Spring has sprung and eager gardeners go out on every nice day, looking for garden chores to address. But despite our good intentions, there really aren’t too many things we can do at the moment.

The soil, deeply frozen due to open ground in January and accompanying sub-zero temperatures, won’t thaw for some time. And even when the top few inches melt, probing with spade or fork reveals solid ice just below the surface. So what’s a poor, frustrated gardener to do?

Well, for starters, how about attending a garden show? The Bangor show has become a favorite of mine. Greenhouses, garden centers, contractors and a host of other vendors vie with each other to stage eye-catching and often, olfactory-stimulating, exhibits.

For instance, who can resist stopping and perhaps sniffing, a stand of fragrant hyacinths? After all, spring-flowering bulbs will grace our lawns and rock gardens in only a few short weeks. For me, these garden shows set the stage for what’s to come. And for sure, they lift the spirits. But besides that, shows represent a wonderful opportunity to learn about new and different gardening techniques, new products, new strains of flowers and perhaps even vegetables.

This year’s show, held at Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center, begins Friday, April 5. Hours Friday are, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 7, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 947-5555.

Gardener Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, a true renaissance man, helped to change the face of America’s home gardens. Upon retirement from public office in 1809, Jefferson had a huge garden built at Monticello. There, he did trials on a variety of heat-loving plants. Up until then, Americans grew mostly cold weather crops, such as were popular in Europe.

This marked the beginning of America’s involvement with vegetables from hot regions, an involvement that continues today. Jefferson’s terraced garden included, among other things, tomatoes, peppers, lima beans and eggplants.

By the mid-19th century, these hot weather plants had become firmly established and garden catalogues of the day reflected our passion for such offerings. For instance, my B.K. Bliss & Sons Catalogue And Gardener’s Almanac for 1874 lists 17 different tomato varieties, none of which, by the way, sound even remotely familiar.

Early tomatoes

By the time of the "Bliss Catalogue," horticulturists were feverishly developing new vegetable varieties. Bliss begins their tomato section by mentioning that “…cultivation of this delicious vegetable has increased rapidly within the last few years.”

The headliner for 1874 was Arlington Tomato. Bliss hawked this brand with unbridled enthusiasm. Some of the superlatives employed for Arlington Tomato include: “Fruit uniformly large, perfect in form, invariably perfectly solid, with very small seed cells, core never green or hard, but of the same rich color and delicate texture throughout.”

Kind of makes you want to go out and order seeds for Arlington Tomato, doesn’t it? Of course had this tomato been the be-all to end-all of tomatoes, it might have persisted. Maybe it does. Who knows but what some country gardener somewhere, keeps planting heirloom seed directly from one of these tomatoes?

Of course we today have a whole lot more than 17 varieties of tomatoes to choose from. But at the least, it’s interesting to look back upon the beginnings of hot-weather crops in northern gardens.

Seed starting

Speaking of tomatoes, most authorities suggest starting seeds five to seven weeks prior to planting outdoors. This two-week leeway suggests that we need to look closely at where we plant. For instance, some people plant tomatoes in protected locations and others use cold-protecting devices, namely Wall-O-Water. These allow for plants to go out a bit earlier than if planted in less protected situations.

Upon determining just when to start our seeds, based upon the seed packet’s recommendations and using the suggestions above, it’s time to plant our seeds. Just remember that once the tomatoes germinate, they need warmth and light, plenty of light. Otherwise, the plants become tall and scraggly. If sunlight doesn’t suffice to keep plants from developing spaghetti-like stems, then we need to add artificial light. Special plant lights work well, but so do standard variety fluorescent lights. Suspend bulbs just above the young plants.

Keep raising the lights as your plants grow and when late May comes around, your tomatoes and other plants will be strong, rugged and well developed.

Today’s tip

Raised bed gardens thaw and also drain sooner than in-ground beds. Those eager to get a leg up on early vegetables might plant a row of lettuce. Mix some radish seed in with the lettuce. This germinates sooner and helps mark the row. When the time arrives for other, longer-season plants, it will be time to harvest your lettuce and radishes.

Tom Seymour of Waldo is a homeowner, gardener, forager, naturalist, Registered Maine Guide, amateur astronomer, magazine and newspaper columnist and book author.