Margaret Lauterbach

Don’t jump the gun on spring planting

Give your seedlings a taste of the outside before putting them in the ground.
Give your seedlings a taste of the outside before putting them in the ground. MCT

The Idaho Treasure Valley has a reliable, permanent barometer for all to see from the city of Boise: it’s Shafer Butte. When there’s snow up there, we may receive frosty temperatures down here in the city, but when all of that snow has melted, it’s time to transplant frost-tender plants such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants (and many ornamentals) in our gardens. Some years we’re sorely tempted to set out plants earlier, and we often lose them to a late frost.

If you have season-extending equipment such as Walls o’ Water available, set out your plants and use those useful items. The first ones I bought were at a home show at Expo Idaho building. The Utah inventors of Walls o’ Water were at the booth. What a great idea! If you’re old enough to remember the hose nozzles used by filling stations to fill radiators with water, those thumb-activated nozzles are now hard to find, but very useful in filling the vertical pockets of Walls o’ Water. Also, using an automobile reference, fill pockets opposite one another as you’d tighten lugs on a wheel. Once you’ve filled all of the pockets, grasp the upper structure and lift it off the ground. You may have not noticed there was a crease in a pocket, but the lift will reveal a pocket less filled, and less vulnerable to being tipped.

Before planting your seedlings outdoors, be sure you’ve acclimated to breezes and direct sun. If they’re not gradually introduced to sun — a process called hardening off — direct sun will bleach chlorophyll from the leaves, and the plant dies. Some folks refer to hardening off plants in cold frames, but unless the lid of the cold frame is raised, your seedlings are not exposed to direct sun or wind. Since I lost my leg years ago, I developed a different method of hardening off that does work. That is, I create a shelf out of 2-by-4s on sawhorses under my partly-tented clothesline. We used to use strips of row cover pinned over the line, but since I bought new shade cloth for the greenhouse we now use the old shade cloth to protect new seedlings set under the clothesline. The cover extends over the top and the east side, leaving the west side exposed. Seedlings get some direct sun for a brief time before the house shades them again.

We also set up a shelf under the apple tree, casting dappled shade as it begins to leaf out. Our dogs have free run of the backyard, so shelves protect seedlings from accidental dog damage.

Digging the holes

Digging holes to receive transplants won’t have much effect on a “no-till” bed, but watch the bottom of the hole and the excavated soil for a C-shaped fat cutworm. They’re the diameter of a pencil, and this time of year are always found in that shape. Killing a cutworm with a trowel or farmer’s knife (Hori-Hori) will save woe in terms of labor and time. To re-grow a destroyed plant takes time you may not have to fit into our growing season. Cutworms are larvae of a moth (night-flying, of course), and once they hatch in soil they don’t move far from their hatch-home.

Some folks add amendments to the transplant hole, but beware of adding fertilizers that are heavy with nitrogen (the first number of three on a fertilizer container). A lot of nitrogen will produce a lush plant without fruit. You need phosphorus and potassium (the second and third numbers) for fruiting. I never put fertilizer where newly transplanted roots will touch it; layer some soil over any fertilizer in the hole before installing the plant.

I’ve heard of some folks wanting to mulch with chips of rubber. This is not a good idea, although it will last long enough to be a major pain for someone to remove. Organic mulch such as wood chips, fallen leaves, grass clippings from lawns not treated with herbicides, or any other growing thing eventually feeds your soil. When you grow anything, it naturally takes nutrients from your soil, so anything you can give back in terms of compost or even organic mulch will restore at least some of those nutrients. Lindarose Curtis-Bruce suggested we lay tap-rooted weeds on top of the soil so those minerals the deep roots have collected can disperse into our soil. This is an excellent suggestion, as long as those tap-rooted weeds don’t have seeds to drop. In the past, some mulches commercially available in this area were from cocoa hulls, and that’s very, very dangerous to pets. Dogs are attracted to the chocolate scent, but eating it is fatal for them.

If your seedlings that were started indoors start to grow lanky and tall, outgrowing their foliage, they’re looking for sunlight. One way to help your seedlings grow stocky and strong is to either set up a fan to blow them around a little or brush them lightly with a windshield snow brush several times, at least once each day.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

Wet spring brings on blight

This spring has been sufficiently wet and rainy that we’re advised to watch for signs of fire blight on apple and pear trees, as well as on cotoneaster, pyracantha and hawthorns, and coryneum blight on peach, apricot, plum and cherry trees.

Fire blight looks like someone has burned leaves or a branch, and coryneum blight at first looks like round red spots on leaves, with a dark brown center. When that center drops out, the leaf will look like it’s been shot by shotgun pellets, giving rise to the alternate name, “shothole” disease.

I will discuss in my column next week about what to do if you think you see blight.