How to get an early start on your vegetable garden

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chili pepper seedling

The coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted demand on some products like oil and natural gas and positively impacted demand on others like recreational vehicles, boats, camping equipment, kayaks, gardening supplies and even garden seeds. Stuck at home, everyone is looking for new hobbies and can’t seem to get enough of the great outdoors — at least for now.

Last spring the increased demand had seed suppliers scrambling to meet consumers’ needs. Incidentally, demand hasn’t slowed down as seed starting season begins. Some sellers are already posting “out of stock” stickers on the most popular seed varieties on their websites. Other companies have been forced to take a timeout, closing their websites to new orders until they can fill the ones they’ve already received or limiting home gardeners to certain days of the week to place orders. Even large suppliers who sell on Amazon are seeing the effects. Although they may still be filling orders, prices have been trending upward. The best selling variety seed pack cost $6.99 for an assortment of 40 different fruit and vegetable seed packets on Jan. 6 and jumped to a current price of $27.99. The average price for the same seed pack last spring hovered around $30.

It’s still a bit early to start seeds indoors, but it’s not too early to start planning ahead, especially if you have preferred vegetable varieties or like to buy from a specific seed supplier.

When to start seeds indoors

The timing to start seeds indoors varies from vegetable to vegetable. Some vegetables need more time to grow before being transplanted outdoors, while others require less time. Some vegetables can’t be planted outdoors until a couple of weeks after the frost-free date in your area, while others can be transplanted weeks before.

Regardless of what you plan to grow, figuring out the right time to start your seeds indoors begins with determining the date of the last spring frost in your area. You can approximate this date using The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s Frost Date Calculator.

Once you know your frost date you can figure out when to plant different vegetables based on when each can be planted outdoors and the number of weeks it takes a seedling to grow before being set outdoors.

Common fruits and vegetables

Beets and Broccoli – can be planted outside 2 weeks before the frost date and require 4-6 weeks to grow seedlings indoors, so they should be started 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost date.

Cabbage – can be planted outside 4 weeks before the last frost and require 4-6 weeks to grow seedlings indoors, so seedlings should be started 8-10 weeks before the last spring frost date.

Cauliflower – can be planted outside 2 weeks before the last frost and require 4-6 weeks to grow seedlings indoors, so it should be started 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost date.

Celery – should be planted outside one week after the last frost date and require 10-12 weeks to grow seedlings indoors, so it should be started 9-11 weeks before the last frost.

Corn – can be planted outside from the last frost date two week weeks after and require 2-4 weeks to grow seedlings. Start corn indoors 2-6 weeks before last frost.

Cucumber – should be planted 1-2 weeks after the last frost date and requires 3-4 weeks to grow seedlings indoors. Cucumbers should be started indoors about 2 weeks before the last frost.

Eggplant – should be planted outdoors 2-3 weeks after the final frost and requires 8-10 weeks to grow seedlings. Start eggplant indoors 6-7 weeks before last frost date.

Leeks – can be planted outside 2 weeks before the last frost date and require 8-10 weeks to grow seedlings. Start seedlings indoors 10-12 weeks before final frost date.

Lettuce – can be planted outdoors 3-4 weeks before final frost date and require 4-5 weeks to grow seedlings. Start lettuce indoors 7-9 weeks before final frost date.

Melons – should be planted outdoors 2 weeks after last frost and require 3-4 weeks to grow seedlings. Start seedlings 1-3 weeks before last frost.

Onions – can be planted outdoors 4 weeks before final frost and require 8-10 weeks to grow seedlings. Start seeds indoors 12-14 weeks before final frost.

Peas – can be planted outdoors 6-8 weeks before final frost and require 3-4 weeks to grow seedlings. Start peas indoors 9-12 weeks before last frost.

Peppers – should be planted outdoors 2 weeks after final frost and require 8 weeks to grow seedlings. Start seedlings indoors 6 weeks before final frost.

Pumpkins – should be planted 2 weeks after last frost and require 3-4 weeks to grow seedlings. Start pumpkins indoors 1-2 weeks before last frost date.

Spinach – can be planted outdoors 3 to 6 weeks before last frost and requires 4-6 weeks to grow seedlings indoors. Start spinach indoors 7-12 weeks before final frost date.

Squash – should be planted outdoors 2 weeks after last frost date and requires 3-4 weeks to grow seedlings. Start squash indoors 1-2 weeks before final frost date.

Tomatoes – should be planted outdoors 1-2 weeks after last frost date and requires 6-8 weeks to grow seedlings. Start tomatoes indoors 5-6 weeks before last frost date.

Watermelon – should be planted outdoors 2 weeks after last frost date and requires 3-4 weeks to grow seedlings. Start watermelon indoors 1-2 weeks before last frost date.

Preparing to plant seedlings outdoors

Once you’ve ordered your seeds and supplies to start them indoors, you’ll need to start thinking about your outdoor garden. Whether you have containers, raised beds, a dedicated plot or you’re starting from scratch, the best place to start is the soil.

Savvy gardeners who planned ahead probably planted a cover crop late last summer to boost the nutritional value of their soil for spring gardening. If that’s not you, no worries. You can determine the needs of your soil by collecting a sample and having a soil test done by your local soil and water conservation district. A soil test will give you an idea of which nutrients are lacking, so you can choose an ideal fertilizer for your needs. You might also consider adding a layer of compost to be worked into your garden soil before planting to help your seedlings take hold when it’s time to transplant them outdoors.

After you’ve prepped your garden for planting, the next step is considering crop rotation and companion planting to optimize plant growth after your seedlings have been planted outdoors. Simply put, you shouldn’t be planting the same vegetable varieties in the same spots year after year and some plants grow better when they are grouped together.

Crop rotation. Rotating where in your garden different varieties of fruits and vegetables are planted helps maintain healthy soil, improves yields and combats pests from one year to the next. The basic idea of crop rotation is to alternate the area of your garden where plants from the same family grew the year before. For example, eggplant, peppers, potato and tomato are all members of the nightshade family, so don’t plant any of these vegetables where any member of the nightshade family grew the year before. Another example of good crop rotation would be planting members of the pea family anywhere members of the mustard family grew the year before to replenish the spent soil. You can find more information on crop rotation by reading our home gardener’s guide to crop rotation and plant families by reading our guide to vegetable classification and cultivation.

Companion planting. Companion planting is a strategy where certain plants are placed near each other to improved growth, flavor and provide pest control. It is also a technique used to separate members of the same plant family to prevent the spread of pests and diseases. You can find tips on companion planting by reading our beginner’s guide.

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Sara is Farm and Dairy’s online content producer. Raised in Portage County, Ohio, she earned a magazine journalism degree from Kent State University. She enjoys spending time with her daughter, traveling, writing, reading and outdoor recreation.

1 COMMENT

  1. I’m here in Southeastern Wisconsin, and I’ve already had a difficult time getting my hands on the usual seeds that my wife and I use. I thought I was getting an earlier start than others but maybe not. Thanks for helpful resources on when to plant certain items!

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