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Can I Plant My Tomatoes Yet? – Spring Planting Guide for Tender Crops

Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
Published: May 12, 2022
planting-guide-flickr
Planting tomatoes can be tricky timing if you live in a cool climate; but a few spring planting guidelines will get you well on your way to a bumper crop this year. (Image: Manjith Kainickara via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

Tomatoes and other warm-weather plants always pose a quandary for those of us in cool climates. If you plant them too soon, you run the risk of subjecting them to a killing frost; yet everyone wants to get their gardens started sooner rather than later, as the thought of fresh, home-grown produce brings on impatience. Our spring planting guide and some tips for season extension will help you make these important decisions. 

Soil temperature 

Every plant has its optimum growing temperature, and every area has a last expected frost date. Putting them together will help inform your planting plans.


Crop
Best
soil temp
Zone 3  Average
last frost
5/31
Zone 4
Average
last frost
5/15
Zone 5 Average
last frost
4/30
Zone 6 Average
last frost
4/15
Zone 7 
Average
last frost
4/1
Tomatoes/
Basil
60° F Start indoors, plant out
June 15
Start indoors plant out 
May 31
Start indoors, plant out
May 15
Start indoors plant out
April 30
Start indoors plant out
April 15
Melons
Cucumber
Squash
70° FStart indoors, plant out
June 15
Start indoors plant out 
May 31
Start indoors, plant out
May 15
Start indoors plant out
April 30
Start indoors plant out
April 15
Beans55° FDirect sow
May 31
Direct sow May 15Direct sow April 30Direct sow April 15Direct sow April 1
Okra  65° F Direct sow after June 15Direct sow after June 1Direct sow after May 15Direct sow after May 1Direct sow after April 15
Peppers65° F Start indoors, plant out
June 15 
Start indoors plant out
June 1
Start indoors plant out
May 15
Start indoors plant out
May 1
Start indoors plant out
April 15
Sweet
potatoes
65° F Season too shortSeason too shortPlant slips June 15Plant slips June 1Plant slips May 15
Planting guide for warm season crops, zones 3-7. (Image: Ila Bonczek/Vision Times)

This chart provides a guide, but you will still want to keep an eye on the weather. The frost dates are average, and could vary by a week or two. If there is unexpected cold weather after you have planted out your tender crops, you can save them by covering them up. Each layer of material can gain you 5 to 10 degrees.

Floating row cover like Reemay is the best for 24 hour coverage. It is light and breathable, but does provide protection. Doubling up with floating row cover is safe any time. If you are only covering at night you can use something thicker; but remember to take it off when the sun comes out so your plants don’t roast. 

Floating row covers can create a greenhouse effect to protect your tender plants and even extend your season. (Image: Plant pests and diseases via Flickr Public Domain)

That said, you can also use coverage to warm your soil and get things started a week or two early. Setting up small “tunnel rows” will give you a greenhouse effect, enabling you to safely get your plants off to an early start. 

Planting tips

Plant your tomatoes deep – they will grow roots from any stem that is submerged, enabling them to collect more water and nutrients from the soil. Don’t worry about the top – it will grow like crazy.  Keep them moist, especially when they are setting fruit. Too much water after a dry spell will cause the tomatoes to crack.

Direct sown crops like beans and okra are easy targets for chipmunks and other nibblers. To protect them until they are no longer tender morsels, use a row cover, or place some fencing over top. Once the stems are fairly sturdy they will be less of a temptation.

Squirrels like to dig, and will remove little plants even if they are not interested in them. To keep them intact, place some one- or two-pound rocks around each seedling until they are big enough to stand up to some digging. (Image: Ila Bonczek/Vision Times)

Sweet potatoes go in the ground when it is already hot. Be sure to plant the slips vertically so the roots are deep and away from the drying sun. Water them promptly if they appear to be wilting. 

Cucumbers, melons and squash can be protected from untimely frost by placing an empty pot over individual plants overnight. Depending on the size of your tomatoes and peppers, you can also cover them with a container or wrap them in a blanket. 

To keep seedlings from getting dug up by squirrels—ever in search of a nut—place decent sized rocks around the base of each plant. When they have grown enough to establish a strong root system, you can move your rocks to the next babies.

If you fail, don’t give up. Gardening is a lot of trial and error; observing and mimicking nature; and very much dependent on the weather. No year is ever quite the same, so be grateful for what you get and chalk the rest up to experience.

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