Plant Early and Often–Early Garden Planning Tips


When we had our first Community Garden meeting the other night (after the Seed Swap), it occurred to me that people need more information on early garden planning.  Sometimes it’s hard to gauge what people need just starting out when you’ve been immersed in the thing for years.

For one, if you’re in this area (Zone 5–the Southern Paradise of the Dakotas, that is), you should be thinking about starting long-season crops indoors now.  You can do it under lights, or you can start a few plants in a sunny window.  Leeks and onions and parsley are the first crops I start, at about ten to twelve weeks from the frost-free date (which I’m saying is about May 10).

At 8-10 weeks out, start perennial/biennial herbs and plants (foxgloves, campanula, whatever says 8-10 weeks before last frost on its seed pack).  Also start peppers and eggplant.  These guys can take awhile to germinate, so don’t despair if they don’t pop right up.

Six to eight weeks out is when I start tomatoes.  While my tomato plants aren’t usually as big as the ones in commercial greenhouses when I set them out, that’s actually a good thing.  If a tomato or pepper plant starts making flowers when it’s still in the pot, that can reduce your overall yield.  If you get a plant like that, pinch off the blooms.

I actually wait until a week or two after our supposed “frost-free” date to set out tomato and pepper plants–just to make sure the weather is settled enough for the plants to survive.  I try to get all my tomatoes and peppers in by June 1st at the latest, but some years there are a few stragglers.

Even in the height of the season, I may still be starting plants indoors to give them a little coddling, create even spacing when I transplant, or make sure they get good water (it’s easier to water a flat of seedlings than a row of them).  Some crops–roots in particular–don’t like being transplanted.  Some don’t mind but are hardly ever started indoors anyway–like corn.  Some are a toss-up–some people transplant squash; some just direct-seed in the garden.

This isn’t to say that you can’t start your garden until May 10th–far from it.  There are a lot of veggies whose packets say something like, “as soon as the ground can be worked” or “plant in early spring.”  I start direct-seeding, or planting those crops directly in the garden in late March–when the ground can be worked.  I’ve planted peas as early as March 24th.

Peas and spinach do not mind the cold, or even a little snow.  What they do mind is heat, and if you don’t get them in early enough, your harvest window before the spinach “bolts” to seed and your peas succumb to powdery mildew will be very short.

I also seed early crops of radishes, carrots and beets, turnips, broccoli raab, lettuce (and mesclun/salad mix), arugula, and other cool-season crops in late March or early April.  Potatoes can be planted then, too. Some crops I give a little bit of protection (floating row cover), but most will be just fine.  They might grow a little slowly at first, but those little seedlings are generally pretty cold-tolerant.

There are a lot of folks in this area who don’t even think about planting until May or even June.  That’s a mistake in my mind–that’s a good couple of months of harvest you’re not getting, and you’re also not getting those first greens and roots of the season that our bodies crave so much.

Too, if you plant early (and often!), you will still be able to use the cool-season crop space for another crop later in the summer, when that first crop has gone by.  It’s a good way to get more out of a smaller garden area.

You can also transplant baby plants you’ve started indoors between maturing things–say tomato plants amongst your pea vines.  By the time the tomatoes really start taking off, the peas will be done, and the nitrogen the peas fixed in the soil will nurture those tomato plants.

So check your seed packs and start sorting them into seeds for starting indoors and seeds for direct-seeding.  Read the information on the back of the packets and sort into cooler-season and warmer-season crops.  Many of the cool-season crops can also be grown in the fall, so it might be helpful to think of the garden season as three seasons in one–a hot season surrounded by two cooler ones.

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One response to this post.

  1. Wow! This is just what I’ve been looking for. Great post! Thanks!

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