Strategize Spring Gardens

With a little forethought and planning, it’s possible to get the garden started right now.

by Dani Yokhna
Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Cabbage transplants do well in the garden in early spring because they can withstand cooler air temperatures.

Gardening in early spring can be a real gamble, especially for those living in northern climates, where weather can be unpredictably cold or wet. But farmers hoping to get a head start on their crops can keep in mind some early spring growing strategies.

“Learning when to plant is a matter of reading each seed packet or understanding the catalog lingo,” says Richard Hentschel, a horticulturist with the University of Illinois Extension.

There you’ll find information about plant hardiness zones, which can help guide your decision of when to plant. Even within one state, there can be a difference in growing days. For example, there are about 40 growing days’ difference between northern and southern Illinois, says Hentschel. When deciding on a plant date, factor in whether you’ll be planting seeds or transplants, as growing transplants presents additional challenges in cool weather. 

“Another bit of needed information is the historical and somewhat mysterious frost-free date for the area you live in,” says Hentschel. “Everything is referenced to that date for your first planting. These are very specific dates, yet each year, the gardener will have to decide if it is better to postpone the planting one day or several.” 

Kick off your garden in early spring with cold-hardy vegetables that can survive evenings when a freeze is still possible. Early spring vegetables, such as kale, spinach and leafy lettuces, prefer to germinate and grow in cooler soil temperatures. Other vegetables you can start in colder soil include asparagus, onion sets and rhubarb. Tubers, like the potato, also prefer to start in cooler soil temperatures, then emerge when air temperatures are warmer. If planting transplants, you can start with broccoli and cabbage transplants, which withstand cool air temperatures.

“This group of seeds and transplants go in the ground four to six weeks before the average frost-free date,” Hentschel says.

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For vegetables like these, plantings must go into the ground deeper to accommodate tuber development or permanent planting of asparagus.

Two to three weeks after planting cold-hardy vegetables, you can plant frost-tolerant vegetables, which can survive a frost but not a freeze. These include beets, carrots, Swiss chard, radishes and parsnips. Transplants to consider at this time include herbs, cauliflower and Chinese cabbage.

Planting both cold-hardy and frost-tolerant vegetables can present difficulties early in the season if the garden soil is still too wet. If this is the case, you might have to dig individual holes for transplants and use dry soil or bagged soil set aside just for this purpose.

“A similar strategy can be used for the rows of vegetables you are planting,” Hentschel says. “You can use sand to cover the smallest of seeds if you feel the soil you have is too heavy.”

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