With our erratic springs—70 one day, 30 the next—it’s often a challenge to figure out when to plant your vegetables or ornamental plants. Most experienced gardeners use a variety of ways to determine when to plant their crops. Here are three we’ve tried:

By Frost Free Dates. Most seed packets will include a recommended seed sowing time based on your area’s last frost date or its frost-free dates. This is the date after which the odds of getting frost are extremely low. In most of central Minnesota, for example, the last frost date is usually around May 10, but we aren’t completely out of danger until the end of May — this is one reason many gardeners do not plant tomato plants outside until early June. This post from a few years ago gives a lot more detail about frost-free dates and the vegetable garden. Frost free dates give you a general idea of when to plant safely. So, lettuce seeds and starts can be planted a couple of weeks before the last frost, but tomatoes and peppers should wait until a couple of weeks after.

lettuce seedlings

These greens were started indoors and are just about ready to be planted in the garden.

Soil thermometer

45.3 degrees? Still a bit chilly for seed starting.

By Soil Temperature. A more precise way of deciding when to plant is by taking the soil’s temperature. Seeds for cool-season crops, such as lettuce, will germinate at temperatures as low as 40 degrees F. But — and this is an important but — they won’t germinate very fast, so it’s a good idea to wait until the soil temperature is over 50 or even 60 degrees to sow lettuce outdoors as seed. (Lettuce won’t germinate after 85 degrees, so don’t go crazy heating up the soil!) Many experienced gardeners sow their lettuce and other cool season crops under lights indoors (or in a cold frame) then transplant them outside once they have a few leaves and are growing. At that point, the cool soil is not an issue. To take the soil’s temperature, you can buy a special soil thermometer, but you can also use a meat thermometer to check temperature.

By Nature Signs. Mother Nature has been at this a lot longer than the rest of us, and some gardeners have taken to watching nature signs to determine the best time to plant. Phenology, as this study is called, looks at the timing of different events in nature and matches it with garden chores. Traditional advice includes things like plant lettuce, spinach, beets and other cool season crops when the lilac leaves come out and when barn swallows return set out your basil and tomatoes. This advice was often developed in more moderate climates than ours, so it’s not 100 percent. To find out more about phenology and participate in this fascinating work, check out the Minnesota Phenology Network website.

For more information on vegetable gardening, sign up for one of the free webinars being offered this spring by MSHS.

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