Your vegetable garden is probably the last thing on your mind when the mercury is hovering just above the freezing mark. But did you know that there are some vegetables that you need to plant up to 6 weeks before your last frost date? If you wait until the warm weather to plant your garden, many of these vegetables will either bolt or wilt in the heat of summer, or simply run out of time at the end of the growing season.
You need to start planting some of those crops in your vegetable garden as soon as you can work the soil. So throw on a couple of extra layers, find a warm pair or gardening gloves, and plant those cool season vegetables while you can still see your breath in the cool spring air!
Starting Your Vegetable Garden: Timing is Everything
When should you start planting your vegetable garden? You can plant some cool season vegetables as much as six weeks before your last frost date. But what the heck is that? Simply put, it’s a prediction that tells you approximately when you can expect the warm spring weather to stick around for the rest of the season. Based on historical data for your area, the last frost date gives you a decent idea of when all the snow and frost danger will be over in any given year.
Frost dates are based on USDA Hardiness Zones, apply in Canada as well as the United States. The Farmers Almanac web site is a surprisingly good reference for frost dates. It includes even very small towns in Canada. If you don’t see your town listed, enter your postal code. The site will search for your closest weather station and give you the frost dates for that location.
Remember that your last frost date is just an estimate. Depending on the year, the weather may warm up much earlier or much later than expected. So use your common sense too. If the fruit trees are in full bloom several weeks early this year, you probably need to plant your cool season vegetables a few weeks early too. But if you’re buried under a foot of snow when the daffodils should be flowering, chances are spring has been delayed quite a bit. When it comes to frost-sensitive plants, err on the side of caution.
Cool Season Vegetables
Growing Early Spring Greens in Your Vegetable Garden to Prevent Bolting
Some plants really want to go into your vegetable garden when it’s still quite cold, though. Peas, lettuce and other greens such as Swiss chard and spinach, and cole crops like kale, kohlrabi, and collard greens all thrive in the cooler weather. Root vegetables like carrots, beets, turnips, and radishes can all be direct seeded in your vegetable garden before the last danger of frost has passed.
Each crop has its own reason for preferring cooler temperatures. Green leafy vegetables tend to be sensitive to both light and heat. Once the temperatures get to a certain point, or the plants start getting so many hours of light each day, they will try to set seeds for the next generation of plants. This process involves sending up a long stem and producing flowers.
Gardeners call it bolting. When your lovely, tender greens bolt, they turn tough and bitter. You need to grow greens early in the season so they’ll be ready to harvest before the conditions are right for bolting. Or plant them later in the season, so you can harvest fall greens from your vegetable garden once the days get shorter again.
Spring Peas Fix Nitrogen in the Soil for Later Crops
Peas suffer from heat stress when temperatures rise. This means they have fewer flowers, and ultimately they’ll set fewer pods. Planting them earlier in the year will improve your harvest. It also means you can plant another crop in their place after you harvest.
Summer squash or cucumbers can make use of the trellises you put up for your peas. Or you may want to plant out brassicas like broccoli, cauliflower, or cabbage in the soil your peas were nourishing in early spring. Peas are nitrogen fixing plants, so use the space for crops that can use this plentiful nitrogen.
Sow Root Crops in Your Vegetable Garden Early to Accommodate Their Slower Growth
Root vegetables often need to go into your vegetable garden early in the season because they need a long time to mature. Luckily, even those root crops that grow quickly tend to tolerate cooler spring temperatures. So you can plant your radishes, beets, and turnips alongside the slower maturing rutabagas, carrots, and parsnips.
The fun thing about these root vegetables is that they also provide greens while the roots are growing. So when it’s time to thin the plants in your vegetable garden, you can eat the baby greens in salads and sandwiches. Or you can treat your root vegetables like a cut and come again crop, trimming more mature leaves a few at a time without harming the root below. You may already be cooking with beet greens. But you can also enjoy turnip greens, kohlrabi greens, radish greens, and even carrot tops much the same way.
12 Crops to Plant in Your Vegetable Garden Before Last Frost
- Peas: Plant 4-6 weeks before your average last frost date.
- Broad Beans: Plant as early as March – or February, if you provide protection from the cold.
- Radishes: Sow seeds 4-6 weeks before last frost date.
- Spinach: Plant 4-6 weeks before your last frost date.
- Winter purslane: Plant this green 4-6 weeks before last frost.
- Radicchio: Plant up to 4 weeks before last frost.
- Carrots: Sow seeds about 3 weeks before last frost. Carrots germinate unevenly. It helps to plant a few radishes in between the carrot seeds. The radishes break the soil and mark your rows until the carrots all come up.
- Collard greens: Plant 2-4 weeks before last frost.
- Turnips and rutabagas: Another member of the cabbage family. Plant 2-4 weeks before last frost.
- Endive: An alternative to cole crops. Plant 2-4 weeks before last frost.
- Kale: Plant kale seeds 2-4 weeks before last frost.
- Swiss chard: Plant Swiss chard about 2-3 weeks before last frost. (If you’re planting a red-stemmed variety like ‘Ruby Red’ or ‘Rhubarb,’ provide some cover or wait until after the danger of frost is past. These varieties tend to bolt if they are exposed to frost when the plants are young.)
Still Waiting for Spring Weather?
Does it still feel like winter where you live? I know here in the BC Interior, we were hit with snow on Easter Sunday, just when we had been hoping the spring was right around the corner. April Fools! What little work we managed to get done in our little backyard garden has been stalled. The tiny row of peas we managed to get into the garden have been covered with snow, twice over, since they were planted in late March.
Nevertheless, we intend to keep working on our vegetable garden here at home. And we have a new land share that needs setting up on a nearby farm. Hopefully, the weather forecasts will hold true and we’ll see an increase in the temperatures next week. But we still may have some snow over the weekend, which will likely throw off any more planting until early next week. We are expecting a seed order from my youngest daughter’s school fundraiser, so I do hope the rain and snow will let up long enough for us to get out there and put in more of our cold season crops!
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Original content © 2018 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter
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