If you grew up in the US or Canada in the 1970s, and were a fan of comic books, you may remember Sea Monkeys. Many kids parted with a buck and a quarter (plus 50 cents postage, and, if they were truly eager, another 50 cents for rush delivery) in response to an ad featuring images of a charming family of aquatic dwellers who were “so eager to please — they can even be ‘trained.’”
The fine print noted that the cartoon drawing of the so-called Sea Monkeys was not intended to be a realistic depiction of the actual creatures, aquatic crustaceans known as brine shrimp (genus Artemia). Tens of thousands of kids, enchanted by the promises of tiny humanoid pets who “do comical tricks and stunts” and “even seem to dance when you play a record or tape,” ignored the warning and spent their hard-earned paper route or babysitting money on a tiny packet of eggs, salt, and growth medium that produced tiny shrimp with no discernible charm and disappointingly short lifespans.
You know what’s pretty much the exact opposite of buying brine shrimp? Getting a packet of vegetable seeds from a reputable source. Instead of a letdown, you experience the wonder of plant growth. And you can end up with your very own homegrown produce, far fresher, tastier, and healthier than anything you can find in a grocery store.
If you’ve never experienced the miracle of turning seeds into food, it can be way easier and far more satisfying than you might think. If you’re new to gardening, spring crops can be a great place to start — as some of the easiest, most resilient, and quickest growing veggies are what you plant in the spring. And there’s no better time to plan your spring garden than in the depths of winter, drooling over a beautifully illustrated or photographed seed catalog.
In this article, I’ll share what you need to get started choosing seeds for your spring vegetable garden, at whatever scale works for you.
Why Grow Your Own Spring Vegetables?
There are so many great reasons to grow a garden, in addition to the physical and emotional benefits of the act of gardening itself. For one thing, when you grow your own vegetables, you’re going to eat food that’s in season, which tends to be a healthy way to eat. I mean, if you’re serious about eating with the seasons, you’re going to focus on fresh fruits and vegetables. When was the last time somebody wondered, “Hey, is it Oreo season right now, or should I go with the Mint Milanos?”
Seasonal food is more environmentally friendly, and even more so when it’s local as well. Locally grown foods require less energy to transport and arrive fresher on your plate. Plus, local varieties can be more nutritious and tastier than commercial ones, since they don’t have to sacrifice quality for durability in transport. And it doesn’t get any more local than food you grow yourself.
During the bleak, gray days of winter, it can be hard to imagine a lush and verdant spring garden. For many would-be gardeners, the longer, warmer days come as a bit of a surprise, so they have to hustle to the garden center in search of the few remaining seed packets and growing supplies.
All of which is to say that winter is a great time to plan and get ready to plant vegetables for the spring season.
Using a Planting Calendar for Your Spring Garden
When you start thinking about what to plant for spring, let your imagination go wild. Picture those colorful carrots, redolent radishes, and plump peas. (If this is how you actually think, you may want to check out Alliterators Anonymous.)
When it comes down to making plans, a planting calendar can be your best friend. Specific to your region, planting calendars can help you figure out what will grow in your spring garden, when to plant your vegetables, and whether to start seeds indoors or directly in the garden bed. You can find out more about planting calendars, and where to find them (and how to build your own over time) here.
Hardiness Zones and Frost Dates
The first thing to figure out is your hardiness zone, which is based on the average extreme low temperature in your region. In the US, the Department of Agriculture has identified 26 distinct hardiness zones, ranging from 1a, where the lows typically reach -60℉ (basically, only in part of Alaska), to 13b, where it rarely dips below 65℉ (that’s in coastal areas of Puerto Rico). The rest of the landmass is somewhere in between. California’s hardiness zones are in the 8s and 9s, while the mid-Atlantic states range from 4s to 6s. You can find your exact zone on the USDA website.
If you live outside the US, here’s a handy reference to find your hardiness zone.
Once you know your zone, and have come to terms with the sad fact that you probably won’t be growing mangoes in Murmansk or bananas in Bangor (“Hello, is this the prevention of excessive alliteration hotline? I have an article to report”), the next thing to figure out is the last frost date, if applicable.
To be clear, this is a concern only for folks gardening in zones 1–10, as the average extreme low temperature in zone 11 is above freezing. But if you do get frost, it’s crucial to know when the risk of freezing temperatures has passed, so your tender baby plants don’t get damaged or killed by a late spring chilly spell. You will also want to know the first frost date, by when the crops that can’t withstand freezing (tomatoes and summer squash, for example) must be harvested.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration both have resources to help you figure out frost dates. A cautionary note: with climate change, these dates are no longer as predictable as they once were. At this point, frosts appear to be ending earlier in the year, at least in the US. You might think this is a good thing for farmers and gardeners, but the change is likely to be disruptive to at least some crops, as the pests that eat them may also be changing their patterns of birth, development, and feeding.
If all this seems convoluted or confusing, there’s a handy cheat available: seed packet labels often share some or all of the most critical information. As long as you know your hardiness zone and, if applicable, your last and first frost dates, you can begin planning your spring planting strategy and schedule.
How to Decide What to Plant for Spring
OK, time to get specific. There are hundreds of different spring vegetables and herbs to choose from (here’s an article about some of our favorites from a taste and health perspective), and often dozens of varieties of common crops like carrots and cucumbers. If you don’t have unlimited garden space, or unlimited time and energy to garden, you’ll have to prioritize what to plant.
What Grows in Spring Near You
First, consider what’s even possible to grow where you live. If your growing season from first to last frost is 110 days, and the melon you want to grow takes 130 days to reach maturity, chances are you’ll never get to taste it no matter when you start it. Also, research the soil, sun, and water requirements of any seeds you’re considering. If your garden gets just six hours of sun during the spring, or you’ll need to schlep water in a watering can because there’s no convenient hose, you’ll have to let go of some possibilities.
You can find all these requirements, including the time from planting to first harvest, on just about every seed packet, and online on the seed company’s web page for the seed in question.
What Spring Vegetables Do You Like?
Next, think about what you and your family like to eat. Choose some favorites that you know will be anticipated with animation and gobbled up with gusto. I know from experience that gardeners can take it personally when their produce is rejected (“For all that is good and holy, I can NOT swallow one more bite of zucchini!”).
Avoiding Glyphosate Exposure
Also, you may want to pay attention to the Environmental Working Group’s annual update to their “Dirty Dozen” (the non-organic fruits and veggies that contain the most pesticides) and “Clean 15” (those that contain the least) lists. If you can grow a “Dirty Dozen” crop organically, then you don’t need to buy it from the store or pay a premium for the organic version.
Save Money By Planting Spring Vegetables
Speaking of money, if you want to get the most economic return on your investment of money and time, consider which crops you like that are the most expensive to buy. For example, carrots and potatoes typically cost less per pound than greens, especially organic “gourmet” varieties like radicchio, arugula, and baby cucumber. Also take into account how many pounds you’re likely to want. Carrots and potatoes will store better and last longer than greens and fruiting crops such as peas and cucumbers.
If you’re looking to take your gardening game to the next level, you may also consider companion planting — that is, putting plants that complement and support each other together in the same garden bed. Lettuce and carrots go well together since they don’t really compete for space, with the carrots focused on underground and the lettuce shooting skyward. Asparagus, which repels little critters called nematodes, helps herbs like dill and parsley stay strong and pest-free. And onions and garlic are famous for repelling pests, thanks to their high sulfur content, which makes them smell awful to many bugs.
Choosing Spring Seeds
For a detailed and in-depth discussion of all things seeds, including the differences between open-pollinated, hybrid, and GMO seeds, and when and whether it matters if the seeds are organic, check out our article on how to choose garden seeds.
Best Vegetables (& Herbs) to Plant in Spring
Time to get more specific. Here’s a short list of some of the most popular vegetables to plant in spring, along with key details to help you figure out if they’ll grow in your garden. Click the name of each plant to find out more detailed planting and care instructions.
Artichoke: This is actually a perennial, which means you just plant it once, and it continues to provide a harvest for years. Related to the thistle, which always reminds me of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, artichokes are ready to harvest in summer. They prefer slightly acidic to neutral soil, and require full sun. They’re also beautiful, with spiky purple flowers waving alluringly to pollinators. Grows in zones 4–11.
Arugula: This spicy green, also known as rocket, can be harvested from spring through fall. Arugula likes slightly acidic to neutral soil, and prefers full sun but can make do with partial sun. Grows in zones 3–11.
Asparagus: Like artichoke, asparagus is also a perennial. Plan ahead, because it usually takes two to three seasons after planting for you to take your first modest harvest. But the effort is worth it; you’ll get tasty shoots for years to come. Asparagus needs full sun, and can tolerate a pretty wide range of pH, from mildly acidic to mildly alkaline. Grows in zones 4–9.
Broccoli: This cruciferous favorite comes in many forms, from the familiar tree shape to varieties that are all about the leaves rather than heads. Give it full sun and slightly acidic to neutral soil. Grows in zones 3–10.
Carrots: These underground treasure stores of sweetness and nutrition also come in dozens of varieties to suit any taste, depth of garden bed, and even color preference. They thrive in full sun and neutral soil. Grows in zones 3–10, and can remain in the ground even after the first frost in many cases.
Cilantro: This herb, the leafy form of the coriander berry spice, will start providing flavor to your dips and salads starting in mid-spring. It needs part to full sun, and prefers slightly acidic soil. (Potentially important note: A portion of the population, of which I am a reluctant member, finds the taste of cilantro hideous. Those of us thus-afflicted can’t imagine why anyone in their right mind would knowingly add this flavor to their food. Thankfully for cilantro-fans, we are in the minority.) Grows in zones 2–11.
Cucumbers: Different varieties are good for different uses, including pickling. Make sure you have an ample supply of water, as these fruits are basically water balloons made of edible fiber. These plants like full sun and slightly acidic to neutral soil. Grows in zones 4–11.
Dill: Speaking of pickles, dill is a classic flavoring for pickled cucumbers. This herb, which does double duty in the garden as a butterfly attractor as well as a delicious plant, likes full sun and slightly acidic to neutral soil. Grows in zones 2–9.
Lettuce: Unlike many other spring crops, lettuce is bothered almost as much by heat as by cold. In warm climates, partial shade can keep the plant from bolting (a gardener’s term for going to seed, which makes the leaves bitter). There are many varieties, all with slightly different needs, so check the seed packet for the ones you’re planting. In general, lettuces prefer partial to full sun and slightly acidic to neutral soil. Grows in zones 4–9.
Mustard Greens: This dark leafy green packs a powerful punch as part of the cruciferous family of vegetables. An annual, mustard grows well in the US South, but has a broad tolerance with zones 6–11. Both curly and smooth leaf varieties are available with the latter being more tolerant to warm weather. Mustard likes full sun and will be ready to harvest in 4–6 weeks.
Parsley: This herb can fool inexperienced gardeners because it’s neither an annual (needing to be replanted every year) nor a perennial. Instead, it’s a biennial, which means it lives for two years and then dies. Parsley is best when harvested during the first year, as its leaves can get tough and bitter in the second year. But just when you think all is lost, in the third year (in temperate zones) you might find new parsley seedlings growing without you having to plant them. Magic! This herb likes partial to full sun and slightly acidic to neutral soil. Grows in zones 2–11.
Peas: Aka “nature’s candy,” these adorable green balls of goodness are often the first thing gardeners plant in spring, typically on Saint Patrick’s Day. Unlike most other spring crops, peas can handle the last frost, and even some late-season snows. They like partial to full sun and slightly acidic to neutral soil that drains well. Grows in zones 3–11.
Potatoes: These fabulously tasty and nutritious tubers can get planted as soon as the soil is soft enough to work. If you’ve never experienced the abundant feeling of burying a small piece of potato with a bit of green sprig growing from it, and in 70–90 days digging up a small mountain of spuds, you’re in for a treat! And with over 100 varieties to choose from, you’ll never be bored of the taste. Potatoes require full sun and acidic soil. Grows in zones 1–7, and, if you’ve seen the movie The Martian, apparently on Mars as well.
Radishes: These spicy roots are easy to grow. Because they grow so fast, they can be one of the first spring veggies to make it to your table, and you can plant and harvest several crops in a single growing season. They like full sun and neutral soil. Grows in zones 2–10.
Scallions: Also known as spring onions and green onions, scallions are mild-mannered members of the allium family that will not make you cry when you cut them. For early spring scallions, plant in late fall or even early winter. They need full sun and slightly acidic to neutral soil that drains very well. Grows in zones 6–9.
Spinach: This hardy member of the super-healthy cruciferous family can teach other leafy greens a thing or two about thriving in cold weather. You can plant spinach not only in early spring, but even (in many climates) in late fall and winter. It prefers full sun and neutral soil. Grows in zones 2–9.
To Start or Not to Start Spring Vegetables
Here’s something else to consider — will you plant seedlings instead of seeds? And if so, will you grow your own seedlings, or purchase them from a local grower or garden center? Keep in mind that while some crops can be started indoors and transplant easily, others need to be sown directly into the garden bed where they’ll mature. Your planting calendar can help with determining this based on the types of plants you’re growing.
Starting Seeds for Spring Indoors
Why might you start your spring plants indoors? There are a few compelling reasons.
First, if you live in a region with a short growing season, you can extend it and get a head start by planting indoors. When the outdoors is still under frost warning, you can give your green babies a warm, nurturing start to life under room temperature.
Even if the spring temperatures are theoretically conducive to plant growth, there’s always the possibility of a freak frost. Indoor starts keep the young plants safe from those.
Also, indoors is a controlled environment. Fewer pests, no wind or hail, and you can water the seeds precisely, so you don’t have to worry about too much or too little rain.
And there’s just something nice about having cute baby plants growing in your home. They’re just so full of life, and optimism — at least, that’s what I think.
If you want to begin growing spring seeds indoors, plan on starting them six to eight weeks before you’ll be transplanting them — the seed packet will give you more specific guidance.
To start seeds indoors, you’ll need some materials and supplies. Don’t forget the seeds! Popular varieties have been selling out in recent years, so place your order as soon as you have your plan in place. There are many reputable companies that sell organic, non-GMO, and heirloom seeds. One that we especially like is True Leaf Market.
Seed Starting Supplies
You’ll also need containers to hold the seed-starting mix. You can DIY this, using old plastic containers, or you can pick up dedicated seed starter containers at a garden or home improvement store. These are convenient as they have individual compartments for seeds, and often come with a clear plastic lid that can seal in moisture and heat.
There are also more and more non-plastic options on the market, including biodegradable pots made of textiles like hemp and coconut fiber. One nice thing about these containers is that you can water them from below, by simply placing them on a tray and pouring water directly on the tray. You can also DIY composting pots out of paper or newsprint. While most ink used today is water- or soy-based, if you’re curious about the safety of your newsprint, you can learn more about it here.
Next, you need a growth medium, such as a commercial seed-starting mix. While regular garden soil and even topsoil will do in a pinch, a specially formulated mix for starting seeds can give them the boost they need to get off to a great start, even when transplanted later.
Once the seedlings emerge from the soil, they’ll require light in order to photosynthesize their own food (what an amazing trick, right?). You can get a dedicated panel of growing lights, or even use less expensive shop lights.
Finally, if your home gets chilly, you may want to pamper the little seedlings with a heat mat or two. They go underneath the tray or container, and warm the soil just enough to wake up the slumbering seeds, who now assume that spring has sprung.
So far we’ve covered how to plan what you want to grow, some popular growing choices, as well as basic supplies to have on hand if you’ll be starting your own veggie plants — all essential steps to setting yourself up for a successful harvest. In our next article, How to Prepare Your Garden Soil for Spring Planting & Seeding (Part 2 of 2), we’ll talk about the final steps in spring gardening prep — creating healthy soil and transplanting your starts (homegrown or purchased) for a successful growing season. Planning ahead for spring planting will save you time and energy in the long run — plus, growing vegetables at home can also benefit your health, your wallet, and the environment.
Tell us in the comments:
Do you have a garden? What spring veggies have you planted?
What’s one veggie that you look forward to eating fresh in the spring?
What would you love to grow in the spring?
Feature Image: iStock.com/HMVart
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