Crumbly potting soil, warm water, tiny seeds—I love starting my veggie garden. Even though we had almost a foot of snow two days ago, I was happily planting lettuce and tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, kale and cabbage. When your growing season is as short as mine is, it’s essential to start many crops indoors.
Of course, you can buy started seedlings at your local garden center. But where’s the fun in that? I prefer to take advantage of the wider selection of varieties found in the seed catalogs. I want seedlings that are stocky and healthy, not leggy and root-bound. Plus, there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing that you grew your plants yourself.
The first step to success is planning. What is the average last frost date for your area? You can ask a gardening friend, contact your local Master Gardener help desk, or check the Farmer’s Almanac website.
If they don’t have the exact date for your location, a general rule of thumb is to determine the date for a near-by city and add or subtract one day for every 100 feet difference in altitude. For example, downtown Colorado Springs is at approximately 6,300 feet. The official average last frost date for the city is May 15. Since I live at 7,000 feet, I add seven days, giving my garden an average last frost date of May 21.
Note that this date is just an average… some years we have no frost at all in May. The last two years, we’ve had hard freezes in the middle of June. It’s all a game of chance, really. You plant your seeds and you take your chances. Of course, we could wait until the end of June, but who wants to harvest only green tomatoes?
Now you can decide when you’re willing to set out your seedlings. Some crops shrug off a bit of frost. Popular examples include peas, spinach, lettuce, and radishes, along with cabbage, broccoli, and other cole crops. On the other hand, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and peppers don’t even appreciate a cool breeze. Even if they survive a cold night, their growth will be stunted and yields will be small.
Because our spring weather experiences extreme swings in temperature from hour to hour, I tend to be cautious about my planting dates. I usually set out cool weather crops around the middle of May, and frost-sensitive crops at the end of the month. I remember one year when I was transplanting peppers on May 21. It was 72 degrees and sunny, and it had been like that all week. Then, around noon, just as I finished firming the soil around the last seedling, a front moved in. By mid-afternoon, the temperature was 21 and it was snowing. I ended up running around scooping pepper seedlings out of the planting beds and back into their pots. It was a lesson I will long remember!
The next step is to calculate how long it takes to grow each transplant. I usually allow five to six weeks for lettuce, spinach, chard, cabbage, broccoli, kale, etc., six to eight weeks for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, and no more than two weeks for squash and cucumbers.
A bit of counting with the calendar in hand, and you will see when you should start your veggie seeds. It helps to write this down, or organize your seed packets in the order in which you will use them.
So what if the wind is howling and the snow is falling. Who says you can’t garden during a blizzard?