Spring has begun and a glorious time of year is upon us. It’s time to shake the dirt off pots and trays, to fluff that rich garden soil and to nurture those tender little seedlings! Spring symbolizes rebirth and rejuvenation, as the earth emerges from a restful slumber bursting forth with energy, warmth, and so much greenery! Gardeners, too, enjoy a rush of enthusiasm and energy as our long-winter, garden dreams become fruitful reality. Whether you are a seasoned gardener or a newbie, here are some tips for Spring prep and sowing to get you off on the right track!
For most of the country, Spring has just begun to turn its head. Many Northern gardeners continue to weather the final winter storms and Southern gardeners have already begun the Spring shuffle. No matter your exact dates, most gardeners can break down their Spring garden tasks by Early, Mid and Late Season. (Be sure to research your location’s average last frost date as this will help you gauge garden timing!)
Spring Garden Cleanup
No matter your location, early Spring means clearing out garden beds. OK, be honest, did you forget to clean out your garden this Fall?? Don’t worry, many beneficial insects reside in your overwintered plant material. The most important Fall cleanup project is to clear out any diseased material from the garden, so pull those tomato plants and leave your herbs and spent flower pods for the birds and wildlife. Pull dead foliage, clean and count seedling trays. Spring cleanup is a time to check-in with the garden and assess what materials you’ll need to restock.
Do you need more water proof labels? Will you replace that old, broken weeder with a new Cobra Head Weeder? Early Spring nights can be spent making homemade seedling trays from egg cartons, toilet paper rolls and newspaper.
When to Work Spring Soil
No matter how excited we get at the prospect of digging the soil, we must wait until the soil is ready. It is crucial to wait until soil has thawed and sufficiently dried before working, as working wet or frozen soil will compromise your soil structure for the entire season causing impossibly hard clumps and ruining soil aeration. To determine soil’s readiness to work, dig down 6 inches into your soil and grab a clump in your hand. Make a ball with the soi. If you cannot make a ball and the soil crumbles, it is ready to work; if you can make a ball, drop the ball from waist height to the ground.If the ball scatters into many little pieces, the soil is ready to work. If the soil remains in a ball when dropped, or only breaks up into 2 or 3 large pieces, the soil is too wet and not ready to work - come back in a few days and try again! Once you break ground, you should be thinking about amending the soil with well-rotted compost. If you plan to grow carrots or parsnips, now is the time to prepare the bed. Soil should be well drained and loose. (Carefully pick through the carrot bed removing clumps and rocks! Now is also the time to build or clean up existing potato boxes!)
May Queen Head Lettuce is just as tender as it looks!
Early Direct Seeded Crops
You will often read planting instructions that direct you to plant seeds, “as soon as the soil can be worked”. This indicates that the seeds of this crop are cold hardy and that the plant can withstand and will thrive in, cool soil and cool ambient temperatures. Very often these early crops are much better suited to cool weather than hot and it is important to plant the seeds directly in the garden during early to mid Spring to enjoy a harvest and allow tender seedlings to become established - before the intense late Spring/Summer heat sets in. Cool-loving greens like Lettuce, Spinach and mache, are an excellent example of this: Greens grow quickly and thrive in cool, Spring weather. We love to sprinkle lettuce seeds in the just awakened Spring soil. For an extra-early harvest of crispy leaves, try Rocky Top Lettuce Mix or May Queen Head Lettuce.
Cool Spring temperatures make De Grace Snow Pea deliciously sweet, a delight to the palate!
Peas are another supremely early Spring crop. Soak seeds 24 hrs before planting and set outside as soon as the soil has been worked - try Alaska Garden Pea and De Grace Snow Pea as your very earliest choices. Spinach loves the cool early Spring weather. Sow seeds directly outside about 2-3 weeks before your projected last frost date.
Start radishes like Helios and Purple Plum early in the season to harvest before summer’s heat sets in. Keep a floating row cover on hand in early Spring: A surprise hard freeze can slow progress, but with row cover protection crops can be spared! Don’t forget to sow these crops in small, frequent successions - about every 7-10 days to ensure a steady supply. This also serves to help you figure out the very best windows for planting a crop. And always keep detailed notes in a journal to help you determine best planting dates for years to come!
Golden Acre Cabbage produces dense, solid heads weighing in at 3-5 pounds!
Crops Started Indoors in Early Spring
Early Spring is often harsh and unpredictable, which is why you’ll want to get a jump-start growing your tender crops indoors. Tomatoes, eggplants, ground cherries, tomatillos and peppers will be started indoors in a warm area, most ideally on a heat mat to warm soil while also being bathed in sun or artificial light. Those frost tender crops must be started inside early in order to get a good jump-start on the season, but you can also start cool-loving crops indoors for mid Spring transplanting outdoors. Brassicas like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage are best started indoors in early Spring where they can get a jump-start as well. When growing a cool-loving Spring crop, choose a variety that is known to be early-heat tolerant as you will likely be harvesting in warm weather. Golden Acre Cabbage matures early and can be harvested in just 65 days! Rober Cauliflower is super early and can handle intense summer heat. For an early broccoli try Waltham 29 Broccoli or Chinese Kale, an Asian green that makes tasty buds very similar to broccoli but more heat-loving.
Rober Cauiflower is a staff favorite at Baker Creek!Mid Spring
Mid Spring is typically marked by a cessation of early Spring torrential rains and overall milder, weather (Of course, every season brings its surprises!). It also becomes safer to plant certain crops outside. Also: This typically is the time to install irrigation.
Irrigation and Mulch
Early Spring is often marked by harsh, wet weather - irrigation is typically not an issue for those very first sowed crops - like lettuce and peas. By mid Spring, the need for irrigation becomes more pressing as the rains begin to slow and the weather becomes consistently warm. A simple drip irrigation system is the best for conserving water and avoiding disease associated with excess leaf moisture. Drip systems can range from elaborate to homemade. Either way, they will save your water bill and can be readily automated with an inexpensive timer to ensure precise watering. A thick layer of mulch helps buffer any unexpected temperature or moisture swings. Woodchip mulch is great for pathways while newspaper and straw mulch or compostable plastic mulch is excellent for planting beds.
Transplanting Cold-Loving Crops Outdoors
Once the brunt of the cold has passed in early Spring, you can bring your brassica starts out to plant! (Don’t forget to harden-off those crops by placing them in a sheltered outdoor location for 1-2 days...this allows them to acclimate to the outside temperature to avoid transplant shock.) Once hardened off, your cold-loving transplants can be planted in-ground. (Place a handful of well-rotted compost in the planting hole to give plants a boost!)
Pot-Up Tender, Indoor Crops
Once your cold-tender crops have sprouted and have become established in their tightly packed seedling tray, you can bump them up to bigger pots. When transplanting tomatoes, be sure to plant the seedlings a bit deeper on the stem to encourage extra rooting. All solanaceous (sun-loving) crops like to be potted up once before going out to the garden. (This will improve roots and help to prevent plants from becoming pot bound - So, do not skip this step!) If you have Sweet Potato Tubers saved from last year, mid-Spring is the time to sprout them to make slips for planting.
Sugar Ann Pea lives up to its name as it is quite sweet!
Direct Seeding in Mid Spring
By mid Spring, the last frost date should be just a few weeks away; now you can sow more bands of lettuce, and spinach as well as Arugula and Oriental Greens. You can also plant carrot and parsnip seeds into their prepared bed now. Continue to succession plant snow peas - we love Sugar Ann Pea and Oregon Sugar Pod for mid Spring planting as they hold up to the late-Spring heat exceptionally well!
Early Wonder Beet reaches maturity in only 50 days!
You may also begin to succession sow beet seeds - we love Early Wonder for a quick 50 days until harvest. Chioggia is also top-notch for Spring planting as the roots taste amazing, even in the face of unexpected hot, Spring weather! Potatoes can be planted outdoors in mid Spring, ideally when soil has warmed to 45 degrees F. Continue to sow radishes at 10 day intervals - we love Malaga and Zlata for mid-Spring planting!
Late Spring means consistently warmer weather and preparation for working with the frost-tender crops. You can find frost dates online or in the Farmers Almanac. You may also consult your local, university agricultural extension office for average frost dates for your area. Beyond what the books tell you, a soil thermometer will aid you in gauging the soil’s temperature. If you have ordered live plants from Baker Creek, our shipping method aims to send frost-tender, live plants right around your last frost date, allowing you to care for the small starts and possibly pot them up before planting in your garden - well after last frost has passed.
Hardening off Tender Plants
Once your last frost date has passed and soil has warmed, you may bring your frost-tender plants outside to harden off, again position plants in a sheltered outdoor area for 1-2 days and up to 1 week. They should be exposed to outside conditions, but don’t forget to water them often as their little pots dry out fast! Finally, transplant your hardened plants into the garden (with a handful of well-rotted compost to give them a boost) and plant those tomatoes deep on the stem to encourage rooting!
Direct seeded Red Russian Kale happily growing at Baker Creek!
More successions of cold-loving crops can be made with a focus on the quickest growing, earliest varieties as summer’s intense heat is quickly drawing near. In late Spring, we more thickly sow baby greens of lettuce, spinach, kale and greens to be harvested young - this ensures an abundant harvest before summer. Red Russian Kale is perfect for thick-sowing and harvesting while still ‘baby size’. Perpetual Spinach should be the latest spinach planting of the season. This variety can handle much more heat than traditional spinach! Crisp Mint Lettuce is a more heat-tolerant lettuce, better planted late in Spring.
Now is also the time to plant heat-loving greens like collards. Swiss chard is perfect for late Spring as these plants handle both cold and heat! Try Beni Houshi Mizuna: This Asian green also tolerates hot and cold extremes. Continue planting radishes in 7 day intervals; switch to super early varieties in mid Spring in case of a hot, late Spring.
The sweet taste of Oxheart Carrots are definitly worth smiling about!
Early Scarlet Globe and De 18 Jours Radish are excellent choices as they mature super fast. Sow more successions of the quickest maturing carrot varieties like Little Finger and Oxheart. The soil needs to be consistently warmed before direct-seeding melons, cukes and beans (These crops are best left for very late Spring/early summer.).
Starting Cold Tender Crops Indoors
The practice of starting cold, tender, quick-growing crops indoors before planting out is controversial; but if you have a very short summer, or need to get a crop in before extreme summer heat, you may benefit from this practice. Crops like cucumbers, melons, beans, corn, and watermelon can be started indoors up to 3.5-4 weeks before transplanting out. But be aware: If these crops become even the least bit root bound, they will be stunted and will actually grow slower! So if you choose this method, be sure to proceed with caution!
Be sure to take lots of notes this Spring. Each year you keep a journal or log (e.g. planting dates, weather and other statistics) improves your garden planning for years to come! You can find seeding charts and spreadsheets online for free. You may also purchase Clyde’s Garden Planner to help you keep seeding dates organized. This handy planner is pocket-sized and packed with helpful information!
“In the Spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt”-- Margaret Atwood