How Early is Too Early to Plant?

With the unseasonably warm spring, it is even more tempting than usual to plant some of our summer vegetables early. With the memory of last summer still fresh, most tomato gardeners are looking for a way to get their tomatoes going soon so they can get a good crop even if the summer turns hot and nasty again. (More on that later this week!)

How do we decide if we should plant early or wait until the usual planting time? Is it okay to plant some things early, but not others?

I think it is important to remember that however warm it is on a given day or week in the early spring, that doesn’t prevent a cold snap before the beginning of May. Thinking back to 2007, many parts of the country experienced a warm, early spring followed by a swift dip down to well-below-freezing temperatures. We certainly do not want to set our vegetable gardens up for failure by planting too early.

In the Demo Garden, we really are not presented with this question this year, as we will not have all the raised beds and soil in place and ready to go before sometime in May.

My thought on planting early is that in a spring like we have been having so far, it would be crazy not to take a little risk and try planting earlier for some crops. What I plan to do in my community garden plot is to plant my tomatoes around mid-April rather than wait for May 1st. However, I am not just going to blindly go out and plant on April 15th! Conditions have to be right.

First, the long-term forecast for the 2 weeks between April 15th and May 1st should look nice and warm. If there is even a chance that it is going to get below 35-40 degrees one night, I would rather wait to plant. The other key factor is that I want the soil temperature to be nice and warm. As of this writing, the soil temperature was measured at 57-60 degrees on March 20th! However, with cooler temperatures and rain, that can drop. Tomatoes need at least a 55 degree soil temperature to thrive. Right now it is looking good, but I want to make sure it stays that way. The last thing is that I need to be prepared to provide some protection for those tomato plants if temperatures do dip down into the 30s.

How about other vegetables? Theoretically, when the soil temperatures reach 60 degrees peppers, eggplant, squash, melons, okra, and most other warm season vegetables can be planted. These vegetables really love the heat, so I will tend to wait to plant most of them until closer to May 1st. Likely it will not get cold enough to severely damage them, but they will grow better when the weather is consistently warm. Again, you can take a chance and plant earlier, just be prepared to provide some protection and replant if necessary.

I have some thoughts about the summer long-term forecast that I’ll share later this week. Stay tuned!

About Rebecca

I'm a Horticulture Educator with Sedgwick County Extension, a branch of K-State Research and Extension, located in Wichita, KS. I teach about fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

Posted on March 26, 2012, in Around the Garden and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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