Knowing when to plant seeds and seedlings in your vegetable garden is important if you’re trying to grow as much food as possible in your homestead garden. Let’s dive deep and learn about how you can know when is the perfect time to plant your garden using our Homesteaders of America Growing Guides!
There are backyard gardeners and then there are homestead gardeners.
Want to know the difference? A backyard garden is a person who plants vegetables in their garden each spring and happily gets some fresh produce out their doorstep for a couple of months each year. They’re content with the occasional harvest and if life gets in the way, no big deal. They garden as a hobby for the simple pleasure of it. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but these gardeners tend to take a more laid back approach.
Homestead gardeners on the other hand are hard core. We take our food production very seriously and aim to maximize every opportunity to grow as much food for our families in the space we’re given as possible. Homestead gardeners take gardening to a whole new level and over time realize they’re just as much of a botanist and biologist as they are a gardener.
Why Do You Need to Know When to Plant Your Garden?
If you’re growing your own food for reasons of self-sufficiency, decreasing your dependency on a broken food system, get access to the freshest and most organic produce possible, and/or to put up food for the winter, getting the timing of when to plant your garden is critical.
If you plant your seeds too early they may rot in soggy soil before the soil warms enough for them to germinate. You may risk exposing tender seedlings to an unexpected late frost or even freeze. Or even if they don’t have quite as catastrophic a beginning, a slow start in a poorly timed sowing will leave young plants struggling to hang on instead of growing big beautiful plants. Along with inadequate nutrients, this makes them more susceptible to pests and disease later in the growing season.
The weather on our homestead last year provided the perfect example of why knowing when to plant is so important.
Our last frost day is May 13th according to the Farmers Almanac. But I know that the microclimate on our homestead makes the 3rd and 4th week of May a safer bet. We are in a bit of a valley so the elevation is a little lower than the surrounding hills. Also a large number of pine trees on our property have a cooling and insulating effect which makes using the USDA zones and standard last frost dates an unsafe bet. After an unusually warm and dry spring, my garden was amended and all ready to go in early May. Strawberries were blooming like crazy promising a great season. Gardeners in my state’s homesteading groups were all taking advantage and getting a jumpstart on their planting season. But despite all of the temptation to do otherwise, I stuck to my planting calendar.
And boy am I glad I did! Not only did we end up with cold-weather the second week of May, but we had a full-blown freeze and it snowed! Thankfully, I didn’t disregard the weatherman like I usually do and had enough hay mulch on hand to cover the strawberries to save the blossoms. There were a lot of folks lamenting their dead seedlings that week.
So my best advice to new gardeners in their first season is to learn when to plant your garden and then keep homesteading records so you can make adjustments over time based on the microclimate in your backyard.
When to Plant Your Vegetable Garden
USDA Plant Hardiness Zones
Most people use one of two methods to determine when to plant their garden, their “last frost date” or USDA Plant Hardiness Zones.
USDA Plant Hardiness Zones can be a helpful tool for generalizations in knowing what plants will grow best in your area. For example, don’t bother planning to plant an orange tree in your Zone 6a orchard. They do best in Zone 8 or warmer.
But when it comes to the wide variety of vegetable plants that can be grown throughout the entire continental United States, we can do better than broad generalizations. Let’s be realistic. Even though coastal Maine and southern Nebraska are both Zone 5b, they are very different growing climates for your garden. Or let’s look at two Zone 6a cities, Flagstaff Arizona and Columbus Ohio. According to the Hardiness Zone calculator, Flagstaff has the last frost date of 6/11 and Columbus has the last frost date of 4/28. That’s quite the range!
Calculate your Hardiness Zone based on your zip code
Unfortunately, many gardening resources recommend using the Hardiness Zone maps to plan the planting season. While using the Hardiness Zones will give you a one-month window of when to plant, as we’ve seen that can be risky business. We take growing food way too seriously to mess with that!
Last Frost Dates
At Homesteaders of America, we prefer to use “Last Frost Dates” as the best guide to know when to plant. The last frost date for your zip code is a statistical average that tells you when your chance of frost drops below 30% after a date.
It is simply a more targeted approach to knowing when to plant your garden.
While keeping a homesteading journal and studying your own microclimate is the ultimate way to know your last frost dates, using the weather averages for your zip code will give you a better idea than the USDA Hardiness Zone map as you gather personalized information over the years.
Learn what your last your last frost date is by location
Another consideration for knowing when to plant is your soil temperature. Unfortunately, soil temperature will vary drastically from year to year depending on the weather so there is no handy reference that can help you with this. Thankfully, it’s easy to check with a thermometer! Certain seeds, such as corn, cucumbers, and beans, simply will not germinate until the soil reaches a certain temperature.
You can use solarization methods such as black tarps to warm the soil more quickly in the season. But if you can’t afford to use those methods, those seeds will do best if you hold off for a week (or even two if you’ve had a late spring) after your last frost date.
Garden Planning Tools
Homesteaders of America wants you to get your garden off to the best start possible so we’ve created several tools to help you know when to plant this year!
When to Plant Growing Guides
At the beginning of each month this year, we will be helping you along your gardening journey with our Homesteaders of America Growing Guides! We’ll help you keep on track to getting your garden off on the right foot this growing season so you can grow as much food as possible for your family!
How to Use the Growing Guides
In the Growing Guides, you will learn what to plant each month according to when your last frost date.
- Look up your last frost date by zip code if you don’t know it already.
- Choose the Growing Guide for this month
- Find which month your last frost date is in
- Follow the seed starting suggestions on the graphic
- If you’d like more specific information, consider getting our Seed Starting Calculator!
The Growing Guides will be targeted for the continental United States, which also includes some of the warmer areas of our country such as southern extremes Texas and Florida. It’s hard for some of us northern folks to imagine starting our gardens in January, but believe it or not, that’s the time for them to start their tomatoes now!
Be sure to follow us on social media, read our newsletter, or check back on the blog for updates throughout the year!