Two of the biggest questions that people who are new to gardening ask is 1) when to plant and 2) what can I plant now. If only there were a blanket answer.
Sadly, there is not one and the reason why is because of the differences between one spot and the next. What this means is that the way microclimates affect how, what, and when you can grow certain food plants.
Plants and Habitat
Plants need very specific sets of criteria in order to thrive. Those include the proper temperature range, the correct amount of light, the right soil and nutrients, and the right amount of water. If any of those four things is off, then the plant is likely to struggle.
A good example of this is the differences between your average tomato plant and the herb cilantro. Tomatoes are warm loving plants and cilantro is best grown in cooler weather. Generally, cilantro will bolt once the daytime high hits 75°F for a couple or three days in a row. That increase in temperature signals the plant that it is time to flower and produce seeds.
Tomatoes on the other hand love heat. They thrive in temperatures that are under 85°F and above 65°F. If the temperature gets above 85°F tomatoes will shut down and just maintain. They will not grow. They will not set fruit. They may not even bloom. One of the reasons for this is that in hotter weather the female sexual parts of the flowers dry out and pollen does not stick to them very well when they are dry.
There is another reason why some plants grow at different times of the year. Cilantro, for example wants to burst into bloom when the temperature gets to be 75°F. One reason for that is that pollinators are at their prime in 75°F weather.
Plants have a deep and very ancient relationship with pollinators. Some plants are dependent upon a single species of insect.
Those are just some of the requirements that plants have. As a gardener, you have to figure out when each type of plants fits into your growing environment. That is not only tricky, it is sometimes impossible. While gardening can seem impossible, it is really simple once you begin to understand what to look for, both from plants and your local environment. Here are a few tools that will help.
Find Your Local Climate and Planting Zone
The USDA has a Plant Hardiness Zone Tool which allows you to enter your zip code and find out your general planting zone. Sadly, the map does not take into account micro climates and you will need to pay close attention to the winter low temperature ranges for where you live.
At my house, the map said I was Zone 9A which has a low temperature range of 20-25°F. I live in a secluded valley and our low temperature can drop to 10°F and nearly did this past winter. The lesson here is that you have to temper the map’s data with what you know about your local area. If you were to drive into town, which is just 5 miles away, it is probably Zone 9A there. Where my house and gardens are it is Zone 7A.
The Last Frost Day
The last frost day is one of the most important pieces of data a gardener can have. If you read the back of a seed packet it will tell you that you should sow seeds after the last possible frost. That is a big clue about when to plant a specific plant. Another important piece of information is the first frost date, which is important because it allows you to know how to manage your fall and winter gardens.
These dates are of course averages. For my garden the last frost date is Mother’s Day and the first frost date is Halloween. Even still, one has to be ready here because it has snowed here in September.
Both of these dates help you to define the general parameters of your gardens. If you live in an area where you have four distinct seasons, then you can grow “intermittent” gardens. This type of garden is one where you can grow 3-4 different sets of crop plants.
Days to Harvest
The Days to harvest is the number of days it takes from the time you plant a seed until you can harvest the crop. This is important because it allows you to use the temperature data for the plant with the time of year to determine if you can grow the plant.
An example of this would be corn. Corn, depending on the species, has a days to harvest of 60-100 days. It also needs the hottest part of the summer to grow. Corn is a variation of a tropical plant and it needs a lot of sun. If it is mid-August and you want to put in a second crop of corn, then you cannot use the 100-day species. You will have to go with the shorter 60-day varieties and even then, it is a risk.
Days to harvest is also useful if you plant seed in a greenhouse or cold frame because you can get a head start on the growing season. If you know that bean plants are going to germinate in 8-14 days, then you can start you seeds as early as six weeks before plan to plant them outdoors.
Putting it All Together
With all of the data that we have talked about, you can begin to guesstimate or cultivate a list of plants that will grow in your climate and then figure out when they grow best.
Summer Garden Plants include, Tomatoes, Squash, Basil, peppers, melons, and many others. All of these plants love heat. Eggplants originate from the Middle East and they thrive in the hottest weather here when everything else wants to hibernate. Basil is a heat loving herb that turns black and dies if the temperature drops anywhere near freezing.
Cool Weather Plants include all of the plants in the Mustard or Brassica family. These include arugula, mustards, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages, kale, and collards. Snow peas, cilantro, and rutabaga are a few others.
Swiss chard is a good example of an intermittent garden plant. It may grow in the winter if your winters mild. It may grow in the summers or it might bolt as soon as the rains stop.
How to Determine What to Grow
One of the best ways to pick out veggies to grow is to look closely at what you eat and what you buy. If you are constantly at the store buying tomatoes, then put tomatoes on your bucket gardening list. If you buy a ton of potatoes each month, then you might enjoy growing your own. In short, grow what you Eat.
If you make a list of things to grow and discover that something will not grow in your area, then try to find a different species of that plant. A good example of this is watermelon, which loves the heat. They have a few varieties that grow well in colder regions and have a faster days to harvest time. There is likely a substitute for most plants on your list.
Tips for Gardening Successful
The first thing I tell people who want to garden, but haven’t do so yet, is to keep it simple. Many times, people try to do too much. They grow too many different kinds of plants or they try to make too large of a garden. Let your body acclimate to working in a garden.
It is a lot of work to start a garden and if you make your initial garden too large then chances are it will overwhelm you and impact the quality of your crops. Start small. A 10×10 garden space is plenty big enough to get you started. As you get better at gardening and the list of what you want to grow increases, you can increase the size of your garden.
Learn from your failures. Everyone has a crop failure now and then. It is not really a failure if you learn something from the process. In short, don’t let a failed crop destroy your desire to grow your own food.
Always read the packet on plants. There is a lot of information there that is very valuable. If you find a plant that you want to grow, and the circumstances are iffy, then try a test row. By going in to the project with the mindset of learning if Plant A will grow in your garden, then you are not so heartbroken if the plant does not grow or thrive.
So, what can you plant in your garden?
Chances are you can grow many things in your garden. When I moved here, everyone told me I could not grow a winter garden because nothing grew here. The lawn was growing. The weeds in the field across from me were growing. I put in a test garden. It was 4×4. Had the best crop of lettuce in ages.
My motto is Plant, Test, Learn, Grow.
So what is on your growing bucket list?