Deciding When To Plant

Reader Contribution by Cindy Conner and Homeplace Earth

You are working on your garden plan, ordering seeds, and making a garden map and suddenly realize you don’t know the timing of your crops. How soon can you get started in the spring? Your tomatoes are to go in after the last spring frost, but when is that? Often crops are planned for according to the last expected frost in the spring and the first expected frost in the fall. If you don’t know what those dates are for your area, ask local gardeners, consult your county Cooperative Extension Service, or take a look at Plant Maps. You will find USDA Hardiness Zone maps for 1990 and the 2012 update. Notice how the climate has changed in your area.

Here in Virginia in Zone 7 I use April 25 as my spring date. October 15 is the fall date I use to calculate back from to know the latest in the summer I can plant and still get a harvest. In reality, our first fall frost is usually later in October, but I will never forget the frost on October 9 one year, so I plan with caution. Likewise, in April I use the 25th as my planning date, but look ahead to what the weather is likely to do in the next week or two before I plant frost sensitive transplants or seeds, remembering the killing frost one May 1.

Virginia Cooperative Extension Service’s publication 426-331, Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates, is a general planting guide for gardeners showing  the plant and harvest windows for vegetable crops. I thought that every state would have a publication like that, but my limited search showed otherwise. Knowing my readers are not all in Virginia, I sought a website where they could access a similar calendar specific for their area. Several gardening sites have a garden planner that you can use for free for 7 days, and then you have to pay for it. The Old Farmers Almanac has a general planting calendar for 30 vegetables that you can access for free. Of course, they also have the 7-day-free garden planner offer.

I learned to plan my garden before computers were in homes and still like to put pencil to paper to do it. I’ll have to admit, though, that I have some of my garden records on Excel and have had fun with that. However, the garden maps with the planting dates and rotations are always done by hand. I want to encourage others to understand which vegetables grow when and not depend on a computerized garden planner to tell them that. Find more information about all this at Homeplace Earth.

Once you know when things are planted, you will need to know how long they will be in the ground. The spinach and lettuce you plant in early spring will be done and that space ready for another crop as summer is getting started. For that kind of planning you need to know the days to maturity, which I addressed in this post, and succession planting that I wrote about here.

This planning will come easier the more you do it; but no matter how much you know, Mother Nature does her best to keep us on our toes. We need to stay mindful of what is happening right in front us in our gardens, no matter what we arranged for in our plans.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

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