Importance of hardening off plants and soil testing prior to planting

By Natalie Jo Cossette, an Alaska Master Gardener.
The month of May rolled around and I was chomping at the bit to get into the garden. I tried to satisfy my urges with starting seeds in the garage under lights but it wasn’t enough. The beautiful weather called to me and I knew better than to put my plants outside before the last weekend in May. But the raised bed I’d constructed last year was ready and I hadn’t been able to have a garden for four seasons, so I rolled the dice. Winters in Alaska can be very long, but with the hot spring we were experiencing, the trees were leafing out, the perennials were well emerged and the robins had returned. I planted my baby broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage starts on May 24, but by the week’s end, we had two nights that hit freezing temperatures. I also made the huge mistake of not hardening off the starts. I hadn’t given them a chance to grow a thick skin or acclimate to the elements. They were definitely set back because of my lack of patience.

Additionally, the soil in my newly constructed raised bed came from the local high school’s football field. They were tearing it up for a new turf field and raising money from the sale of the sod and soil. The price was right and I figured it would be fine because it had been growing a nice lush green field of grass. Why wouldn’t it produce a nice lush green vegetable garden? Indeed the grass needed good drainage, so the soil was full of small pea sized gravel and a lot of sand that made it quite heavy. It’s definitely not ideal for growing anything with a deeper root system than a few inches, especially carrots. By the end of July, my carrots are barely over two inches tall with very thin taproots. The soil structure will benefit from being amended with a significant amount of organic material to increase water retention and allow for better root growth. A soil test is also in order before next summer to determine what nutrients are lacking. The broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage have grown twice their size since May 24 and have produced nothing while the sugar snap peas and green beans I sewed from seed are stunted and yellow at their bases indicating a lack of nutrients. I have fertilized with organic fish emulsion that seemed to help, but since I didn’t start with a good foundation, I couldn’t expect too much.

Lessons learned: Always harden off your plants even if Mother Nature teases you with warm temperatures. Never plant a garden in soil that hasn’t been tested. You will probably be wasting your time, efforts and resources. My lack of self-restraint has certainly been a detriment to the success of my garden. I will be better prepared for next year and hopefully my pantry will show the fruits of my labor!

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