At this time last year, you may not have given any thought to planting calendars, prepping soil, or growing seasonal vegetables. But a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of at-home gardeners has spiked, and now that we’ve made it back to March, those looking to plant their first spring garden may have a lot of questions. Here’s what to know about how and when to plant a spring garden.
When should you plant a spring garden?
Spring officially starts later this month, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve missed your opportunity to plant a spring garden. In fact, the seasonal planting schedule largely depends on where you live, what you’re looking to grow, and whether you’ve prepped your soil sufficiently for a new crop, according to Jessica Woods, a gardener and editor/founder of the homesteading website Chickens+You.
“You can safely begin to plant from ‘last frost’, though many plants will happily grow through frost, so I advise that you check your last frost date and decide on what you would like to harvest—and enjoy on the dinner plate,” she tells Lifehacker. “I strongly advise preparing soil two to three weeks before you plan to plant your seeds. If you have not done this yet, you may need to plan for more summer-friendly veggies.”
In some areas, it’s recommended that you start growing seeds indoors, and then eventually move them outside once they’ll survive. One way to figure out what the best option is for your garden is by checking the USDA Hardiness Zone Map. According to master gardener and founder of Happy DIY Home Jen Stark, the USDA zones “determine the best time to start seeds indoors, when to transplant young plants outside, and when to directly sow seed into the ground.” For most of the United States, the best time to start spring crops is in March, Stark tells Lifehacker.
You can also use an online tool like this planting calculator from Gilmour, which allows users to enter their zip code and the plants they hope to grow, and produces a tailored planting calendar.
How to prepare the soil
Planting a spring garden takes some preparation—don’t expect to head outside one day and just start planting in a garden bed that has been untouched all winter. “Garden prep for spring should start with a thorough cleaning,” Angelo Randaci, master gardener and horticulture expert at Earth’s Ally tells Lifehacker. “Rake any debris left over from last fall and pull any weeds.”
Next, use a straight spade or shovel to dig eight to 10 inches into the ground. “Turn the soil over, so the topsoil is in the bottom of your plot,” Stark explains. “Break apart large clods of dirt until all of the soil has a similar size and consistency. At least three weeks before you plan on planting vegetables, turn the soil again so the topsoil is in the bottom of your plot.”
And while you may also be tempted to dig out all the existing roots left in the garden bed, Jake Thill, the director of marketing and sales strategy at Fruit Growers Supply Company, advises giving the roots a quick tug, and only removing the ones that come out easily. “Leftover roots will feed beneficial microbes which will keep the soil moist and aerated,” he tells Lifehacker.
It’s also a good idea to test the soil’s pH levels—something that can be done several different ways, including DIY methods and purchasing a pH meter. That’s a topic for another day, but in short, once you know your soil’s pH level, you can then make adjustments to ensure that it meets the needs of your plants. For example, you may need to add pH-raising materials like lime, or acidifying items like sulfur, according to Thill.
Once that part is done, it’s time to add organic matter in the form of compost and aged manure, Jill Sandy, a gardener, and the founder of Constant Delights tells Lifehacker. “You can also use mulch or green manures as they’re more natural and arehelp prepare soil for planting exceptionally,” she adds.
Make a plan for your garden
Now that your garden bed is cleaned and your soil is prepared, it’s time to plot your plot. “First of all, decide what you want to plant and make a list,” Randaci explains. “It is not too late to start seeds, so you can include them on your list. Plants for early spring include kale, radishes, spring onions, arugula, and spinach. Be sure to follow recommendations on the seed packet.”
If you’ve waited too long to plant a spring garden using seeds—or don’t necessarily want to deal with them—you can always purchase starter plants from your local garden center, which Randaci says will save you a step and give you a jump on the season. “I love growing from seed, but I will often find plants that look absolutely gorgeous in the nursery and take them home to my garden,” Woods adds.
Map it out
Once you have a plan, it’s time to map out your garden on a piece of paper, according to Joseph Marini, a gardening expert and host of the “At Home With Joseph” webinar series on Aspire Design and Home. Here’s how he explained this process to Lifehacker:
Using a quarter, dime and penny draw circles to represent plants in your plot. Stagger your plantings so that you have a full display of flowers and foliage from spring through fall, and even some items which would provide winter interest such as tall grasses. Provide enough space for your perennials to thicken up and expand for a few years before needing to divide them. You can intersperse seeds, bulbs and annuals in between young perennials to keep the garden looking full.
When I plant a new bed, I vary the size pots of plants that I buy so that the garden doesn’t look un-developed. [For] some perennials, I will buy larger-sized pots to have more mature-looking plants, and others I will start with small starter plants that tend to grow more vigorously.
Factor in sun and shade
According to Marini, the most important thing to consider when figuring out where to plant your garden is how much sun or shade a particular area gets. “Since trees still do not have leaves on them yet, a spot in your yard may look like a perfect sunny location only to find out as larger trees above fill in with growth it becomes shaded in two months’ time,” he explains.
That means that your sun-loving plants will have to be moved. “Unless you are planting a shade garden, most perennials, annuals and vegetables need six to eight hours of sun daily, whether direct sun or slightly dappled sun,” he explains.
What are the best plants for a spring garden?
Again, this depends on your location and when you actually get started on the garden, but some plants are heartier than others when it comes to the fickle weather of early spring. Also, keep in mind that some traditional spring flowers—like tulips, daffodils and hyacinths—come from bulbs that were planted the previous fall. So if you’re just starting out now, you’ll have to wait until next year for those.
But there is still plenty to plant now for your spring garden. According to the gardening experts we interviewed, this includes:
- Collard greens
- Mustard greens
- Swiss Chard
- Some herbs (parsley, sage, rosemary, mint oregano)
- Cranesbills (aka Hardy Geraniums)
- Winter aconite
- Amelanchier lamarckii (aka juneberry or serviceberry)
- Bleeding hearts
- Clematis Montana
- Wildflowers native to your area
Finally, remember that gardening is a trial-and-error process—especially when you’re a beginner. You probably won’t end up with the luscious garden of your dreams on your very first try, but keep in mind that the act of gardening itself can reduce stress, so the benefits you reap may not come exclusively in fresh produce.