When is it safe to plant outdoors?
UGrab a handful of your garden soil. If you can form it into a ball, the soil is too wet for planting. (Chances are, the seeds will rot.) If it crumbles through your fingers and reminds you of chocolate cake, it's ready for planting.
UHere's another soil test. Make a ball of soil and drop it. If the ball crumbles, your garden is ready for seeds. If it holds its shape or breaks into two clumps, it's still too wet for planting.
UYou can also step into the garden and then step back to look at your footprint in the soil. If it's shiny, there's too much water near the soil's surface to dig and plant. If it's dull, then excess water has drained away, and it's time to plant.
Age-old planting wisdom
By taking note of what's happening in your landscape, you can develop your own rules to determine planting time. Here are a few guidelines the old-timers used:
UWhen daffodils begin to bloom, it's time to plant peas.
UWhen apple blossoms begin to fall from the tree, plant corn. Or plant it when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear.
UWhen lilacs have leafed out, plant lettuce, peas and other cool-weather vegetables. When lilac flowers have faded, plant cucumbers and squash.
UWhen dandelions bloom, plant beets and carrots.
UWhen the flowering dogwood is in peak bloom, plant tomatoes, early corn and peppers.
Transplanting your seedlings
If you start vegetable plants indoors from seeds, be sure they harden off; in other words, that they gradually get used to unsheltered life outdoors.
UDuring their last week indoors, withhold fertilizer and water them less often.
USeven to 10 days before transplanting, set the seedlings outdoors in dappled shade that is protected from winds for a few hours each day, gradually increasing their exposure to full sun and windy conditions.
UKeep the soil moist at all times during the hardening-off period. Dry air and spring breezes can result in rapid loss of water.
UIf possible, transplant on overcast days or in the early morning.
USet transplants into loose, well-aerated soil that will capture and retain moisture, drain well and allow easy penetration by seedling roots.
USoak the soil around new seedlings immediately after transplanting.
USpread mulch to reduce soil-moisture loss.
UTo ensure that phosphorus, which promotes strong root development, is available in the root zone of new transplants, mix two tablespoons of a 15-30-15 starter fertilizer into a gallon of water (one tablespoon for vining crops), and give each seedling a cup of the solution after transplanting.
UAnything that raises soil temperature will help plants adjust to the shock of cold ground. Try raised planting beds and plastic mulch to boost soil temperatures.

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