When Should I Plant My Spring Garden?

Apr 10, 2018

Few things in life are more rewarding to avid gardeners than watching new plants blossom in the spring, thrive through the summer and still produce well into the fall. Most American gardeners have a three-season window to make the best of producing excellent vegetables and beautiful flowers. What separates the skilled from the novices is that veteran green thumbs know when to plant their spring garden to kick off gardening season.

Depending on your experience, you may be wondering when to plant spring plants and when to plant spring bulbs. You may also wonder when the best time to plant vegetables is. While there’s no definite answer to this other than it depends, we can discuss the factors that you should consider to make your decision. Spring garden planting depends on where you are, what you intend to plant and how well prepared you are once spring’s sunny days arrive.

Professional gardeners seem to have an inherent ability to gauge growing conditions — that’s because most have years of experience in their area and have worked with plants they know will perform well in their climate. If you're not at this stage in your gardening path, don’t be concerned. Many of those gardeners before you are pleased to share experiences so you can adequately plan and prepare for successful spring planting.

Timing Is Everything

Like so many activities, successful flower and vegetable gardening depends on proper timing. Certain plants thrive well in cool parts of the spring, like March and April. Other plants are temperature-sensitive and will only survive with warm feet. To choose the best time to plant spring bulbs and other spring plants, the best advice is to coordinate your timing.

Start planning or coordinate your planting time in January — yes, that’s right. In the New Year, although the ground is still frozen and nights are long, begin by making a list of what plants interest you for this year’s garden inventory. You can divide your list into four groups.

1. Vegetables

You might start some veggies by sowing directly into your garden or some you might raise indoors and later transplant. Some vegetables like peas and lettuce are cold-hardy and can go into the ground right after they thaw. Others, such as tomatoes and peppers, can’t tolerate chilly temperatures and will be late-planters. Take into account that vegetables have two main classes:

  • Root Vegetables: These plants, like carrots and potatoes, need direct planting.

  • Leaf Vegetables: Leaf vegetables can be pre-started and transplanted later — lettuce and squash are prime examples.

2. Annual Flowers

Most gardeners start annuals as bedding plants, which means they seed them indoors and allow them to germinate and leaf long before planting time. Petunias and marigolds are good examples of popular annuals that need a warm head start before hitting your garden soil. Other fast-growing annuals like snapdragons and calendula respond nicely to direct seeding in cool soil. You can also purchase seed packets from a nursery supply outlet. They’ll have clear instructions about planting time, including germination lead and necessary soil temperature.

3. Perennial Plants

Perennials are plants that return year after year. These garden anchors are mostly flowering plants that go dormant in the fall. Unless you’re starting new plants from cuttings, you won’t need to worry about spring planting time. Nature will take care of triggering fresh growth. However, if you intend on expanding your perennial show, you’ll be dividing and transplanting them. In this case, timing is critical, as you want to split the plants just when the ground is thawed and divide them before they start into spring growth. Otherwise, your perennials will become shocked and may not survive.

4. Bulbs

Bulbs need their own category because they’re not really annuals, and they’re not truly perennials. While bulbs are mostly flowering plants like tulips, crocuses and gladiolas, you can argue that vegetables like potatoes also originate as bulbs or root eyes. Some bulb plants rejuvenate when left in the ground over winter, but experienced gardeners know many perform far better when they're uprooted in the fall, stored dry in the winter and planted at precisely the right time in the spring. With bulbs, like all other plants, timing is everything.

Spring Planting Mini-Seasons

Now that you’ve made a list of what bulbs, perennials, annuals, and vegetables you’re tackling this year, take a look at the lead time you’ll need before pulling the planting trigger. Lead time is the date you have to start germinating your seeds, planting your bulbs or dividing your perennials. Take your list and move the plants into these three-time categories or spring mini-seasons:

  • Early Spring: This is right when frost leaves the ground, but the outdoor soil is yet too cool for sensitive plants. However, your indoor conditions of artificial warmth and light will give slow starters the lead time required to mature before transplanting. Early spring is prime time for bulb placement and perennial division — it’s also time to seed early risers. Most of America’s colder zones rate early spring as mid-March to mid-April.

  • Pre-Frost Free Spring: Your average frost-free date is a vital gardening milestone to watch for. This is that date in spring when ground frost is gone, but you can still experience nightly surface frost. This is a moving target in all areas because the frost risk date has early and late arrivals. It depends on the particular weather conditions during any given year. Many vegetables and flowers can’t tolerate frost on their leaves or blossoms and will die even with a light icing. As a rule of thumb, most experienced gardeners in America’s cooler zones use the late-May Memorial Day weekend as their frost-free date.

  • After Last Frost Spring: For most areas, the after last frost period runs from late May and throughout June. By this time, your bulbs will be up and blooming, your perennials will be well-adjusted and your early veggies will be on the table. Now, it’s time to transplant bedding plants from your greenhouse or cold frames and sow warm weather plants. Another gardening rule of thumb is that it’s always best to err on the warm side than the cold. Warm weather plants can quickly catch up when air and soil temperatures are right for their species.

The best advice is to know how much lead time each plant needs for germinating in relationship to their outdoor soil and air temperature requirements. Your list should contain this critical information, as it will allow you to transfer your four plant groups and their three mini-season requirements to a planting calendar.

Your Planting Calendar

Making a planting calendar is the best way to organize your spring garden planting because it's inexpensive and easy to follow — it’s a secret most gardeners use without thinking about. Calendars are a natural way to plan when to prepare plants according to their germination time and optimum planting date.

A helpful planting calendar should include:

  • Count Back Date: A good planting calendar works by establishing a count back period from ground planting time. For instance, say you want to plant bedding plants like geraniums on the Memorial Day Monday. Your seed instructions state geraniums require 12 to 14 weeks from seed to transplant, which means you have to start propagating geranium seeds no later than mid- to late-February if you want to meet your spring planting date. Mark that February geranium seeding date on your planting calendar.

  • Planting Milestones: You’ll want to mark dates for all planting milestones — that includes bulb planting dates, perennial division dates and direct seed sowing dates. It’s not necessary to be to-the-day specific, as planting windows work well on a weekly basis. There are too many variables involved to nail down what will happen on a particular day.

  • Planting Variables: Planting variables could be due to your schedule or other personal requirements. It could be weather variations like an average frost-free date running a week or two late. You might even be hampered by a short seed supply or late delivery. The most important things are to plan early, give yourself plenty of time and be flexible. This way, you’ll be stress-free and enjoy planting your spring garden — after all, that’s what gardening is all about.

You don’t have to get fancy and use a computer spreadsheet to create your gardening calendar unless you like that sort of thing. However, you might find flipping back and forth on a regular calendar is a bit clumsy. The best schedules are on a whiteboard that lays out three or more months, so you see all of them at the same time.

Whiteboards are great visual aids. You can color code them for different plant types, note special requirements, easily change dates as temperatures speed up or slow down and draw a big red line for that all-important frost-free date. Best of all, you can easily correct all those inevitable mistakes.

The Average Frost-Free Date

As a crucial anchor period for accurately planning your spring garden planting, it’s worth spending the time to figure out the average frost-free date in your area. You need to go with the flow of Mother Nature, and we all know she has a mind of her own — and it's not always predictable.

The average frost-free date is an estimated period when you can reasonably expect the last air temperature frost conditions. This will be long after the ground frost has thawed, but there’s a real possibility of a flash overnight freeze. Generally, in most colder American zones, the frost-free day comes about six weeks after your ground thaws out.

The United States Department of Agriculture is your friend for identifying your plant hardiness zone and the average frost-free date in your area. The USDA website identifies 13 specific hardiness zones in every part of America. It’s rated from a 1-zone, where permafrost exists in remote places like Alaska, to warm and humid 13-zones like south Florida and Hawaii.

The informative site also breaks each area into subcategories where temperature and frost periods slightly vary due to elevation, proximity to water or specific climatic conditions in rural and urban areas. To find your plant hardiness zone, go to the USDA website and enter your zip code.

While the USDA’s site is excellent for determining your climatic zone and guiding you toward what plants will survive your weather conditions year-round, the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) takes information a step further by nailing down your area's average frost-free date. You can also use this handy reference by simply entering your zip code.

Calculate when you can expect the last spring frost in your locale, as well as when to expect the first fall freeze. The NCDC amassed climatic data from weather stations across the nation over a 30-year period. You can refine this data to see a frost-free date prediction of 50/50, or an average probability. Or, play it safe by adjusting your date prediction to a 10% estimation.

Other Considerations for Spring Garden Planting

Along with identifying your frost-free date, organizing your planting calendar and deciding which plants to grow this year, there are a few other spring garden planting considerations.

The best time to start planning is as early as possible — in fact, many experienced gardens start planning their spring gardens the previous fall. Autumn is an excellent time to prepare your garden soil. Once the year’s crops are harvested and the last bedding plants give up, it’s time to give your soil a pre-winter makeover, so it’ll be seasoned by spring.

Here are a few fall soil treatment tips:

  • Have a pH Test Done: Your soil’s pH level is critical to plant health, and it’s far more useful to perfect your pH in the fall rather than right at spring planting time. You can get inexpensive home pH testing kits at your local garden center or online, which will give you an indicator if your soil is too acidic or alkaline. For detailed information on soil nutrients, you can also have a lab test conducted. This way, you can adjust for optimum plant performance come spring.

  • Maintain Your Tools: The weeks from freeze-up to thaw provide you plenty of time to give your tools some TLC. Thoroughly clean and disinfect your shovels, trowels, hoes, and rakes. All of them take on microorganisms that lay dormant but could introduce trouble in your soil once you start planting. You might also want to invest in new garden tools or splurge on special discounts you find online.

  • Cover Your Soil: Once you’ve weeded and tilled your soil in the fall, cover it for the winter using mulch or compost. These materials limit frost penetration and can give you an early spring thaw advantage. Come spring, you can till mulch and compost right into your soil beds for natural, organic compost. Or, you might consider planting a winter crop cover like winter wheat or annual ryegrass.

Contact Garden Goods Direct

For three decades, Garden Goods Direct has been more than a garden supply store. We evolved into a one-stop online garden supplier, dealing directly with our customers and bypassing the expensive middleman. We like to call ourselves the nation’s local garden center.

Now that you have a better idea of when you should plant your spring garden, check out the wide range of gardening supplies Garden Goods Direct has for you. Or, contact us with any questions you have.