March 11, 2013

Slowly but surely, spring is creeping in

By AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — March can be a very long month for gardeners. It’s not really winter anymore, but it’s not spring, either. 

Some years, the weather taunts us with hints of spring weather in March, but I try hard to not get my hopes up until well into April. And even April can be a tease, alternating between lovely spring weather and blasts of winter cold.

But at least we’re heading in the right direction now. The days are getting noticeably longer, and this week we’re getting used to the time change. 

The calendar tells us spring arrives on March 20 with the vernal equinox, and there’s an old adage about planting peas on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, but I’m still unconvinced. The past years have been far too fickle to make any kind of prediction about the upcoming season. Remember this time last year when we had that heat wave in March that lasted more than a week? I certainly hope we don’t have to ride that weather roller coaster again this year.

I mention all this to back up the wishy-washy answers I’m forced to give when people ask how soon they can get started on their spring-garden chores and activities. I suggest you take it in stages, and don’t gamble more than you’re willing to lose. Maybe your time will be lucky, and you’ll get an extra-early crop of peas or spinach, but maybe you won’t. To hedge your bets, I suggest you plant some of your key crops in succession. That way, if your earliest efforts fail, you’ll have the later ones, and vice versa. 

Every spring, I debate with myself over when to start my flower seeds indoors. If I start them too early, they’ll be tall and spindly, but if I start them too late, they’ll take most of the summer to come into bloom. It really helps to keep records to learn from past experiences, but the fickle weather makes all that data somewhat relative. I usually advise that when in doubt, start your seeds a little later rather than a little earlier than you think. Small seedlings can catch up quickly when conditions improve, but spindly seedlings will turn into spindly plants.

I know most gardeners want me to at least take a stab at giving advice about timing, so here goes. In general, I like to start my slower-growing crops in mid-March. This group includes tomatoes, peppers, delphinium, ageratum, snapdragons and parsley. These seedlings must all be raised under grow lights, set just 4 to 6 inches above their leaves. A sunny windowsill does not provide enough light to produce the stocky seedlings you need.

When I used to start a lot of seeds, I had a second group that I would begin around April 1, but now I just wait until mid-April to start the rest, to keep it simple. 

This group includes marigolds, zinnias, basil and cilantro. Cucumbers, squash and pumpkins need warm temperatures and do not like to have their roots disturbed, so I wait until early May to start these in individual plastic pots or cell packs. By doing this, I can gently slide out the seedlings as I transplant them into the garden at the end of May, with the least trauma to the young root ball.

For an excellent fact sheet that we produced locally on starting seeds indoors, visit our website at and scroll down to “How to,” or call our office for a free copy. We also have directions for constructing your own grow-light stand out of PVC pipe at that same site. Welcome to spring!

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