Ready, Set, Grow! When to Start Your Garden

Does winter weather have you itching to dig in the dirt? Get tips on when you can safely start planting veggies for spring and summer.

Even though I’ve grown a vegetable garden for many years now, I always find myself wondering around this time of year, “When should I start my garden?” I know from experience that it’s usually still too early when this question starts popping into mind. When winter is cold or wet or gray, or all three, my soul yearns for warmth, sun and green — lots of green things. So I want to plant. But planting too early can be a waste of time and money. It helps to be informed and let reason trump emotion.

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Photo by Jane Coclasure courtesy of P. Allen Smith.

Knowing when to plant really depends on the spring frost date for your area, and it can vary by as much as three months depending on where you live. For example, in Mobile, Ala., the spring frost date is February 28, while in Marquette, Mi., it’s May 11. Whether you call Mobile or Marquette or Manchester, N.H., home, know your frost dates to know when to plant. Frost dates are based on probability and historical data, so they’re not a sure bet, but they’re a best guess. Search here for yours.

Check seed packets closely for more information about when to plant. Info will often be based around your frost dates. 

That doesn’t mean you should plant everything on that date. Check your seed packets for more info. For example, my spring frost date in Knoxville, Tenn., is April 16. (I can remember this because it’s my sister’s birthday.) I love growing peas (they’re easy and tasty), which, according to my seed packet info, should be sown 4 to 6 weeks before my spring frost date. So, backing up on my calendar, that puts me at March 5, next weekend, as the earliest date I should plant. I can sow radish and carrot seeds at the same time. These crops, plus onions, arugula and other greens, will make up my spring plantings. Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and squash will be among my summer crops, planted later in spring after all danger of frost has passed, which, for me, means at or after my frost date, April 16.

For many crops, northern gardeners with a shorter growing season would do well to start with transplants instead of seed. Putting more mature plants in the ground means more time for harvesting them before fall frosts come. 

For gardeners with a shorter growing season (you know who you are, northern folk), spring and summer crops may need to be planted more closely together to allow enough time for summer crops to grow and mature to fruiting, which is the edible stage. (Notice that for spring crops, you’re mostly eating leaves or roots, while with summer crops, you’re eating fruits, which take more sun, warmth and time to mature.) In this case, I recommend having some row cover cloth on hand for those stray cold nights that could damage your more tender plants. This is actually how I keep a few plants alive throughout the winter. Right now, I still have kale, arugula, carrots and collards thriving, mostly because of some row cover cloth.

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