When It’s Time to Plant
You’ve chosen and prepped your planting space – whether in the ground, in a raised bed, or in containers. Now how do you choose from the colorful, vibrant options in the greenhouse?!
Before you start shopping, you’ll want to have an idea of your first and last frost dates and your hardiness zone. The Capital Region is typically mid-May for last frost, but you can check Farmer’s Almanac; just put in your zip code here to see frost dates in your area: https://www.almanac.com/gardening/frostdates
For hardiness zones, the map is available here, and you can also check by zip code: https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/
There are a number of reasons you might choose a particular plant. Things to consider include:
Color – You may want to create a “moonlight” garden and choose all pale-flowered plants that seem to glow at dusk. Or maybe you’re hoping for all shades of purple and silver foliage. You could even plant a rainbow of color (though blue can be elusive!), or chose not to have any noticeable flowers and focus on foliage instead.
Size – It’s important to check the mature size of a plant you’re interested in, especially when it comes to perennials and trees or shrubs. Some species have both dwarf varieties and very large ones, so keep in mind the space you have and what will do best long-term.
Texture – Varying texture is a great way to add interest, especially if you have a small space. Think about combinations of leaf size and shape, shiny versus soft, grass-like versus a dense evergreen or a delicate trailing plant. Some plants have variegated leaves, too, which adds a sense of texture visually by introducing splotches or stripes.
Bloom time – often, a plant tag will tell you when it flowers, if it does. Some plants will flower from late spring right until frost, while others have a more brief appearance. Varying bloom times will help ensure interest all season long. We’ll talk more about year-round interest in a later post!
Habitat value – We hear a lot about native species and reasons to plant native. I like to have a combination of native plants and other selections that I just happen to like or that do really well, but native plants often support our pollinators better than introduced species. After all, they evolved to live together! Natives may require less maintenance when it comes to water and fertilizing, as they are adapted to local conditions. Beyond considering native options, if you’re stuck between a few options, you might want to think about whether any of them would add a good source of pollen, nectar, berries, or seeds, or even a good nesting spot to your garden.
Or maybe you’ll happen to spot a plant that just has a fun name! I once bought a fall mum simply because it was named Emily.
Browsing Pinterest and garden websites or magazines and catalogs can be a great way to see different plant combinations and get ideas. If you’re planting in containers, make sure to choose plants for the same container that have similar needs when it comes to light, water, and fertilizing. We’ll get more into container gardening in an upcoming post.
There is really no right or wrong answer to what you should bring home, but use the plant labels as a guide as to what might do best in your space. They will provide you with information about a plant’s light and water needs, hardiness zone, and whether it is an annual, perennial, or biennial. An annual does all of its growing in one season and will not survive winter and will need to be replanted each year, though some will produce seeds that drop to the ground and may sprout next year. A biennial typically produces mostly leaves in its first year, then flowers in the second year. When it does, it produces seeds that drop to start a new generation of plants. A perennial will return every year with proper care, as long as it’s hardy in your area.
Plants versus Seeds
You might be wondering whether you should buy plants, or whether you can start your garden from seeds. With seeds, you can get a great bang for your buck and will have greater options available, but timing is critical to success. Some seeds need to be started 8-10 weeks before planting them into the garden (or more!), while others can be sown directly into the soil in May and have enough time to grow.
If you want to try some seeds, just be sure to read all of the information on the packet. It can be a lot to decode sometimes, but it’s helpful! For seeds that need to be started inside before planting out, you’ll need to be able to provide bright light, consistent water, and, in some cases, heat (or time in the freezer!). You will also need to make sure you have space for all of the seedlings as they start to grow. I managed to collect dozens of seed packets and made a spreadsheet to keep myself organized. I’ve ended up with two shelving units (pictured above) full of plants this season, and a few dozen pots for the roses, peonies, and dahlias I decided I needed!
Plants that you start indoors will need to “harden off” for a week or two before they are planted outside (pictured below). This is a process of getting them acclimated to the wind and sun so they don’t “burn.” You can start them in a sheltered, mostly shaded area on the first day, then gradually introduce them to more sun each day. They will have to adjust to “real” temperatures, so be careful to watch the weather forecast for any risk of frost. You may also want to bring them in at night at first.
Vegetables can be a little different than many flowers, as they are mostly annuals for us, and many do well growing directly from seed in the garden. While everything in the seed catalog or at the garden center might look enticing, prioritize the veggies that you know you will eat! If you make a list of your favorites, it can serve as a guide in deciding how much of each to plant. Does everyone in your family love green beans? Plan on using more space for those, and planting every few weeks for a longer harvest. As you make your list of things to plant, write down the varieties you like and calculate when they should be planted. Also check to see whether a certain variety might be a vining type or a bush type – vining types (like certain peas and beans) can climb a trellis, freeing up more space on the ground, while bush types of summer squash will occupy a smaller space and still provide good yields (and some can be happy in containers).
When to Plant
You know what you want to plant. Congratulations! Sometimes making the decisions on what will go in the garden can be the hardest part! Just know that many gardeners are always changing things, myself included.
Now it’s time to figure out when to plant everything. Generally, annuals can be planted after the danger of frost has passed. We have a Mother’s Day tradition in my family of going plant shopping after breakfast. I highly recommend it! Perennials that have been hardened off can generally go in earlier than your last frost date, as they would typically start growing in early spring.
Some veggies that can be planted before frost (aka now!) include:
Salad greens like lettuce or mesclun mix, arugula, spinach, and kale; onions, chives, and scallions; broccoli and cauliflower; peas; and hardy herbs. (Wait until it’s nice and warm to plant basil, though.)
There are also some flowers that like the cooler weather, such as poppies, calendula, larkspur, bachelor buttons, and sweet peas. These can all be started from seed (there are both perennial and annual poppies) and will say on the packet how many weeks before the last frost they can go out. You may also see “as soon as soil can be worked” which means just that — as soon as the ground has thawed, you can get the seeds out. I just planted three fence panels worth of sweet peas. I’m dubbing it the “Wall of Fragrance.”
Where to Plant
When you’re trying to decide where to put everything, think about varying the forms, textures and colors as mentioned earlier. Also think about the locations of your plants in relation to one another within the garden bed. Place tall and trellised plants on the northern side of the garden so they will not shade the shorter plants. When it comes to my veggies, I actually use this to my advantage, and let my tall tomato plants or trellised cucumbers create afternoon shade for my lettuce as the season goes on. Another great idea is companion planting. It’s the principle of putting certain plants together because they benefit one another. Some flowers may repel the “bad bugs” from your vegetables or attract beneficial ones that either will pollinate them or prey on pests. In some cases, they are things that just do well together because of how they grow. Remember the “three sisters” garden — corn, climbing beans, and squash?
Below I’ve included some of the combinations I’ll be using this year in my 4’x8’ veggie beds. Yes, I’m really planting corn (again).