June 10, 2013

Growing season off to slow start

By AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — What an interesting spring we have had. I’m surprised our garden plants know which way to grow. 

Early May was glorious and sunny, but very dry. Then the nor’easter arrived with 5 inches of rain and weeks of cloudy, overcast skies. Snow in the mountains and a light frost on Memorial Day, and then that awful heat wave in the 90s just two days later, and now we’re back to cold and rainy. If your gardens aren’t looking their best right now, no wonder!

My perennial flower garden is actually doing pretty well with lots of lush growth, and I’ve been trying hard to keep up with the weeds and encroaching grass. Most of my setbacks are with seedlings and transplants. My porch is still covered with flats of flowers I started from seed indoors as well as several packs of transplants I’ve bought at various places over the past few weeks. Just when I’m ready to set them in the garden, another weather event approaches. Most of my plants are small enough that they can wait a bit longer under the protection of the porch before having to face the elements head-on. And I haven’t planted any of my warm-season seeds yet, such as beans, squash, melons and pumpkins, although I do have some cucumbers sprouting in small pots on my porch.

I set out a few tomato plants just before the heat wave, and they are looking quite bedraggled. The largest plants look the worst, and the smaller ones seem to have weathered the pounding a bit better. If you have just a few plants of something and they’ve taken a beating but haven’t died, you have two choices. You can either give them some time to revive, or you can cut your losses and plant a few replacements. It’s early enough in the month that transplants are still widely available. I’m going to plant some extra tomatoes for insurance. I may end up with a few too many, but I’d rather have that than not enough.

My first sowing of spinach and lettuce back around the first of May barely made it. The second planting I did around mid-May has really taken off and outgrown the first, so I’m going to turn under that early planting and get my third planting of greens in the ground very soon. Once hot summer weather arrives in July, these greens will get bitter so I try to get as much in now as I can, and sow more every couple of weeks.

One year, my early planting of quick summer annual flowers — zinnias, cosmos, calendula, bachelor buttons and alyssum — failed, and some I just plain forgot to plant, so I replanted them all from seed in late June. This turned out so well that now I intentionally save some of these seeds for a late planting each year. I find the earlier plantings sometimes peter out by the end of August, especially if it’s been hot and dry. This later planting can then reach its peak in late August and provide me with lots of blooms and color through September. 

One last word about tomatoes: It really helps to provide support to hold the foliage off the ground and to keep the fruit clean. It also makes picking easier. If late blight comes near, the plants will be easier to spray and get good coverage. I like to use a mesh trellis and tie the main leaders to that for support. Some gardeners prefer a stout stake next to each plant, and others use a basket-weave method to support several plants in a row. 

Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: Email questions to