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By Emily Shirley, Advanced Master Gardener

     Some of the most popular warm season vegetables we plant include tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, squash, melons, beans and cucumbers. In this part of the country, we know that our average last frost date is around March 15th, so we should only plant outdoors after this date is past. It’s may even be better to wait an extra two weeks for the soil to warm up more. In my experience, plants that are planted two weeks afterward tend to be just as large, or larger, than those planted immediately after the last frost date. Keep in mind that just because it’s the last frost date it doesn’t mean that a frost can’t happen!  Remember, they call it an “average” last frost date.  As a gardener you must always keep an eye on the weather.

Cool season vegetables can be planted outdoors before the last frost date. We can grow most cool season plants at any time as long as the ground is not frozen – which rarely happens in this area, especially the last couple of years!  We began planting Snap peas in January and mid-February.  It was such a treat to have a couple of weeks of wonderful spring-like weather this winter (January, 2013) that gave us an opportunity to get our beds ready for early planting.   Kale, spinach, and chard could have been planted out in mid-February and can be successively planted until the days get too warm. The key is to start a new crop every two weeks to have a steady supply.  Lettuce is a tender plant and shouldn’t be planted too early.  A month to six weeks before the last frost date usually works well in this area. Carrots can be planted in the garden about a month before the last frost while onions and their family should be given about 2 months if grown from seed.

Keep in mind that as gardeners the weather is the ultimate decision maker. The weather can make or break a garden.  When it “breaks” the garden because we planted too early, we often have to do it all over again. (There is always the possibility of covering the plants if there is a late frost, but I don’t like to do that, so I wait.) The weather determines when we start our plants and how they grow. Pay close attention to the forecast and make adjustments according to what the forecasters say but also keep in mind what is normal may not always be normal.  I remember a couple of years when we had very warm springs and gardeners were able to start tomato plants almost a month early!  I still lean toward waiting on planting out my warm season vegetables because I’m always afraid of a late frost.  What are you planting this year?  What is your plan?  Oh, you haven’t made your plans yet?  Then you are one of those people that doesn’t have to feel guilty about the February/early March weather.  You can sit inside and say “It is a good thing I can’t work outside today because I’m working on my 2013 Garden Plan”.

While you are working on those plans there are a few things to remember.  When starting from seeds always check the seed packet if you are purchasing seed and check the number of weeks on the package.  We know our average last frost date in this area is about March 15th, so you would count back from that date to determine when to start your seed.  To be on the safe side, some people add a couple of weeks to that.  (If you are working with seed that you saved or that someone gave you, you may have to do a little more researching on the particular plant and variety since you will not have a seed packet to refer to.

Be cautious about buying early transplants from stores.  I know – they are out there and they look so fresh and healthy and you just want to get yours before anyone else, or before they are picked over and maybe even not cared for by garden center.  Just remember they are tempting you (and taking your money now), and they will also bring in more batches later when it is closer to the correct time to transplant (and take your money again).  Tomatoes and peppers do not need to be planted outdoors before the safe frost date.  Planting too early can lead to fungal diseases that will last throughout the season.  Covering and un-covering plants for weeks is way too much trouble for me.


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