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Curing the winter blues by planning your spring garden

For many folks living in the high country, the cold and snowy days of winter are bringing on symptoms of cabin fever. Dreams of sipping hot cocoa, soaking in the warmth of the blazing fireplace and watching feathery white flakes blanket the surrounding countryside have faded away. No longer does the scene through the window have the dreamy glow of a winter wonderland. Reality has set in, and the frozen landscape is stark and bare and void of life. Skies hanging heavy and gray make one long for the sunshine and fresh air of spring.
Although the calendar says it is early February, and the groundhog’s shadow spoke of more winter to come, it is never too early to start visualizing and planning your summer vegetable garden.
Avid gardeners often choose to go a step beyond planning and plant their own seeds indoors, partially for the benefit of an early start on the season, but also as a way to get their hands dirty while the weather outdoors is still far from conducive to growing anything.

Most seed packets give approximate germination times, making it fairly simple to calculate when seeds should be planted in order for them to be ready to move outdoors at the proper time. The Old Farmer’s Almanac website (www.almanaccom) gives specific instructions for planting and care of the young seedlings. It points out that a common mistake is placing the plants in a sunlit window. The light is almost always inadequate and causes the plants to become “leggy,” meaning they are growing tall and weak as they stretch toward the sunlight. If you are serious about producing healthy plants, full spectrum grow lights should be purchased that generate light, not heat, as most houses are warm enough to promote growth without the addition of heat.
The website also has a garden planning feature that uses information about your location and the vegetables you desire to grow and produces a chart that gives you times to plant the seeds for your climate, when to transplant them into larger individual containers and when and how to properly move the maturing plants outdoors. Seedlings must be “hardened off,” to their new home in order to ease them into the new environment that is harsh compared to the carefully controlled conditions in which they have lived indoors. The site suggests moving the containers outside starting at an hour each day and increasing the time a little every day until they are fully acclimated and hardy enough to survive. A greenhouse or cold frame can also be used until the ground is warm enough to nourish the plants.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac recommends that no plants should be subjected to nighttime mountain temperatures in East Tennessee until May 17th this year. Although daytime temperatures may be warm, the danger of a late spring frost still exists until mid-May. This date also applies to seeds planted directly into the outdoor garden area, timing their germination period for tender, young plants to break through the ground no earlier than May 17th. If by chance, seedlings come up faster than predicted, they can be covered at night to protect them from frostbite. Be sure the plants are uncovered in the morning before the heat of the day. Otherwise, what was meant for protection from the cold will act as an oven in the sun and the high temperatures will cook the fragile plants.
According to their predictions, September 27th will effectively end the growing season with the possibility of the first frost falling in late September.
The website is loaded with information for the beginner planting a small garden to supply fresh vegetables for the summer table as well as the more serious among us with large plots of ground planted with food to preserve for winter eating.
Focusing on the gardening light at the end of the long winter tunnel might be just the tonic needed to cure the winter weary blues.