Last year, I thought I was being super clever and frugal by starting all of my seeds on the extravagant and super-awesome seed starting stand my husband made for me.
Frugal, yes – smart, perhaps not.
It wasn’t the fact that I was starting seeds indoors that was a problem. The problem was that I started some of my seeds way too early – we’re talking end of January, folks.
Because of this, I had broccoli and Brussels sprouts that were ready to go into the ground in early April.
Now that might be fine in some places, but where I live, even cold-hardy vegetables aren’t really ready at that point. It’s just too cold – and there’s still the risk of frost and snow (we had snow squalls in early May last year, to further emphasize my point).
Knowing when the time is right for planting can be a challenge, particularly if you are new to gardening. However, here are some tips on deciding when it is safe to plant so you can time your spring sowing and transplanting appropriately.
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What is the Best Way to Calculate Planting Dates?
When it comes to figuring out the best time for planting (either seeds or seedlings), there are essentially two factors you’ll need to take into consideration:
- How wet the ground is – if it’s not workable, you’re going to create a ton of mess and mud
- Whether the soil temperatures and air temperatures are warm enough for the plants you have in mind
Believe it or not, your soil type plays a much larger role in planting time than you think. That’s why some of the planting calendars I’ll tell you about below can sometimes lead you astray. While they take your local climate into consideration, they don’t take into consideration soil type.
Test your soil with a home test kit before you plant – you can buy one here, or you can bring a sample to your local cooperative extension.
Heavier clay soils are going to hold moisture longer (and take longer to warm up) than loamy or sandy ones. Similarly, areas that are exposed to more sun and wind will dry up faster and be ready for planting sooner, too.
When it comes to temperatures, you’re really just going to need to figure out your last frost date and weigh that information against what kinds of plants you intend to grow.
What is a Planting Calendar – and How Does it Work?
To find your ideal planting date, you need to determine your last frost date. The National Climatic Center website has frost information for all states, but often, you’re going to need to narrow it down a bit more than that.
A planting calendar or calculator is a guide that will tell you the best time to plant any kind of plant, flower, or vegetable. These work by calculating the best time to start seeds based on the first and last frost dates for your area.
Here is a calculator you can use to calculate your first and last frost dates.
The frost date is the first and last average day (or range of days) that a frost is expected in your area. It’s not an exact science, but will give you a good idea of when it might be time to plant.
When Should You Start Seeds Indoors?
When you’re starting seeds indoors, it’s most helpful to look at the time to maturity listed on your seed packet and then count backward. If you know your tomatoes take 90 days to mature, that means you’ll need 90 total days of growing time (and then some) to get a decent harvest. By looking at your first and last frost dates, you might figure out that you need to start seeds indoors in April so you can get them outdoors by May and harvest by July or August.
Which Seeds Should You Start Indoors?
Starting seeds indoors is smart if you’re growing plants (like tomatoes) with long growing seasons. Technically you can start any kind of seed indoors but there are some that transplant poorly and grow just fine from seed (and quickly!) outdoors – so there’s no reason to start them inside.
Some plants I always start from seed indoors include:
When Should You Transplant Seedlings?
There are two general dates that gardeners rely on for transplanting – while most gardeners in moderate climates say it’s safe to plant after Mother’s Day, where I live, we use Memorial Day as our benchmark.
However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule — you really need to use one of the planting calculators or calendars I discussed above (and weigh it against the other factors) to decide when the best planting time is for you.
Ideally, before transplanting any kind of plant outside, you should make sure it has at least three to four sets of true leaves.
Tender vs. Hardy Plants
When deciding which plants are ready to be transplanted, it may help for you to figure out whether they are tender or hardy. Tender plants are warm season annuals, herbs, and vegetables that can sometimes survive a frost with protection like cold frames or cloches but that aren’t likely to survive a freeze.
Hardier plants, like broccoli, are those that can usually survive both a frost and a freeze.
When to Plant Vegetables?
It depends what you’re going to plant. There are lots of cool-season vegetables that can be planted three to four weeks prior to your last expected frost date. These include:
When to Plant Flowers?
Flowers and other ornamentals, like trees, are just like vegetables in that they vary in their cold-hardiness. There are some cool-season annuals that can be grown early in the season, such as:
- Dusty miller
- Wall flower
Many other trees, shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers can be planted early, too. Plants that need longer, more sustained periods of warm weather (wait until after Mother’s Day, in most cases) include impatiens, begonias, dahlias, elephant ears, and impatiens.
When to Plant Fruits?
Again – it depends on the fruit. Some early-season fruits you can plant include raspberries and blackberries. Most fruit trees can also be planted relatively early. However, for melons, you’re going to need lots of warm weather – so wait on those.
When to Plant Herbs?
Most herbs can be planted early (including thyme, sage, chives, mint, oregano, thyme, and parsley). However, there are some warm season varieties that you not only should start from seed indoors, but also wait to transplant outdoors (such as dill and basil).
What is a Frost Date?
Frost vs. Freeze
In calculating your last frost date, make sure you’re weighing the difference between a frost and a freeze. It can mean the difference between life and death for your plants! Frost advisories are normally issued when temperatures fall between 32 and 36 degrees Fahrenheit, while freezes are when temperatures are expected to dip below 32 degrees.
Can You Have More Than One Planting Season?
Yes. In fact, there are several types of crops that I grow in succession, meaning I grow with multiple harvest dates throughout the year. While my first batch of beets is planted in the early spring, I usually plant at least one or two more for a late summer and late fall harvest before snow flies.
Some other plants you can sow seeds of in succession include:
- Swiss chard
- Broccoli raab
- Green onions
- Bok choy
Can You Plant in the Fall or Winter?
You can. In fact, in many parts of the world, fall and winter are prime gardening times, with gardeners growing thor favorite cool-season crop (like carrots and kale) during this time.
Where I live, gardening throughout the winter isn’t possible unless you’re utilizing an indoor gardening system or greenhouse. But don’t be afraid of cooler fall temperatures when it comes to sowing a second late crop of fast-maturing onions, carrots, or beets.
In warmer climates, like in zones 7-10, you may even be able to grow a few batches of seedlings over the winter so you can grow things like tomatoes in February for a summer harvest.
What To Do If You Plant Too Soon
Uh-oh – you planted too soon. It happens to the best of us, no matter how much planning you do. You can read more tips on what to do if you plant too soon here. In a pinch, you can always just cover your tender seedlings with a light blanket. This should help ward off the frost – or at least most of it.
Stay warm and stay patient! Planting time will be here before we know it.
Want to learn more about farming? Be sure to take a look at these other articles.
- How to Cut Up A Chicken For the Freezer
- How to Make Your Own Sourdough Bread
- 20 Resourceful Recipes to Use Up Leftover Pickles
- 6 Absolutely Tantalizing Radish Recipes You Need to Try Tonight
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