This is one of a series of posts for new gardeners. Click here for the complete list of related posts.
Two of the most common questions we get during planting season are:
- How do I know what to plant when?
- What do I have to plant in pots and what goes directly in the ground?
The second question is often followed by a clarifying, “Do I even want to mess with planting things in pots?”
The short answer to that follow up question is, “no.” One of my favorite variations on this conversation happened via Messenger with a friend a couple of years ago. The exchange went a little something like this:
There are a few lessons I want you to take away from this newbie gardener exchange. First of all,
- One tomato plant per pot slot. Two, if you want an extra you can cut back if they both come up. But actually…
- If you’re a Gardener 101, don’t start with trying to grow your own tomatoes. They’re difficult to successfully start from seeds without some equipment.
- You’re going to screw things up. It doesn’t matter. We still screw multiple things up every year.
But to that point, if you’re just starting your gardening adventure, the easiest life advice we can give you is not to mess with anything that has to be started in pots before the frost free date. That list is coming shortly. But before we dig into what to plant, where, and when, let’s make sure we’re all speaking the same language.
A FEW KEY TERMS FOR PLANTING:
You’ll see these again and again on seeds packets, in catalogs, and around garden stores, so make sure you know what they mean.
- Hardiness zone: a geographically defined area in which a specific category of plant life is capable of growing. Our area of the front range is zone 5, so when we research new plants, we always make sure they fit the seasons typical of zone 5.
- Frost free date: Spring date after which it is unlikely that your zone will experience a frost. For us, it’s May 15th. That’s not a hard and fast rule, though, so always keep your eye on the weather around the frost free date.
- First frost date: Fall date around which it is likely a frost will occur. Again, for us it’s mid-October, but there have been years where we’ve had to pull everything in September due to an usual early frost.
- Cold hardiness: a plant’s ability to withstand cold temperatures or frost.
With that vocabulary in mind, we’ll jump right into planting. Even if you’re a newbie gardener you’re going to have to plant in waves. It’s not as easy as being able to toss everything in the ground at the same time and then go watch t.v. Which is a good thing. Who wants to be watching t.v. when you could be out planting peas?
So kicking off this 101 lesson: all veggies will be either cold hardy, semi-cold hardy, or warm weather crops.
Common Cold Hardy Crops:
These are vegetables that can withstand frost and sometimes light snow, and for this reason can go in the ground in the spring. They’re often planted a month out form frost-free date, or come in seed packets that say, “Plant as early as the ground can be worked.” Many folks follow a tradition of planting peas on St. Patty’s day. As a teacher, I always put in my cold hardy crops in during spring break, simply because that was when I had time. That’s a month and a half before our frost free date, but it always worked out just fine for me.
These veggies can withstand light frost (approx 29-32 degrees). They’re often planted 2 weeks out from frost free date. If you have the bad luck to have a super cold snap in that window, you may have to replant. But as a rule, they are reasonably tough in the late spring.
Some lettuces (read seeds packets)
These guys hate cold weather. They must not be planted until danger of frost has passed, and a number of them like tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers will do even better if you wait until the soil has warmed a little. If the temp hits 32 degrees, you can count on them being toast. Well…frozen toast.
Now…back to my exchange with the friend about her tomato plants. What can go directly into the ground and what is better bought as seedlings (or planted in starter pots, if you have the tools and know how)?
The huge majority of vegetables can go straight into the ground, but a handful of them are slightly more temperamental. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant have a long enough growing season that they need to be started well before the frost free date, but they are picky about light and temperature, so they really do best if they have heating mats and UV lights, which is a pretty serious commitment. Plus, after the seedlings grow, you have to go through a process of “hardening off” which, essentially, is like taking your plants out on longer and longer walks outside until they toughen up. For the warm weather plants, it’s simply easier to buy healthy seedlings from a nursery (or better yet, a local farm) where others have done all that work for you.
Starting onions from seed is obnoxious. I know, because we do it every year. Just don’t. Buy the onion bulbs or onion sets and put them directly in the ground. I don’t know a lot of folks who start onion from seed, anyway. Likewise, broccoli can be touch for newbies. You’ll have a much better success rate with seedlings than you will the seeds themselves. Finally, perennial herbs which include sage, thyme, oregano, marjoram, and mint all do best when planted as seedlings. Perennials take couple of years to get going, and even more time when started by seed. Their seeds are also notoriously difficult. They go with onions in the “just don’t” category.
All of this can be confusing and hard to sort through (Which plants were cold hardy? Which did you say start outdoors?) so we’ve tried to make an easy little table for you that you can print and use. You can access it by clicking the link below:
A couple more odds and ends on planting:
Potatoes are not planted from seeds or seedlings, but rather from seed potatoes (which are just potatoes) that are cut into pieces with at least one eye on each piece.
Garlic MUST BE PLANTED IN THE FALL. I write this in all caps because I cannot count the number of times that someone has complimented us on our garlic and then said, “I planted some this year, but the bulbs I got were tiny. How are yours so big?” Our first response is, “When did you plant them?” We have a tradition of planting ours right around Halloween, and you can get away with November or December (if the ground isn’t frozen) but if you’re planting them in the spring, you won’t get much of a harvest.
And that’s it…for the time being. We have certainly not covered everything or every vegetable in this post, but it should be enough to get you started. Grab some seeds, make a garden map, and get moving. And don’t be shy about asking questions.
You’l find that you slowly figure things out. And even when you screw up, you at least got to spend a few hours outside and/or with your hands in the dirt, playing with nature. That’s not such a great loss.
And then, one day, you’ll wake up and realize that you remembered to plant your garlic in the fall, your lettuce in the spring, and that there’s only a reasonable amount of tomato plants in your tray slots.
Pat yourself on the back. You’re a real gardener, now.