Use Self-Standing Water Tubes to Fool Mother Nature
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By Karin Deneke – Planning your next garden requires more than looking at pretty pictures in the seed catalogs. If you are an old pro, you are familiar with the relative length of your growing season and what plant varieties to select. If you are new at this, you should learn which produce varieties can safely be raised at your location — what time to expect the last night frost in spring — and the first killing frost in fall. Planning your next garden requires more than looking at pretty pictures in the seed catalogs — the new catalogs that arrive in the mail each year in late winter or early spring. If you are an old pro, you are familiar with the relative length of your growing season and what plant varieties to select. If you are new at this, you should learn which produce varieties can safely be raised at your location — what time to expect the last night frost in spring — and the first killing frost in fall.
Our changing climate is making it more difficult to follow the old rules. If you are buying seedlings from a nursery or garden center, and transplant these too early when there is still the danger of a late frost, there is a good chance they may perish. And that possibility becomes even greater if you do not allow those seedlings to acclimate at your location by setting them in a sheltered spot for a few days prior to planting. A friend of mine who was too eager to get his garden in, twice in one season lost most of his nursery transplants and was forced to return a third time to replace his plants.
Depending on varieties, I prefer planting mostly seeds that take 10 days or longer to germinate. These plants will be more acclimated to the existing conditions as they emerge. Seeds of certain hardy varieties can be planted early, and those that are super sensitive to cold spells, a week or so later.
Guidelines published in your seed catalogs are helpful and should be observed. Most catalogs published the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Color-coded, it defines the various planting zones based on annual minimum winter temperatures, they are separated by 10 degrees F each. For example, Zone 5 is 10 degrees colder than Zone 6, Zone 4 is 10 degrees colder than Zone 5. Most states have more than one hardiness zone. Wyoming, for instance, has four sub-zones.
Elevation, rainfall, wind, soil type, average days of sunshine all enter into the picture. For instance, if you reside in the high-elevation San Luis Valley of Colorado, count on an average growing season of three months. Your frost-free days, give or take a few, range from the middle of June to the middle of September. This short growing season puts a limit on the annual produce varieties you can raise.
Surprisingly, there are perennial varieties such as rhubarb, horseradish, and asparagus that do well at this location as long as you provide water when needed.
In areas with a short growing season, potatoes, beets, cabbage varieties, and an assortment of greens do well. When it comes to nightshade plants, such as tomatoes, which are extremely sensitive to frost, you can fool Mother Nature by protecting the fragile transplants. You may have raised them from seeds in your window sill, with shelters during the early part of the growing season so you’ve given them a lot of love and don’t want to see them freeze.
A good way to protect your plants from frost is to use self-standing water tubes. Sold in packages of five, they are made of strong plastic, are18 inches high, with 18 water wells each. But they do require a little patience to set up. It’s best to line up these helpful items before getting started. That would include using a five-gallon bucket with handle removed, or a similar container, four to five 2″x 2″ wooden stakes at 2′ in length, a small sledge, and a watering hose ready to use.
Carefully transplant your seedling and then cover it with the upside-down bucket. The bucket protects your plant while you install the water tube which you pull over the bucket. Now fill each of the 18 wells by using your hose. By the time all tubes of the shelter are filled, it is free-standing, and you can remove the bucket. To make the shelters sturdier, support them from the inside with your wooden stakes. In high wind areas, this is a must.
Now your seedling has greenhouse-like protection, open at the top to allow rain to enter. The semi-translucent water-filled cells are heated by solar energy during the day, releasing it gradually during the night. Even on cloudy days, there is a certain amount of solar gain. It will take a few weeks for your transplants to emerge from the shelter. During that period, it has already brought forth a few blossoms and is fruiting. Once it protrudes from the shelter, it will grow rapidly. At my elevation, I preferred not to remove the shelters.
When the growing season comes to an end, there are always a number of green tomatoes left on the vine — do not discard these. Fried green tomatoes can be a special treat when sliced and fried to a golden brown. You can also wrap green tomatoes in newspaper and store them in a box in a cool room where they will ripen slowly and last for weeks.
Originally published in the March/April 2021 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.