One of the most common questions I get as I work with gardeners all over the Kansas City area is: “When do I plant this?” The questions usually come from gardeners who are wanting to plant summer crops too early or those who are wanting to plant spring crops too late. If your timing is off, you garden may not be as bountiful as it could be.
Early Spring Crops
Crops such as lettuce, spinach, peas, radishes, onions, and potatoes need cooler weather to grow to their highest potential. Spinach is one of the most cold tolerant crops there are, and with a little protection you can plant it in late fall or even in January to get an amazing crop that can be harvested multiple times in the spring before hot weather arrives and the plant bolts (starts to produce flowers and seeds). Using fabric row covers or double tunnels of heavy greenhouse film are the keys to over-wintering spinach or starting it early. If you don’t plan on protecting spinach seeds, then plan for the first week of March to get your seeds in the ground.
The first week of March is the point where our daylight length is getting long enough and the temperatures don’t usually drop to extreme lows like they do in January and February. Plants started this early will need some protection in the form of a fabric low tunnel to keep them from being battered by March winds, keep the hungry squirrels and birds away, and to modify the temperature swings we have during this time of year. Sow radish, carrot, beet, and pea seeds, lettuce transplants, onion sets or plants, kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes and others can all be planted during the first two weeks of March. If you wait until later in the spring to plant these cool weather loving crops, there may not be enough time for them to grow to maturity. Also, plants grown in cooler weather tend to have more flavor and be more tender than those grown in the warmer months of April and May.
Early Summer Crops
I know that when we have those warm days in March and early April it is so tempting to get into the garden and get a head start on growing summer crops like tomato, pepper, squash, cucumber, and other warm weather loving plants. I used to be an impatient gardener as well and had much heartbreak over the years when my plants didn’t grow, grew a while and died, or got some nasty diseases in the cool wet months of early spring. The biggest heartbreaks were when an April frost or freeze killed all of the plants I had worked so hard to grow. It took a few years to figure it out, but I now am fully convinced that it is better to spend the month of April getting the garden and yard ready instead of trying to plant pretty much anything during this month. I spend my time making new garden beds, top-dressing existing beds with compost, cutting away trees that may shade my gardens, and doing other chores to make my garden ready for May. I also spend April enjoying those delicious salad crops I planted back in early March.
Most years here in Kansas City, the first full week of May is the time to get those plants and seeds of summer crops in the ground. May usually brings consistent daytime highs in the 70’s and low 80’s with night time temperatures only dipping to the 50’s and low 60’s. By the time the soil has warmed, I’m completely ready to get my tomato, pepper, and cucumber plants in the soil. I’m also ready to sow the seeds of squashes, beans, melons, and other warm weather loving plants. Once those plants or seeds spend some time in that toasty warm soil, they’ll respond by growing deep roots and sturdy stems so they’ll be primed and ready to grow tall in June and start bearing fruit in July. Mulch them well to keep weeds at bay and hold moisture in your soil and you will have much less trouble all season long.
Mid- Summer Crops
By the end of May, our weather tends to warm up much more as we approach summer. Those early March, cool season crops are about to end their life cycle and be ready to leave your gardens. In their place it’s time to plant the heat loving plants of sweet potatoes, okra, corn, and more beans if you like. As soon as you remove those salad crops, add some more compost, and toss in sweet potato slips or the seeds of summer vegetables. They’ll germinate and grow quickly and provide you with a lot of harvests all summer and into the early fall.
Late-Summer and Early Fall
In September as your summer plants wind down their production or die from disease or bug infestations, all is not done in the garden. Remove those unproductive or dying plants and start sowing seeds of radishes, beets, turnips, carrots, and lettuce in their place. The tall surrounding plants will provide some cool shade on those Indian summer days and you will have fall salads well into October or possibly into early winter if you use row covers to protect them.