In the Garden:
New England
February, 2008
Regional Report

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My vegetable garden may be napping but I'm busy making plans for it.

Making a Seed-Starting Calendar

It takes a giant leap of faith (or a good sense of humor) to look outside at the heavy snowfall and think "This would be a good time to make my seed-starting calendar." But it is the perfect time. It takes planning to start seeds indoors at the right time so they'll be at the optimum size for transplanting when warm weather arrives.

Part of the reason for making a list and a schedule is so we don't inadvertently forget to start some seeds early enough or start others too early. The weeks fly by so fast that ... whoosh, suddenly it's the end of April and I'm wondering "Where did I put those packets of columbine seeds that I should have started weeks ago?" The other reason I like making a calendar is that it creates the illusion that I'm really organized and will have things under control this year, unlike last year.

Find Average Last Spring Frost Date
The first step is to find the average last spring frost date for your area. This is the date that determines your entire planting calendar. Tender crops like tomatoes and peppers are so susceptible to frost damage that unless you have some heavy-duty protection, such as a cold frame, it's safest to wait until after the last frost date to transplant these crops into the garden. Some gardeners prefer to wait a week or two after. On the other hand, crops that are more cold-hardy, like broccoli and cabbage, can be transplanted into the garden a couple of weeks before the last average frost date.

If you don't know the average last frost date in your area, ask a gardening friend, consult a nearby Cooperative Extension office or a local nursery, or search on the Internet (this site might help: http://www.savvygardener.com/Features/seed_starting_calendar.html).

Where I live in Vermont, our average last spring frost date is around May 15, but because of the mountains and Lake Champlain, there are different microclimates that can affect the "safe" planting date. Topography makes a difference. If I lived higher in the mountains, or in a river valley where cold tends to settle at night, I might wait another week or so. But my garden doesn't get the early and late frosts that plague some gardeners in my area. We can put in most crops -- except for the tender ones like tomatoes and peppers -- around mid-month, although it's sometimes easier to wait until the long Memorial Day weekend to plant the whole garden.

Find Number of Weeks to Transplant Size
Next, make a list of the flowers and veggies you want to start from seed indoors. If you have seed packets leftover from last year or have bought your 2008 seeds already, you have lots of information at your fingertips. For each type of seed, check how long the seedlings need to grow indoors to be ready for transplanting outside. Then note when it's safe to transplant them into the garden, such as two weeks before or after the last frost date. Write this information next to the plant names on your list.

In the absence of seed packets (in case you haven't bought all your seeds yet), consult a seed catalog or a seed-starting book or search the Internet for general guidelines. You may have to tweak the calendar dates after you purchase the seeds and read about their particular requirements.

One I have all my seeds, I group the packets according to this timetable and put all those that need to be sowed eight weeks before the last average frost date in one large envelope, those that need a six-week lead time in another envelope, and so on.

Put It All Together to Determine Sowing Dates
From here on, it all adds up. That is, if you can count backwards. Take broccoli, for example. You can set broccoli transplants into the garden two weeks before the last frost date. Starting from my last frost date of May 15, I count back two weeks to May 1 and make a note on that date: "transplant broccoli." Broccoli seeds need to be started about six weeks before transplanting. So I count back six weeks from May 1 and mark my broccoli seed-starting date on March 20.

Peppers are another example. They are susceptible to cold damage so they are best transplanted after the last frost date. I mark "transplant peppers" on May 30. Peppers take about eight weeks from sowing until they are ready for transplanting, so I count back eight weeks from May 30 and jot down "sow peppers" on April 4. Follow this routine with each crop you'll be starting indoors.

Your seed-starting schedule can be a great resource for future planning. If you save either the calendar or a list of what you planted and the sowing and transplant dates, it can guide you toward better timing next year.


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