Thinking Ahead About the Garden (When to do stuff!)

Christmas is just about here and our minds are all focused on celebrating the season with family and friends but soon after Christmas our gardens will be need attention.  In gardening the correct timing can mean the difference between a great harvest, OK harvest, or even no harvest. Let’s take a quick look at some upcoming things that you should keep in mind after the beginning of the year.  Please keep in mind that these gardening tasks are focused on our Zone 6b-7 garden in Tennessee and are based on a last frost date of April 15th.  You may need to adjust times up or down a few weeks to accommodate your garden’s zone.

What to do in January:

Add compost to your beds.  Your garden beds that is.  Make sure it is well aged compost and not too fresh. Animal manures that are too fresh will burn plants.
Continue to weed the garden as spring weeds like chickweed can get out of hand quickly.

When to Sow Snap Pea Seeds:

Sugar Snap Pea sprouting

Plant sugar snap peas in late-January and February because snap peas like the cold!  Snap peas are a favorite of our children.  So much so that they get eaten right out of the garden.  Plant them sequentially to have a longer sustained harvest.  Snap peas are a legume and fix nitrogen into the soil so plant them just ahead of a crop that needs nitrogen.

When to Sow Pepper and Eggplant Seeds:

Begin seed sowing summer crops of peppers and egg plant indoors about ten weeks before the last frost date (for us that would be around February 18th.  Eggplant and peppers tend to grow slower than tomatoes so I like to start them a couple weeks earlier.

For more information on seed sowing please check out the seed sowing series: Seed Sowing 101.

When to Sow Tomato Seeds:

Sow summer crops of tomatoes from seed about 8-10 weeks before the last frost date.  Here in Tennessee that puts us at the end of February.

When to Sow Kale, Spinach, or Chard Seeds:

Plant cool season crops of spinach, kale, or chard about 6 weeks before the last frost date.  These cool season vegetables are very tolerant of frost.  They can be planted at the beginning of March for TN but often they can be planted even earlier.  You can try using an old milk jog as a cloche to help them along.

When to Sow Lettuce Seeds:

Plant lettuce outside about 2-3 weeks before the last frost date. (Mid-March in zone 7)  You can start lettuce seeds indoors in biodegradable plant pots to get an earlier start as much as six weeks before the last frost date.

When to start squash and cucurbits:

Trombetta’ Climbing Squash

Squash and other cucurbits like cucumbers and melons usually are direct planted in the garden after the last frost date.  You can start them indoors in biodegradable planting pots about 2 weeks early.  Any earlier than that and you will have too much growth too fast.  I like to start them in succession so to sustain the harvest longer.

When to plant out tomatoes, peppers, and warm season crops:

Never plant outdoors until after the last frost date.  In fact it’s a very good idea to wait an additional two weeks to plant outdoors to allow the soil time to warm up.  You can speed that up a little by warming the soil with a layer of clear plastic a couple weeks before the last frost.  Then remove it and mulch well when planting.  Unless you have a frost protection layer above your garden (cold frame like structure, moveable greenhouse) do not plant warm season crops before the safe planting date.

When to Prune Shrubs and Trees

Ornamental Peach Blossom

The dormant season is a great time to prune many shrubs and trees.  Avoid pruning anything that blooms in the spring as you will remove flower buds and any potential fruit.  Plants that bloom later can be pruned now to achieve the proper structure.  Peach trees should be pruned into a cup or goblet type shape while apple and pear trees should be more of a cone or Chrsitmas tree shape.  When pruning always watch the direction of bud below your cut.  You want to encourage outward growth so prune with the bud pointing away from the center of the tree.  The NCSU coop has a great page of info on pruning fruit trees.

When to Mulch:

Pretty much anytime you feel like it!  A two inch layer of mulch does wonders for keep the moisture in the soil and protecting the plants.  Definitely try to get your mulch down before summer temperatures come along and dry out the soil in and around your garden.  I prefer organic mulches like hardwood, pine, leaves, or even grass clippings for some areas.  Organic mulches feed the soil and condition it for better growth.

Remember to think ahead to achieve the best results in your garden!