I just LOVE it when my friends and readers email me asking me gardening questions! And today’s post comes from a question posed to me by a longtime friend who is beginning a new garden this year:
What crops you start from seed outdoors and when do you plant them?
That’s such a great question! Most beginning gardeners purchase all of their vegetable starts from garden stores and don’t even think about planting seeds, but many crops actually do better if you plant them outdoors from seed. Plus, it saves money!
What to Plant from Seed Outdoors
The vegetables I plant from seed outdoors are peas, carrots, beans, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, okra, black-eyed peas, watermelon, cantaloupe, lettuce, and basil. Most of these crops don’t adjust to transplanting very well and do best when they’re planted in the soil they’ll end up growing in.
In areas where you have a long growing season (the length of time from last frost in the spring to first frost in the fall), it’s possible to start tomatoes in the ground, but I prefer to either purchase those as transplants or start them from seed indoors in February.
When to Plant from Seed Outdoors
The key to knowing when to plant your seeds outdoors is your average last frost date. In my zone 7 area in Arkansas, it’s around April 15th. (Click here to get your average last frost date. Look at the second map.)
The reason the last frost date is so important is that most of the plants mentioned above will not tolerate a frost (the exceptions are peas, carrots, and lettuce). The last thing you want is those beautiful seedlings being hit with a frost and they’re dead before they ever had a chance.
Though seed packets will recommend planting your warm weather crops after the danger of frost has passed, I will plant them as early as a week or two before the last average frost, depending on the soil. It takes about a week for the seeds to germinate, and if any late frost threatens, I will cover with upside down planters or orange juice cartons.
It is also a good idea to check the temperature of the soil. If it’s below 60 degrees, the seeds won’t germinate well. If the soil is wet, they’ll likely rot in cool, wet conditions. You can find a soil thermometer at most garden stores. This is the one I have.
The exceptions to my early April planting are peas, carrots, lettuce, and okra. Peas, carrots, and lettuce not only tolerate a frost, but they also don’t do well in heat. I plant them in mid-March, with the goal of having the full harvest before 90-degree weather arrives in late May.
Okra, on the other hand, loves heat and won’t grow in mild weather. So, I wait to plant them in early May. I also tend to wait a few weeks in planting my melons for the same reason.
One More Tip:
I’ve never tried this, but many of my gardening friends soak their seeds overnight in water before planting. They say it weakens the seed’s shell and causes them to sprout faster. It might be worth a try!
If in Doubt…
Unless you live in a short-season climate, it’s best to err on the side of planting late rather than too soon. Summer crops languish in cool, wet soil, and they’ll get off to a better start if you wait a week or two.
Of course, I tend to let nature be my guide. Since Punxsutawney Phil seemed to be right this year and we’ve sprung into spring early, I’ll probably begin putting my seeds in the ground a couple of weeks earlier than usual. But I’ll have some extra empty pots on standby because there was that year it snowed in May.