By Contributing Editor Nancy Hulse

Each year there’s increasing interest in growing our own food, even if the available space consists of containers on the patio or plants tucked in with the landscaping. In our part of the country, hints of spring begin even in February. And gifted with a sunny day or two, all of the winter plans we’ve made while poring through this season’s seed catalogs beg for our attention. But whether you’re a novice or an experienced gardener, there are some basics to remember as we anticipate planting those first seeds, or setting out the early plants.
When to start
Unless you’re fortunate enough to live in a temperate zone, the date of the average last frost needs to be marked in red on your calendar. All of your garden planning starts from this date. If you’re new to gardening, or perhaps have moved to a new area, there are many places to find this information. One of the best I’ve found is at Victory Seeds. Victory Seeds.
Victory Seeds specializes in open-pollinated and heirloom seeds, and they have a wealth of information on their site. Their chart of dates for the last frost lists major cities in every state, so you should be able to come pretty close for your area.
Remember that the date of the last frost is an average, so 50% of the time you could be watching the temperature drop below freezing for a week or so after the date listed. Of course, you could also enjoy the last frosty day a week or so earlier, and the gardener’s optimism is another thing that blooms anew each spring.
Sowing directly in the garden.
When you plan your planting schedule, you’ll want to start with the most cold-hardy plants first, and wait until the soil warms a bit for others. The chart below comes from the University of Colorado Extension Service. As you can see, there are many cold-hardy plants that can go into the ground as much as six weeks before the date of the last frost, as soon as you can work the ground. Others need a warmer soil temperature (not air temperature) to germinate. If you push the season, they’ll just sulk along till their needs are met, or not germinate at all.

Cold tolerance can vary even within different cultivars of the same plant, so always check the growing instructions provided by the seed manufacturer. However the following table will give you a general guideline for soil temperatures needed for sucessful germination for most garden vegetables.

Armed with these charts and information, you’re well on your way to growing a successful garden. Start with the cold-hardiest crops, and keep an eye (or ear) on the weather to ensure your plants don’t succumb to a late spring cold snap.