When is the Best Time to Start Growing a Garden?

Planting vegetables in spring is a delicate business. Here, experts explain how to know when to start a garden.

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Each year, home growers wonder when to start a garden. The first signs of spring trigger excitement for the new growing season, but it can be weeks or months before it’s time to begin. Planting too early can spell disaster, but so can planting too late.

The window of opportunity varies based on your region and plants. Here, Angelo Randaci, master gardener and horticulture expert at Earth’s Ally, and Erinn Witz, co-founder and writer at SeedsandSpades.com, walk us through when to start a garden.

How To Know When To Start a Garden

Your local weather conditions will tell you when to start a garden. When the snow melts and the ground softens, step outside and look at your garden’s soil. Before doing anything, Randaci says the “soil needs to be thawed, somewhat dry and workable. Too early and the soil will be clumpy and too wet.”

Working the soil too early is one of the most common mistakes home gardeners make. “If you till or even repeatedly walk over ground that is still saturated,” Witz says, “the soil can become compacted and difficult to work with for the entire growing season.”

Once your soil has the right texture and moisture level, it’s time to start planning your plants. Randaci says the ideal soil temperature for most plants is between 65 and 75 degrees F. However, some plants can handle lower temperatures.

Read the instructions on your seed packet, ask your garden center or check with your local extension service for plant-specific information. Randaci recommends using a soil thermometer to check your garden’s temperature in the early morning. Raised garden beds and containers warm earlier in the season.

Here are some general planting dates, according to Randaci:

  • For USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 and 4: May 1 to May 31.
  • Zone 5, 6 and 7: March 30 to April 30.
  • Zone 8: February 22 to March 30.
  • Zone 9: January 30 to February 28.
  • Zone 10: January 15 to January 30.

Before you buy a plant, find your Plant Hardiness Zone to choose the one that will grow well in your garden.

Plants That Thrive in Cold Weather

If you’re eager to start planting vegetables in spring but live in a colder area, choose some early spring crops. These plants are more likely to survive a frost or two, and they’ll germinate in colder soil. “Although these plants can tolerate quite a bit of chill,” Witz says, “seed germination usually won’t happen until the average daily temperature consistently hits about 55 degrees F.”

Witz recommends these cold-hardy vegetables:

  • Radishes;
  • Lettuce;
  • Spinach;
  • Swiss chard;
  • Broccoli;
  • Peas.

These crops can be planted early, but it’s a waste of time if your soil is still sopping wet. In that case, Witz says that “your best bet for an early harvest will be a small container filled with fresh soil.” Fresh soil is warmer and dryer than the newly thawed ground.

Containers and pots give you more leeway in deciding when to start a garden. They can be brought into a garage or shelter in the event of a late frost.

Planting Fruits vs Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables can be grown together, but many have different planting windows. Generally, Witz says “most fruits are not cold hardy, so it’s best to hold off on planting them until all danger of frost has passed for your local region.”

Even tomatoes need plenty of heat. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start them; you’ll just have to start them indoors.

Witz suggests starting seeds eight to 12 weeks before your area’s last expected frost date. Again, check your seed packet, garden center or local extension office for a plant-specific timeframe. For these heat-loving plants, Witz says to “wait until daytime temperatures are consistently above 60 degrees F before transplanting your seedlings outdoors.”

How To Plant a Garden

Planting a prosperous garden begins far before the spring growing season. It’s best to start preparing a garden in the fall.

According to Witz, late summer or early fall is the perfect time for “tilling the ground and adding organic matter, like compost or manure, to improve soil structure and nutrient levels,” because “the cold winter months provide ample time for the organic matter to break down and mingle with the dirt.”

If you didn’t prepare your garden last year, this growing season can still be successful. Just till and amend your soil once it reaches the right consistency.

Whether you start seeds indoors or purchase them from a garden center, seedlings should be hardened off before planting outdoors. Randaci says this means “gradually exposing them to the outdoor temperatures,” ideally seven to 14 days before you intend to plant them. This is especially important for seedlings purchased from an indoor garden center.

Plant cool-season vegetables first. Crowding is one of the most common gardening mistakes; planting too close together causes plants to compete for space and nutrients. Seedlings look deceptively small now, but they’ll soon double or triple in size. Consider full-grown height and width when planting vegetables in spring. Seed packets and plant tags typically list spacing requirements. Find out the meaning of tomato plant tags.

Once your plants are in the ground, take care to protect them from frost. Even if your soil temperature is right and the last frost date has passed, an unexpected cold snap can damage tender vegetables and flowers. You can purchase frost covers online. An old blanket or burlap sack will do the trick, too.

Mikayla Borchert
Mikayla is an assistant editor for Family Handyman, specializing in indoor and outdoor gardening, organization and décor. She has one cat and holds a B.A. in English from the University of Minnesota. Outside of work, she likes running, skiing, hiking and tending her balcony garden.