By Debbie Brown, PC EMG
With the first official day of spring right around the corner, gardeners everywhere are filled with anticipation. The earth beckons us to plant our tiny seeds and let the growing begin. But, as with much of life, timing is crucial to success. The cold tolerance of plants and frost dates must be considered before placing that first seed in the soil.
Vegetables vary widely in their tolerance to temperature extremes and preferred growing conditions. Most seed packets will give this information by using terms like frost hardy, cold tolerant or warm season. Sometimes they list specific planting times within various hardiness zones.
“Cool-season” or “hardy” crops generally enjoy growing in the spring and fall, will withstand a frost, and possess varying tolerance to below-freezing temperatures. They are the first to be put in the garden, typically about four weeks prior to the last frost date.
Cool-season vegetables include arugula, beets, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots, green peas, kale, lettuce, potatoes, radishes, spinach and Swiss chard.
Gardeners often take full advantage of the early season by relay planting, which is a kind of succession planting where seeds for any given crop are planted on a time spaced schedule. For example, lettuce seeds can be planted one week and then again two-three weeks later. This can be continued throughout the season in order to enjoy an abundance of fresh green salads. Beans, peas, corn, carrots, radishes, spinach, beets and greens also work well using this method.
“Warm weather or “tender” crops do not tolerate cooler temperatures and are easily damaged by frost. They should not be put in the garden until well after any danger of a cold snap. Many of these tender varieties require temperatures of at least 65°F. in order to thrive. The most susceptible plants to cold temperatures include beans, tomatoes, corn, peppers, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, sweet potatoes, melons, and okra.
Succession planting can make the most use of your garden space. Simply replace fading cool season crops with warm season ones. Later on, when the warm season plants are harvested, cool season ones can be grown again. An example of this kind of succession planting in the garden might be lettuce in the spring, followed by tomatoes in the summer and followed with cabbage in the fall. This technique requires more planning and attention to harvest dates, but will keep your garden working to its full potential during the entire growing season. It can greatly increase total yields, while harvesting crops at their peak taste and nutritional value
Understanding and adhering to the frost dates in your particular area is vital when planting a vegetable garden. The average frost date refers to the expected dates of the last frost in the spring and the first frost in the fall for a geographic location. The difference between the two average frost dates determines the average number of frost free days for crop production. For a valuable agricultural resource see VCE Publication 426-331, which features Virginia’s Hardiness Zone Map and recommended planting dates. Patrick County’s hardiness zone is mostly 7a, with the exception of the higher elevations, which are 6b.
While it’s important to pay attention to these recommendations, it’s also prudent to be aware of current weather conditions and nuances of your specific situation or microclimates in your own backyard. “Gardens in the shadow of a mountain, in a valley, or at the bottom of a slope may get frosts later in the spring and earlier in the fall than surrounding higher elevations. This type of microclimate may require a gardener to delay summer planting or to cover frost-prone plants,” warns Jill McSheehy in Vegetable Gardening for Beginners.
Just as there is an opportune time to plant, there is also a preferred form of planting. Most vegetables do well by direct sowing the seed in your garden. Others, like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are much more successful when planted as seedlings or transplants. These can be purchased at garden centers or started indoors by the gardener. While starting plants from seeds can be rewarding, it requires planning ahead and using seed trays, a seed starting mix and a grow light of some sort.
To assist you in your spring garden, the Patrick County Master Gardeners have several upcoming opportunities planned.
The next WHEO program is at 8:30 am, March 22 at 92.7. Topics discussed will include Selecting Your Garden Site and Garden Style- Raised Beds, Traditional or Containers.
A free workshop will be held at 10 am, April 23 at The Learning Garden, 1208 Tudor Orchard Road in Patrick Springs. Topics discussed will be Healthy Soils and Advantages of Using Raised Beds for Growing Vegetables.
A variety of seeds are available for your use at the Seed Library located in the Patrick County Branch Library. Seedlings will be sold at our annual plant sale on April 30, from 8 a.m. till noon at the Stuart Rotary Building.
Enjoy your growing adventure and learn from your experiences. Being a student of your garden this year will result in an even better garden the next.