When is Too Late to Start Planting?
April 26, 2013 at 11:19 AM
Is it too late to plant? We get asked this question all the time. I had several anxious callers last week wanting to get on our raised bed installation calendar “if it’s not too late.” One new client has us installing her beds this week because she always plants by Mother’s Day. While a holiday is actually a great way to remember a a task like spring planting, there’s no cause for concern if you miss it.
First, a clarification: as we are located in the Pacific Northwest, this discussion centers on gardening in relatively mild climate zones such as ours (zone 8). The principles still apply to other climates, with adjustments to planting dates and protection such as cold frames or shade cloth provided as appropriate.
Here’s the bottom line: there is no single date for planting a vegetable garden. I know this runs against the common vision of heading out to the garden on a sunny May morning, weeding and tilling everything, and planting a huge garden. Boom - done, right?
The concept of doing it all in one day undoubtedly comes from large-scale farming - and from the days when families grew all their own food. If you’re planting ten acres to corn or wheat then yes, you’ll plant it all at once. And harvest it all at once. But in today’s world, if you want to grow carrots, most likely you would prefer harvesting a bunch a week to having hundreds of carrots mature at the same time. Hence, what we call succession planting, which refers to planting methods that increase crop availability during a growing season by making efficient use of space and timing.
Succession planting involves doing some planning ahead of time - thinking through what you want to harvest, and at what rate - before you start scattering thousands of seeds or bringing home starts. In our way of growing here at Verdura Culinary Gardens, both for ourselves and our clients, we utilize square foot gardening techniques and our own system of developing planting plans to make the most out of available space. We schedule planting dates about twice a month for most gardens, allowing gardeners to do a little work at a time, with the end result of a more controlled harvest. Tying in succession planting means staggering plantings of certain vegetables to allow a continuous harvest. It also means planting something different in each square foot as soon as that square’s crop is mature. So a square of the carrots referenced above, perhaps planted in April, might be replaced with a Swiss Chard start in mid-July.
We start planting here in Portland as early as late February, and don’t finish until mid-October. But if your garden isn’t being installed until July - or you’re simply too busy to get it planted until then - that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to grow. It just means you’ll adapt to growing what will thrive in the months you have available. So you might plant heat-resistant lettuce like Jericho romaine rather than cool-season spinach. And if you still want tomatoes, you might spend a little extra on some two-gallon pots at a nursery to give them a head start.
Mid-summer to fall months are actually among the best to start gardens. We plant all kinds of fall-maturing crops like kale, Swiss chard, broccoli and cabbage around mid-July. Many of these do even better in the fall than in the spring. Purple sprouting broccoli is planted in August for harvest almost the entire month of April. Cool-season crops like spinach, arugula, pac choi and other greens thrive when planted in September. And over-wintering onions, garlic and shallots are typically planted in October.
Here are some general guidelines for when some popular vegetables can be planted. The list is by no means complete! Note the repetition among some, for example radishes, that can be sown many months in a row. And note how many of the same vegetables can be sown both spring and fall, resulting in early spring crops from over-wintered plants.
Early Spring (February-April)
Peas, spinach, pac choi and other Asian greens, onions, green onions, leeks, almost all salad greens, broccoli, cabbage, kale, Swiss chard, asparagus, potatoes, carrots, radishes, cilantro
Late Spring/Early Summer (May-June)
Green onions, leeks, salad greens except arugula and other heat-sensitive greens, broccoli, cabbage, kale, Swiss chard, carrots, radishes, cilantro, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, summer and winter squash, basil and most other herbs, green beans
Green onions, heat-tolerant lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, kale, Swiss chard, carrots, radishes, cilantro, basil, over-wintering sprouting broccoli
Spinach, pac choi and other Asian greens, all cold-tolerant salad greens, over-wintering carrots, onions, shallots, garlic
With a good garden planting plan and perhaps some garden coaching for a season, you can learn both to stagger your harvest and to make your garden beds productive year-round. The investment in learning how to do this pays off for many years, no matter what time of year you start your planting season.