Spring into action: Planning, planting, and frost in East Tennessee

Published 11:22 am Friday, April 5, 2024

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Welcome to April in East Tennessee! At “The Appalachian Harvester,” we’re ready to delve into the essentials of farm and garden life. Although the frost dates advise a bit of patience before we plant our seeds, there’s plenty to do in preparation. So, settle in, don your gardening gear, and join us as we explore the tasks and opportunities this month presents for seasoned gardeners and those new to the field.

Soil Preparation: Even if it’s too early to plant outside, you can get a head start by preparing your garden beds. Testing your soil to see what nutrients it might be lacking is a great first step. Adding compost or other organic matter can improve soil structure, provide essential nutrients, and enhance water retention. For those seeking expert advice or assistance with soil testing, the Carter County Extension Office is part of the University of Tennessee Extension Service. UT Extension is a statewide educational organization and a partnership between the Carter County government, The University of Tennessee and the US Dept. of Agriculture. They can also provide tailored recommendations for soil amendments based on your specific garden needs. Beyond soil testing, the Extension service offers a wealth of information on plant selection, pest management, and sustainable gardening practices, all of which can contribute to your gardening success. To connect with the Carter County Extension service, you can visit their office in person at 824 E. Elk Avenue, give them a call at 423-542-1818, or access their resources online. Their team is dedicated to supporting local gardeners and farmers, ensuring that the agricultural community in East Tennessee thrives.

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Garden Planning: Use this time to plan out your garden. Consider companion planting to boost your garden’s health and yield. For instance, planting tomatoes with basil is known to repel flies and mosquitoes while possibly improving the flavor of tomatoes. Corn, Beans, and Squash are known as the “Three Sisters.” This trio is a classic example of companion planting practiced by Native American communities. Marigolds are known to repel a variety of pests, including nematodes, and can be a beneficial companion for many garden plants, including tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce. Their bright flowers also attract pollinators and beneficial insects. Draw a map of where you intend to plant each crop, keeping in mind the needs of each plant in terms of sunlight and space.

Starting Seeds Indoors: While the outdoors is still shaking off the last bit of frost, your windowsill can become a nursery for your future garden. Vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants benefit from a head start inside. Use this time to germinate seeds indoors so they’ll be hearty and ready for transplanting once the frost risk has passed.

Frost Protection: In Carter County, frost dates can vary significantly, especially when comparing in-town locations to higher elevation areas. Typically, in-town areas in Carter County might see their last spring frost from early to mid-April. However, in higher elevations, the cold can linger, pushing the last frost date to late April or even early May. This variance is crucial for gardeners to consider when planning their planting schedules. On average, we recommend using April 27 as a good rule of thumb for our area’s last frost date.

Frost Protection Strategies: Gardeners in higher elevations need to be particularly cautious, as a late frost can occur after lower areas have already warmed. The microclimates created by elevation changes can impact not just when you plant, but how you protect your plants if a sudden cold snap is forecasted. Believe it or not, filling old milk jugs with water and placing them around your plants can help protect them from frost. During the day, the water in the jugs warms up, and at night, it releases heat slowly, creating a warmer microclimate around the plants. Ensure the caps are off to allow heat release. Bed sheets can cover plants when there is a chance of frost. Bring hanging baskets up beside your house if you don’t have room in a garage or other indoor area. Cool temperatures may not harm your plant like you might expect but frost surely will. A word of caution: DO NOT use plastic to cover your plants. Plastic magnifies the sun’s rays and can capture too much heat. If you forget to remove the plastic from your plants in the morning, the afternoon sun can cook your veggies before it’s supper time! Support the future, buy local: If you’re looking to skip the seed-starting process and jump straight into gardening with some robust young plants, consider supporting one of our local FFA Chapters (you might know it as, Future Farmers of America). 

The Hampton High School FFA greenhouse will celebrate their grand opening on April 13 at 8 a.m. Follow them on Instagram at “hamptonhsffa” or reach out to Alayna Carr at alaynacarr@carterk12.net for more details. 

The Elizabethton High School FFA Greenhouse will open its doors on April 20 at 9 a.m. Follow their journey on Instagram and Facebook at “elizabethton.ffa” or contact Jerry Agan at jerry.agan@ecschools.net for more information. By choosing these programs, you’re not just getting quality plants; you’re nurturing the future of agriculture in our community.

Looking ahead: In the May issue, we will be discussing bringing poultry to your homestead. We will explain everything you need to know to get started or to maintain a flock of egg laying ladies. We hope to see you then! Remember, every day is a chance to grow, learn, and find joy in the earth’s offerings. Until our next edition, keep your minds growing and your hands busy. Happy gardening, happy farming, and most importantly, happy living.

(About the author: Jerry Agan is a devoted lifelong Carter Countian, deeply rooted in the soil of his beloved East Tennessee. As a dedicated husband and father of three, Jerry’s life is as rich and vibrant as the landscapes he cherishes. With a degree in Agriculture Education from Tennessee Technological University, Jerry has dedicated over a decade to teaching agriculture, nurturing the minds and hearts of the next generation of farmers and agriculturists. He currently teaches at Elizabethton High School. Connect with Jerry by email at jerry again@outlook.com)