COLUMN: With spring looming, go ahead and rush summer along

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By Cheryl Steenerson

The birds are singing. The sun is shining. I’m coming out of hibernation. I have spring fever, bad.

I got the bug the other day and went outside to play in the dirt. I didn’t stay long — it was 35 degrees. Soon those morning temps will be rising and I can’t wait.

You know we can rush the summer a little bit, with a little magic. Find a place you want to plant. Lay some plastic over it and weight it down with rocks, bricks or boards. It will allow the sun to come in and keep the rain out. When the soil temp reaches 60 degrees, you can remove it and put some plants in the ground.

Then, the trick is in keeping them alive, and that requires protection. I like to cut the bottoms off of water jugs and place them over the plant. It will keep them warm and let rain come in through the top hole. It’s called a cloche.

Cloches can be made out of all kinds of things. Walls of Water and row covers also serve as cloches. You can use them to plant early or to harden off. I’m making hoops to support plastic sheeting to create a row of cover in my raised beds. Tomatoes will be my first plants to go outside under these.

Tomatoes are going to be hard to find early this year. All that cold weather down south this winter ruined the tomato crops of many southern states, so watch for tomato prices to go high. I’m hoping I can even find some for Memorial Day Weekend.

Summer vegetables usually hit the shelves about then because that’s when Florida’s harvests are in full swing. As the days pass, more stuff starts coming from other southern states, until it’s finally time to do our own picking. The unusual cold freezes got a lot of those states and so we may be waiting much longer this year. I don’t want to wait.

Cold frames and hotbeds serve the same purpose as cloches, rush the season. You can place whole trays of plants in both. The only difference between a cold frame and a hotbed is that the hotbed has an artificial heat source inside, like a light bulb.

The cool things about these frames are that you can make them permanent or portable. It’s basically just a wooden framed box, built as big as you want. I built mine to hold six trays end to end, and two trays deep.

I built the walls to be about 1 foot high in front and taller in the back. Then I used old, framed, glass windows as the lids that would then tilt toward the front of the frame, facing south. If you want it to be permanent, use nails to build the frame. If you want it to be portable, use folding hinges and hooks to keep the frame together. Then, you can fold then down and store, after the plants are removed and placed in the garden.

You can use trays, Styrofoam cups or other containers inside the frames to hold your seedlings. You will need to vent the hot air inside the box as our temperatures climb, so plan something to raise or prop the glass lids up. If you don’t have any old windows you can make a cover out of clear plastic stretched over a separate frame.

If you don’t have the time or skills to build, then go to the hardware store and buy those panels of corrugated fiberglass sheets to make a low tunnel over your row of crops. You’ll need to find a way to fix the bended panels in place.

Ropes can hook over the top to hold the formed tunnel in place. Tent stakes bordering the sheet’s sides will work to anchor the ropes to the ground and hold the panel in place. The only drawback with using these panels is watering, because the rain can’t get through them. You have to reach in with the hose.

Now, as of today, spring is just 10 days away. Hooray. I must warn you though, the Old Farmer’s Almanac is still predicting more cold and snow through the last week of March. So, make sure you have plenty of protection for those plants you put outside early. Kind of like keeping your long underwear handy.

For now, go enjoy the sun and happy growing.