rather than using markers, which often fade out anyway. This does not happen with paint pens or labels made from pieces of masking tape.

3. Missing Seedlings

Cutworms, rabbits, voles, the neighbour’s cat – the list goes on of creatures that turn seedlings into nubs, usually overnight. Be prepared for surprises! Use protective cages or barriers, and hold back a seedling or two as replacements, just in case. Better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.

Covering a bed seeded with carrots helps maintain moisture

4. Spotty Germination

As the soil warms and you begin direct sowing vegetables, be aware that the weather can turn nasty within days after the seeds are planted. Flooding rains or hungry birds can wreak havoc on beds seeded with carrots, beets, or radishes, but horticultural fleece placed directly on the seeded bed minimises damage. I like to use scrap fleece for this, but an old sheet would work as well. In addition, it’s always a good idea to hold back a few seeds for filling in gaps in the planting. When days are getting longer in spring, seeds sown a week or more behind others often make quick work of catching up.

5. Garden Injuries

Vegetable gardens fail when their keepers are out of commission due to injuries. Lawnmowers are associated with the most garden injuries, with flowerpots in the number two spot. Other common garden injures involve pruners, spades and digging forks, so you can’t be too careful when it comes to lifting heavy pots or handling sharp objects. Tripping over hoses or stakes happens a lot, too.

Don’t hurry. When you must lift heavy things, work carefully or get help. Switching out heavy clay or concrete planters for lightweight plastic or fibreglass ones is a good move.

Sturdy garden shoes make for safer footing and digging

You can also minimise garden injuries by wearing shoes sturdy enough to push spades into the ground, protect your feet from insect stings, and hold their ground on slippery surfaces. I’ll spare you the details, but I have learned these lessons the hard way. As further persuasion, note that flare-ups of pre-existing foot issues like tendonitis or runner’s toe can be triggered by gardening in flimsy shoes.

It is far better to stay able-bodied and resilient, ready to recover from spring’s unavoidable calamities. Never mind that cutworms took my first planting of kohlrabi. There is plenty of time to start over! In spring, every small failure is a new opportunity.

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