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New zone map, starting seeds, Allen Garden Day

By John Fulton

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[March 01, 2012]  There has been quite a bit in the popular press about the USDA changing the Hardiness Zone Map due to the "global warming" phenomenon. These hardiness zones are used to select perennial plants for use in your landscape plan. For the Logan County and Menard County areas, we are still in the 5b zone. The Sangamon County area is now split, with Springfield being the border for zone 5b and zone 6a. The zone has shifted, with the border in our area now being between 5b and 6a, instead of 5a and 5b.

While much has been made of the changes, long-term selection of perennials has a simple rule of thumb: "better safe than sorry." This simply means if you live in a border area, you should probably select the zone to your north to be on the safe side. Zone 6a plants may survive well, but that abnormal winter will send them to plant heaven. There are also the new zone numbers to deal with, since many of the zones are now divided; whereas before, zone 5 was the predominant division.

Starting seeds

It's now approaching early March. Although winter may still be with us, it is time to plan for starting your own transplants. There are quite a few details to begin your own transplants. Starting your own will only pay benefits for you if you want to transplant several plants; otherwise, the seed cost (and it has gone up this year) may be more than a four-pack of plants. Of course, some people just enjoy raising their own from seed, or you do it to make sure you get a variety you want.

I'll begin with the hardiness zone. All of Logan County lies in zone 5b, but we are on the border with 6a now. What difference does this make? "It makes about three weeks' difference in seed starting date" is the answer. In zone 5b, we would want to start broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and lettuce (if that's something you want to transplant) as early as March 5. Eggplant, herbs, pepper and tomato would be started about March 25. Cucumber, muskmelon and watermelon are started as early as April 15. The rule of thumb is to allow about six weeks before you want to set the plants outside.

You should use a sterile growing medium to start seeds in. Several kinds of soilless germinating mixes, potting soils, peat cubes and compressed peat pellets are available. These media are generally free from insects, diseases and weeds. Enough fertilizer is generally present in these to allow for three or four weeks of plant growth.

As far as sowing the seeds, traditionally seeds have been put in shallow boxes in rows about 2 inches apart and covered lightly with vermiculite. Soon after the seeds come up, they are transplanted into other containers. An easier method is to start the seeds directly in the final growing container. For small individual or sectioned containers, it is common to plant two seeds per section. The final container should match the seed (or plant) planting depth to what it would be directly seeded in a garden.

Most seeds will germinate in a growing medium temperature of 60 to 70 degrees, but the melons and eggplants like it a bit warmer. Watering and fertilizing are just as important as seeding directly into a garden. Water can't be too much or too little. The medium you are using also makes a difference, as peat pellets tend to dry out quickly. Fertilizer should be in the medium for the first three to four weeks. You can add a soluble fertilizer to the water at the rate of one tablespoon per gallon, to be used about once a week on established seedlings. Nonfertilized water should be used between the fertilizer applications.

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Vegetable plants need direct light. Natural light only goes so far in the winter months. We want to try to provide about 12 hours of light a day on these transplants. Artificial lights work well to supplement natural light, or provide all light in a basement setting. Grow light bulbs work well but are expensive. A combination of cool white fluorescents and incandescent bulbs provides about the same light spectrum. Lamps should be about 12 inches away from plant leaves.

Before your starts are transplanted outdoors, they should be hardened gradually by exposing them to outside conditions. Start by placing the plants outside a few hours a day. Use a very sheltered area to protect from direct light and winds. Gradually extend the time outdoors as planting time approaches. Remember, this process takes at least six weeks, so don't wait until the week before you are ready for transplants. Otherwise, you'll be standing in line buying your plants.

Russel Allen Garden Day

Russel Allen was one of the people in the original Master Gardener group in Logan County. Russel always joked he was the "worst Master Gardener," but he was passionate about gardening and the program. In his memory, the Logan County Master Gardeners will have a Russel Allen Garden Day on Saturday, March 10, at Lincoln College, from 9-1. Cost is $10 for preregistration and $12 at the door, and registration materials are available at the Extension office or online.

[By JOHN FULTON, University of Illinois Extension]

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