It can be tricky to decide when to plant vegetables in your area. These four factors will help you plant your garden with confidence.
Figuring out when to plant vegetables in your area requires a little detective work. In addition to your geographic location, you’ll need to consider a few other variables, as well. For example, the type of vegetables you plan to grow and how you intend to plant them, whether as seedlings, transplants or directly in the ground with seeds.
All these things will need to be factored into when you should get your crops in the ground. After all, the goal is to only plant one time and not have frost, severe weather, or extreme temperatures ruin your hard work.
Plant by the Seasons
If you live in an area with distinct seasons, your vegetable growing season will fall loosely between your anticipated frost-free date in the spring and the first hard frost in the fall. Unless you have a crystal ball, it is next to impossible to predict these dates with absolute certainty, but you can use the law of averages and get pretty close.
Fortunately, there are some valuable online resources you can check for general guidelines. A quick online search for “frost-free date” + your geographic area should give you a good idea of when it might be safe to plant in your region.
You can also use one of the free resources (listed below) to help you find out.
Prepare for the Unexpected
When you are at the mercy of Mother Nature, gardening can be a wild ride. The published frost-free date for your area doesn’t take into account unexpected late-season snow storms or unseasonably cold temperatures. There is no absolute way to prepare for those things, although you can make a reasonable guess based on how the season has so far progressed.
Here’s one absolute – IF you wait until after the expected frost-free date for your area AND for the daytime soil temperature to reach 65 degrees or warmer, you should be in good shape.
Get a Jump by Warming the Soil
Many seeds will not germinate unless the soil is a certain temperature. If you want to get a jump on planting, then take measures to warm up your soil faster.
- You can cover your planting beds with black plastic sheets for several weeks prior to planting. Black plastic laid across your planting beds and held tightly to the ground is the most effective way that you can warm your soil. Use clips to keep it in place so that no air can blow underneath. At planting time, remove the plastic or make cuts and plant right through it. The plastic then acts as an effective mulch to reduce weeds.
- Use the product called Wall of Water (Amazon) to protect individual plants from harsh weather. This works especially well with tomatoes and peppers and can give you an extra few weeks out in the garden. This can be cost prohibitive, so if your plants are still small use a one-gallon milk jug as effective protection from harsh weather.
- Floating row covers (Amazon) are eco-friendly, allow water to reach the seedlings and soil, and can be as effective as black plastic for warming the soil a few degrees. Once you’ve planted your seeds tack down the row cover along each corner and all four sides. Once the plants reach a few inches tall you’ll need to remove it or the fabric will inhibit the plant growth. As an alternative, you can add row hoops and leave the covers on even longer. Fleece Tunnel Garden Cloche Row Covers with Hoops
As you develop your garden planting timeline, think of these two important dates as virtual “bookends” around your prime vegetable growing season. However, if you start seeds indoors or protect your plants from cold temperatures with mulch, cold frames, row covers or mini-hoop houses, you can extend your growing season even further.
Don’t Ignore “Days to Maturity” for Your Selected Plants
As you’re deciding when to plant vegetables in your garden, pay close attention to the “days to maturity” information noted on the seed packages or plant markers for the vegetables you’ve selected.
This number, which is often expressed as a range of days, tells you how long it will take until that plant is ready to harvest.
This is important to know because some vegetables reach maturity much faster than others. For example, radishes, lettuce and baby carrots can be ready for harvest just 30 days after they are sown as seeds. On the other hand, some pumpkin varieties can take a full 120 – 160 days before they reach maturity.
The “days to maturity” for a particular vegetable variety gives you an idea of how early you need to get that plant into the ground if you want it to reach maturity before your first hard frost date.
It also tells you how late in the season you can plant certain crops. For example, you can’t wait until late summer in northern climates to plant pumpkins seeds that require 160 days to mature. On the other hand, you can plant fast-growing lettuce varieties with confidence until 30 days or so before your expected last frost date.
It’s worth the effort
Learning when to plant vegetables in your area is worth the effort. Knowing when your prime growing season begins and ends – and how you can get the most out of it – will make you a much more successful food gardener. It will help you decide which vegetables to grow and how to help those varieties thrive in your garden.
How do I know my first and last frost date?
I’ve created a handy worksheet to help you determine your last frost date and how to use this to know when you should start specific seeds indoors. This will also help you decide on the best time to plant them outside in the garden.
Here’s How to Use the Last Frost Date Planting Worksheet:
- Find your last frost date. This is the date that you are usually NOT going to see another freeze. Maybe you already know it – if not head on over to Morning Chores or the Farmers Almanac and use the handy freeze/frost date calculator. You can look it up by your zip code and get a range of dates when frost is and is not expected. They will also give you the average number of growing days per year. How handy is that!
- Make note of these dates and enter the average last freeze date you collected from the website, in the first column. (ex: To figure out when I should start my broccoli seeds I take my last frost date of March 5th)
- Get out a calendar that you can use for your seed starting and planting times. Some people in the South will begin seeds in December for setting out in late February.
- Add or subtract the number of “weeks to set out” (in this case subtract 3 weeks) to get the “set out date”. That means that in my area I can plant broccoli outside the week of Feb 12th.
- Count back from the “set out date” (Feb 12 – for my broccoli) by the number of weeks to grow indoors (-6) to get your “start indoor date”. My seed starting date for broccoli happens to be Jan 1st, which by now is long gone.
Don’t worry if you’ve missed the seed starting date, there is often still a window of time to get started. If it is not too far gone, start the seeds anyway. Most cool weather crops can be planted in succession until the days get very hot during the summer months.
If it is getting on in the season, purchasing starts from the local nursery may be your best option this year.
The Last Frost Date Planting Worksheet works to help you know when to plant certain vegetables and herbs in your garden without danger of frost damage. Enjoy!
Now that you’ve determined your last frost date, what should you be planting right now?