Beyond the parades and backyard picnics, the flags and the hotdogs, Memorial Day weekend is the traditional time for garden planting.
Some of you, those in the tropics of Albany and Schenectady, may have already put in your tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and other heat-loving plants that cannot tolerate a frost.
Up north where I live, we prefer to wait. Our plants are growing nicely in their little pots, strawberry boxes and coffee cups, staying out in the day and getting tucked in at night like the babies that they are.
Our garden beds are ready for them but really, it doesn’t hurt to wait. Where they are — hanging out in a plastic-covered shelving unit that we refer to as the incubator — they are gaining size, girth and root systems, and a lot faster than they would in the still-warming soil.
And we’ve been known to have frost as late as June 6, although that’s not likely this year.
Some plants — okra, hot and sweet peppers, eggplant, fennel — seem to stop growing if we plant them out in the garden when the nights are still cool. I say seem to, because they are growing roots, and as soon as it gets hot, they take off. But we’ve had better luck keeping them in pots an extra week, and letting them pretend it’s already mid-June.
When you live in a place with as short a growing season as ours, you have to do a lot of pretending. Row covers, cold frames, a scoop of still-composting manure under a transplanted tomato plant all help us fool the plants into thinking it’s warmer than it is.
We do the same on the other end of the season, covering greens and root crops to make them think winter isn’t coming as early as it likes to up our way. If we could fool them into thinking we live in Pennsylvania it would be great for our harvest.
From the time we start seeds in early March until now, we subscribe to my husband’s theory: As long as we keep transplanting the little seedlings — from flats to finger-pots to paper coffee cups to random bigger containers — they’ll keep growing and can stay in the heat while doing so.
The trick is not to forget to get them into the ground. Every year there are a few plants that keep getting bigger pots but never get into the garden, and end up stunted — one year it was a pack of onions, one year it was a dozen or so pumpkin plants. Gardens, even big ones, can fill up pretty fast when you start popping in the plants.
Right now in the garden there’s spinach and lettuce, not quite ready for eating. The pea plants are growing and the corn’s planted, with sunflowers intermingled. Some of the potatoes are in, but we save some to plant later, in distant gardens, to fool the potato bugs.
This weekend, before we put in the tomatoes, peppers and tender herbs, we’ll plant seeds of pumpkins and squashes, cucumbers and melons, and beans, lots of beans, for fresh eating and drying.
And this is the time of year is when our neighbor gardeners stop to talk, so we can all share plants, seeds and progress updates. One neighbor told us she skipped a planned camping trip to stay home and work in her flower garden. Another tilled his garden last week, avoiding his row of garlic as he prepped for his tomatoes and beans.
Our neighbor down the road shared his tips on asparagus tending — he planted the roots extra deep so he can rototill on top every spring — and reported on his early crop of spinach. “I planted beans a week early, but they won’t come up before Memorial Day anyway,” he said.
Just as the smell of burgers on the grill wafts through my friend’s neighborhood in suburban Wilton, it’s the talk of gardens that spreads around our part of the world this time of year. There will be a barbecue or two as well this long weekend, and a parade on Monday. But mostly, we’ll be in the garden.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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