Avoiding Failures with Early Planted Vegetables

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; gcjohn@udel.edu

The mild weather has many growers eager to get an early start with summer vegetables. Early markets are often the most profitable with higher prices. However, growers should proceed with caution and realize that failures can occur if cold sensitive vegetables are planted when temperatures are sub-optimal. As we get back to more seasonable weather in April, there will be many nights ahead with temperatures in the 30s and frosts and freezes are still a concern.

Each vegetable crop has a minimal temperature at which growth will occur. Our summer vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, watermelons, and squash simply do not grow if temperatures are in the 40s or 50s. Squash and cucumbers do not put on growth with temperatures below 60°F, cantaloupes, watermelons, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants will not put on growth with temperatures below 65°F. If temperatures are below these minimums, plants will just “sit still” and will be at risk of cold injury, wind injury, and damage from early season insects and diseases. Cold soils will limit root growth, further placing plants at risk due to inadequate water uptake and the risk of desiccation. Excess cold can also stunt some summer vegetables so that they do not fully recover. This is especially true of cantaloupes.

When planting summer vegetables early, growers need to consider all the tools available to maximize heat accumulation and minimize heat loss. The following is a list of these tools:

  • · Use raised beds or ridges. Ridges that are oriented east-west with crops planted on the south side, will benefit from the additional heat accumulation from the increased solar radiation on that side. Sandy soils heat up quicker due to lower water content.
  • · Use planted windbreaks, most commonly rye, between beds or rows. Windbreaks reduce heat loss from cold winds and help to accumulate heat. Rye reaches full height by the end of April on most of Delmarva. Cold winds are the most damaging to summer crops. Sand blasting during dry wind storms can actually cut plants off at the soil level. Growers doing field plantings for early crops in unprotected areas should always use windbreaks.
  • · For direct seeded crops, choose cold tolerant varieties, plant shallower and into well drained soils, and choose protected fields for earliest plantings. Also till soils well ahead of plantings to allow for them to heat up. Plant as soon as soil temperatures are adequate for germination. Also choose seed that has high quality and performs well in a cold germination test.
  • · To warm the soil more quickly, use plastic mulches. Plastic mulches increase soil temperature and help hold heat during night periods. They can increase soil temperatures 5-20 F° depending on mulch color. In order of lowest to highest heat accumulation Black < Red < Blue < Olive/Brown < Clear in selecting mulches. Mulches should be laid tight on a firm moist bed that is clod free. This will allow for more effective heat transfer and accumulation. Loose plastic and cloddy soils will reduce plastic mulch benefits.
  • · Use clear poly plastic covers. Most commonly, these come with slits or perforations to vent excess heat. They can be placed over direct seeded or transplanted crops with wire hoop supports (low tunnels) or they can be placed over ridges with transplants or seeds planted in the depression between the ridges. Zip tunnels and vented systems, where clear plastic can be easily closed and opened, have also been used. High tunnels also use poly plastic for protection and heat accumulation. I will discuss high tunnel management further in additional articles.
  • · Use spun bond poly or woven poly floating row covers to insulate, frost protect, reduce wind, reduce heat loss from soils and beds, and accumulate some heat. They can be placed directly over low growing crops such as strawberries or can be used with wire supports for other crops. The insulation they provide can protect 2-8 F° depending on thickness. Usually a 0.9-1.2 oz. cover is used to provide protection but not limit light too much.
  • · For smaller plantings, use of additional heat sinks to absorb heat during the day and then release it at night can promote earliness. Heat collection devices are usually filled with water and may be clear or black plastic containers or tubes.

Combinations of these practices will provide greater cold protection, heat accumulation, and earliness. This could include plastic mulch + row cover, plastic mulch + clear row cover + floating row cover, plastic mulch + row cover + heat sink, plastic mulch + clear row cover + floating row cover + heat sink. Use of these combinations in a high tunnel will further enhance success with early planted summer vegetables.

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