Are you a beginning gardener and just not sure when to start? Planting vegetables in the correct growing season is a major determiner of success. You can plant some vegetables in the perfect conditions but if you don’t make sure to get the timing right, your crop won’t produce what you expect if at all. Vegetables are generally separated into two categories: cool-season vegetables and warm-season vegetables. If you want a bountiful harvest, take into account the climate where you live and the seasonal category of the vegetable. Creating a planting calendar is extremely useful for planning this.
What Are Cool Season Crops?
Cool-season vegetables, also called hardy crops, are best planted in spring or fall. These are the best vegetables to grow in spring. Vegetables must mature during cold weather, or they will struggle and possibly go to seed before they reach maturity. Cool-season crops are planted first thing in the spring or in late summer or early fall to ensure the best harvests. Many of these plants are frost-tolerant and can be planted before the last frost. Others must be planted after the last frost since they don’t tolerate freezing temperatures. Cold weather is okay for these vegetables, just not freezing. They are separated into two categories: frost-hardy crops and half-hardy crops.
The lowest planting temperature for cool-season crops is between 40-50F (5-10C). These vegetables prefer temperatures ranging from 70-75F (21-24C). As summer heat sets in and temperatures begin exceeding 80F (26C), cool weather vegetables will stop producing fruits. At this time, they will bolt or go to seed. Even those that do continue growing will lack in flavor and quality.
Frost-hardy and half-hardy crops can also be planted in the late summer or fall for a later harvest. Many root vegetables, like turnips and rutabagas, benefit from a light frost as it improves the flavor.
Cool Season Frost-Hardy Crops
These are the vegetables that tolerate frost and short freezes. The seeds of these vegetables will germinate in cool weather, and the seedlings will withstand several touches of frost. Frost-hardy plants grow in daytime temperatures as low as 40F. Plant these crops 2-4 weeks before the last expected frost. This date will vary based on where you live.
- Broad Bean
- Brussels Sprouts
- Collard Greens
Cool-Season Half-Hardy Crops
These vegetable plants will survive light frosts. Consistent hard frosts will either kill them or hinder their growth. Daytime temperatures for these vegetables should be between 40-50F, although infrequent lower temperatures are generally survivable. Plant these vegetables 1-2 weeks before the last average spring frost.
- Chinese Cabbage
- Swiss Chard
What Are Warm Season Crops?
Warm-season vegetables, also called tender vegetables, need to be planted after all danger of frost has passed. They cannot tolerate frosts or freezing temperatures. These plants reach maturity during the summer months. If they aren’t finished growing by the time cold weather sets in, they won’t reach maturity. Ensuring that tender vegetables are planted with enough time to reach maturity during warm weather requires planning. These plants need temperatures between 65F-90F.
Warm Season Crops
- New Zealand Spinach
- Snap Bean
- Sweet Potato
- Sweet Corn
What Month Do You Start a Vegetable Garden?
The correct month to plant the vegetable garden depends on where you live. It also depends on whether you are directly planting all seeds into the garden, or whether you intend to start seeds indoors. The first thing you need to figure out is what USDA Planting Zone you are in. This is to make sure you plant seeds at the right time for your climate. There are 13 planting zones across the United States. Many states have more than one zone so be sure to check carefully.
Next, determine the first and last frost dates for your area to ensure you plant the right vegetables. The best tool for this is from The Farmer’s Almanac. Enter your zip code, and it will tell you the last spring frost, first fall frost, and total days in the growing season. For example, Richmond, VA, has an average last spring frost date of April 14th, an average first fall frost date of October 25th, and has a 193-day growing season.
If you are at all uncertain, contact the local agricultural extension office. Extension offices work with local gardeners, providing information and resources. They are a wealth of information about vegetable gardening.
Planting seeds directly in the ground as soon as the weather allows is a standard method of gardening. If you intend to start seeds then, you just need to make sure you know when each vegetable should be started.
Another option is starting the seeds indoors. Seed-starting gives the gardener a head-start on the growing season. This is especially important in areas with short growing seasons. Any extra boost possible is employed. For example, kale plants started indoors 2-3 weeks before they can be transplanted outdoors means you’ll have mature leaves for picking 2-3 weeks earlier than if you only planted outdoors. A stipulation to seed starting, however, is that not all seeds can be started indoors. Vegetables like potatoes, carrots, beets, and radishes do not transplant well. These must be direct seeded in the garden.
Many gardeners utilize both methods. The seeds that can be started indoors are planted. Then, the same seed varieties are also direct-seeded outdoors when the temperature is appropriate.
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How To Decide What to Grow
After you’ve determined the USDA planting zone you are in, it’s time to start planning. The first step to vegetable gardening is deciding what to grow. Will it be tomatoes, peppers, squash, or corn? How much space is available? Many preliminary questions need answering before you start planting.
- How much garden space is available? This will limit the types of vegetables that can be planted as well as the quantity. If you have a 6×6 area and want to plant potatoes, pumpkins, brussels sprouts, and watermelons, there is going to be a capacity issue.
- How much sun does the garden receive? Most vegetables require at least 6 hours of sunlight per day, although some are fine with less. Others need much more. Planting tomatoes in a shady garden will yield little to no fruit. Planting lettuce where it gets maximum sun will cause it to wilt and bolt. Know your garden. Merely looking at the space during the day often isn’t enough to determine how much sun it gets. There are likely places that receive a shadow in the early morning or late afternoon. It all depends on where the garden is located and where the sun rises and sets each day in relation to it. The best way to determine exactly how much sun your garden receives is to make a sun map.
- Which vegetables grow in your climate/USDA zone? Make a list. The local agriculture extension is a useful resource for this, as well as an internet search. Even better, ask your neighbors what they grow successfully. It is unlikely you’ll be able to plant and grow every type of vegetable. Seed packets also indicate which USDA zones the vegetable will grow in.
- Which vegetables do you want to grow? Just because you can grow a vegetable doesn’t mean that you want to or that you should. Plant what you like. Gardening takes time and energy, and there is no point wasting it on vegetables you and your family don’t like.
- Pay attention to “days to maturity.” This is the number of days it takes for a seed to grow to full maturity and produce fruit. Some vegetables take a long time, like melons, winter squash, and some types of tomatoes.
Tips For Successful Growing
- Get a soil thermometer. As you can see, a lot depends on planting when the soil temperature is right for that vegetable. A soil thermometer takes away the guesswork and allows the gardener to be more accurate.
- Plant seeds in several batches, especially in springtime. Weather, as we all know, is unpredictable. Just because the USDA zone calendar says you can plant seeds by May 15th, it doesn’t mean there isn’t another major snowstorm on its way. Mother Nature doesn’t work like that. The zones give averages and estimations of the best time to plant, that is all. To ensure success, plant seeds a week or two apart.
- Always be ready. Expecting the unexpected ensures you are prepared at the right time and can handle anything. For example, have row covers on hand for later than anticipated frosts. A few row covers placed over the young plants may be the difference between success and failure.
What Vegetables Can Be Planted All Year Round?
Again, this will depend on where you live. In the United States, few vegetables can grow year-round in the ground. If you have a greenhouse, though, the options are limitless. Tomatoes, kale, peppers, and lettuce all grow excellently in a greenhouse setting.
In some areas of the United States, hardy vegetables will grow through most of the winter. These locations don’t experience hard frosts or only have minimal frosts. If you are lucky enough to live in one of these areas, plant onions, garlic, herbs, and kale for winter harvests.
If you have good window space, many herbs will grow year-round inside. Perennials like rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, chives, and lavender plants will grow for years. Annual herbs, like basil, parsley, and cilantro can be planted continuously for perpetual harvests.
The Benefit of a Planting Calendar
All this information is challenging to remember. It’s a lot! The days in a growing season, cool and warm-season vegetables, and the specifics of each plant. If you’re new to gardening, a planting calendar is invaluable. Even master gardeners usually use some type of tool to record planting times. Once you’ve been vegetable gardening for a while, you may also discover that your land doesn’t exactly follow the specifications for your area. This is because valleys, hills, streams, lakes, and natural growth create micro-climates. Every piece of land is unique!
There are many garden planning options, from reliable pencil and paper to phone or computer apps. To ensure successful plantings and abundant harvests, do your research and make a plan.