When to Plant Your Garden

When to Plant Your Garden

when to plant your garden

When to plant your garden is trickier to answer than a simple date and time. If you include growing indoors to start plants for transfer into the garden, you may be planting year-round. If you don’t grow your own seedlings, you will have a few months off in winter. Let’s go through the year and when to plant.

1. Determine your grow zone.

The first bit of essential information you will need to know is what grow zone you live in. When learning how to start seeds indoors, a good starting point is the USDA Hardiness Zone map. This map divides the USA into 11 grow zones. Some maps have subdivided the zones further into A and B. Each zone is determined by compiling the data of winter temperatures over a number of years, and the zones are then divided from their neighboring zone by 10 degrees. Try our growing zone tool to make this process even easier-- just enter your zip code and discover your zone!

The original maps did not take into consideration other factors such as elevation and proximity to large bodies of water like the Great Lakes. We have also seen significant fluctuations in our global weather, which are not reflected on the current map. So, consider the map a starting point and be ready to modify your growing schedule as necessary. Talk to gardeners in your area and find out when they usually start planting outdoors.

2. Plan your garden.

Decide what you want to grow—and be honest with yourself! Don’t grow vegetables that you won’t eat. It is a waste of time, energy and space. Use that same space for the vegetables that you, your family or your friends will eat, either fresh or preserved. Then, make sure you don’t choose plants that can’t complete growing and producing in your grow zone. If you live in the far north, your growing season is too short for some southern favorites that require a long and warm growing season.

hand holding beefeater tomato

That being said, gardening should be fun, and part of the fun is experimenting. Try a new-to-you vegetable and flower each year. Learn about the plant and how to best grow it. Start looking at recipes that use this new vegetable so you are ready when it is. Keeping a garden journal can be a great way to track your successes (and failures!). It doesn’t have to be fancy, but just keep track of what the year brings. Start by listing the vegetables you choose to plant. Make notes of what worked well and what didn’t as you go. If you were impressed with a certain plant, make a note. Do the same if you are disappointed. Note what pests you encounter and how you dealt with them. Anything that will help you in succeeding years is worth noting.

3. Buy your seeds.

Seed companies, including Park Seed, release their current year seed catalog at the beginning of the new year. They are available both in hard copy, which will be delivered by mail, or in a digital version.

Order your seeds early! You may be thinking that you have plenty of time, especially if you don’t intend to start your own plants. However, one of the best advantages of ordering from a seed company is the much greater selection. Take the tomato for an example. There are tomatoes with a sweeter flavor for eating fresh. There are tomatoes that produce uniform size tomatoes great for canning them whole. Maybe you want the earliest maturing tomato. How about a tomato that grows so large that a single slice will be hanging over the edge of your sandwich? Take a trip through time and use heirloom tomato seeds so you can taste the tomato your grandparents would have been eating. What you don’t want to happen is they run out of the seed you want. So, order your seeds as early as possible.

4. Check your seed packets.

There is a wealth of information on the back of your seed packet. It will tell you how long the plant will take to grow from seed to table. This information will tell you how soon before the last frost you need to plant the seeds indoors. Specialized information will also be on the package. There are some seeds that need light to germinate, so they need to just sit on top of the soil and not be covered. Some seeds need to be soaked or even scraped through the outer shell in order to grow. This is the type of information that can be found on the package so you have the best chance of growing success as possible.

divide seed packets quote

Once you have your seeds, you should divide your packets into three groups:

  • Seeds for indoor planting. This group will apply only to the gardener who plans to start their own seedlings for transplanting into the garden. Set those seeds aside for later.
  • Cool season crops. These include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, peas and spinach. These plants can tolerate even a little frost, or they are tolerant of being planted in cold soil. They will not thrive in the heat of summer. The heat will cause them to bolt (form seed heads) or result in vegetables that are misformed or undersized.

    The good thing about these cool weather plants is that it is possible to have an early summer crop and a second planting that matures in the fall shortly before or right after the first frost. By checking the likely date of the first frost for fall, you can count back and calculate when to plant your second crop. Many gardeners feel the second crop is the best as the cold seems to affect the flavor in a positive way. Traditionally, Brussels sprouts are never picked until after they have been hit with frost. They will have a much sweeter, mellow flavor.
  • Warm season crops. This category includes tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. These plants will be killed if they are exposed to frost. These are plants that need a long growing season. They typically cannot be grown from seed sown directly into the soil.

    You will have to plant seedlings that you started indoors or you will have to purchase plants. This category also includes all the vegetables that you would sow directly in the ground after danger of frost is past—including beans, zucchini, cucumbers and beets.

5. Set up your plant nursery.

Check all your equipment so it is in good working order. If this is the first time you are starting seeds, check out Park Seed’s fabulous Bio Dome seed starter kit. It contains everything you will need to grow your own seedlings. You just need to place it where it can get light and regular water. You may also have to provide heat if your plant nursery is in a cool location like a basement. Make sure everything is clean and ready.

tomato seedlings growing

From there, it’s back to planning. Mark your calendar on the date that each plant you plan to start indoors should be planted. Make your labels or markers to identify what is growing in each cell. Seedlings can look pretty much alike when they are small, especially if they are from the same family. Broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage look virtually identical when they only have a couple of sets of leaves. Tomatoes all look alike at the seedling stage of development. If you haven’t labeled them properly, you may not know which tomato is which until they start to set fruit. It won’t be the end of the world if your tomato plants get mixed up, but the cherry tomatoes will be producing all summer and require picking every day or every other day. It is easier to have them planted at the edge of the garden for easy access.

6. Start planting.

You have the calendar marked and as you reach each planting date, plant the number you want with a couple of extras just in case. You won’t have any trouble giving extras away to gardening friends. Check the seed package to find out how long the germination takes. This can vary significantly, and you may decide to replant only to have the seedlings emerge a few days later. Watch each group of plants closely for problems. Basically, they need to have adequate light, water and be kept warm. Those are the first areas to check if your seedlings aren’t thriving.

7. Harden off your plants.

All your seedlings have been planted and are looking healthy and growing well. As you are approaching the last frost date, the busy spring rush is about to start. The first task is to harden off the plants you started indoors. Hardening off your plants that have been grown indoors is essential to their survival. Your plants have weak, soft stems and have never had to stand up to wind, rain or the intensity of the sun. Bring them outdoors the first time and place in a sheltered shady spot for a half hour to an hour only. Gradually increase the amount of sun exposure and the amount of time outdoors. Be careful on windy days and rainy days until your plant stems gain some strength and become a little woody.

harden off plants quote

Watch your plants for signs of stress and make sure they have enough water. They can dry out much more quickly outdoors. After a couple of weeks, your plants will be ready to transfer into the garden. Just to be safe, check the weather before you plant to be sure there is no prediction of a late frost. You don’t want to lose them now because of a random frost event.

8. Prepare and start to plant your garden.

Hopefully, you completed a good garden clean-up and preparation for the coming year’s garden in the fall, but life happens. If you didn’t have a chance to, now is the time to get your garden ready. Remove any stones and debris from your garden bed. If you haven’t tested your soil, now is the time. You can test it yourself with a home garden testing kit or you can take a soil sample to the local Extension for testing. This will tell you if you need to add any specific nutrients to your soil.



All soil can benefit from added organic material. Compost, aged manure and worm castings should be added now. Work these materials into the soil and use a rake to level the planting surface. Once the garden is prepared, you can start planting the cool weather crops like spinach and peas. When they’ve been hardened off, the cool weather plants you started indoors can be transferred to the garden. This includes the broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage plants.

planting seeds in soil

9. Plant your warm weather plants.

Once all danger of frost is over, you can start to plant the warm weather plants–like beans, cucumbers and squash seeds. You can safely transplant the hardened off tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Your garden should be completely planted now.

Note: Some gardeners like to plant certain vegetables in successive plantings. In other words, instead of planting a large amount of beans that all are ready to pick at the same time, they plant a small amount every week or two. This way, you always have enough to eat fresh, but not so much that you can’t keep up. If you want to grow enough beans to supply your family’s needs for the whole year, you may want them to all be ready at the same time so you can process them for the freezer or canning at one time.

10. Plant the second crop of cool weather plants.

These are the plants that will be ready to harvest right around the first frost day in the fall. You will have to determine the planting time by counting back from that predicted first frost date in your grow zone. If you have room in your garden, you can plant the seeds directly into the soil. If you are tight on space, start your plants as you did in winter. By the time they are ready to transfer into the garden, there will be a space vacated by a crop that is already harvested.

cool weather plants quote

You have now completed the planting for this year’s garden. You have made the best use of your garden and now can enjoy harvesting and eating the results. Enjoy!