When to Start Planting in Your Spring Garden

spring vegetables in garden

Timing is everything in the garden, especially if you live in a region that has a short gardening season like mine in Wisconsin. Planting vegetables at the wrong time can mean the difference between them flourishing and providing you with a delicious bounty and their complete and utter failure.

The good news is that you have a lot of control over the things that contribute to a vegetable’s success in your garden. And one of the most important factors is timing.

Below are a few examples of things that can go wrong if you don’t plant each vegetable at the right time.

hands planting onions in garden


Vegetables Won’t Grow to Full Size

I love growing onions! I plant between 300-500 every year and store them in my basement so we can eat them all winter. But, they can be a little picky about how they’re grown, especially if they’re not planted at the right time.

Onions are day length sensitive. This means that when the number of hours of daylight gets above a certain point the onion starts making a bulb. When onions start bulbing up depends on where you live and what variety you’re growing. In northern climates, they start forming their bulbs around the summer solstice in June.

They use the green growth of their leaves to fuel the growth of the bulb. So, if you have tiny onion plants you’ll most likely get tiny bulbs. How do you make sure your onions have time to put on a lot of healthy, green growth?

You make sure to plant them early in spring. Mine go into my garden about four weeks before my last frost.

If you’ve planted onions really late in the past and they haven’t grown to full size, now you know why. Make sure you plant them early this year. If you time it right you can grow onions that are the size of softballs! (More tips on planting onions here.)

flowering vegetables

Vegetables Will Bolt

Have you heard of the term bolting? If you’ve planted lettuce, cilantro, spinach, or other spring greens you may have noticed that they eventually send up a flower stalk from the middle of the plant. This is called bolting. It’s a natural process that signals the plant is getting ready to flower and produce seeds for reproduction.

Unfortunately, bolting causes the plants to become bitter tasting and much less appealing for throwing in our fresh salads. Bolting is caused by increasing day length and temperature, which is something that happens naturally as we move towards summer.

Most of the early spring vegetables like cooler weather and shorter days. This means that the earlier you plant your spring vegetables the happier they’re going to be. I plant things like spinach, lettuce, salad greens, cilantro, radishes, and bok choy four weeks before my last frost. This gives them plenty of time to grow and produce a harvest in the cooler temperatures of my spring garden. (I also plant them again for fall, but that’s another topic!)

purple peppers

Vegetables Might Die

One year as I was rushing to go on a weekend canoe and camping trip for Memorial Day Weekend I decided to plant my pepper seedlings into my community garden plot so I wouldn’t have to get a neighbor to water my seedlings.

When I came back at the end of the weekend my pepper plants looked terrible. It took me a few moments to realize we had gotten a late frost while I was away. Most of the peppers ended up dying, and I had to scramble around to get extra plants from friends and purchase some from the farmers market.

I learned an important lesson that year – don’t rush the season.

The vegetables we talked about in the first two sections of this post are all frost tolerant which means they can easily survive when temperatures hover at or below 32 degrees F. Peppers fall into another category of plants, vegetables that are not frost tolerant. This means that if your garden gets a cold snap (temps around 32 degrees F), or frost, the plants will get damaged (at best) and possibly end up dead.

This is not fun when it happens. Trust me…I almost cried that day.

spring garden

How to Figure Out What to Plant When

So, now that you know timing is critical, how do you figure out when to plant all of the different vegetables?

The first step is to know when your average last frost occurs. You can find this date by searching online. Your local Cooperative Extension is the best source for dates for your local area.

The second step is to understand which vegetables are frost hardy and which are not. The frost hardy vegetables can be planted before your last frost, but you should wait to plant the rest of the vegetables until the danger of frost has passed in your garden.

The third step is to create a Spring Planting Calendar. If you’re a new gardener, creating a calendar helps you learn when you should be planting each vegetable in your garden. If you’re a more experienced gardener, a planting calendar will serve as a little kick in the butt to get out there and start planting (and continue to plant) before the garden season starts passing you by.

There’s plenty of information on the internet to help you create your own planting calendar for spring. Or, you can let me do it for you! The Smart Start Garden Planner features a printable template with all of the vegetables you’ll be planting in spring. All you have to do is fill in the dates for your garden.  Easy peasy.

This spring, keep in mind that timing is a hugely important factor in your success with gardening. Getting to know your vegetables, writing down the dates of your average last frost, and creating a calendar to keep you on track are all things that will transform the first weeks of your gardening season into something to celebrate instead of something to stress about!

gardening planning book



Set yourself up for a successful season with the Smart Start Garden Planner. It keeps garden planning practical, down-to-earth, and fun!

Get a sample of the book so you can peek inside here. 



Want to read more about spring gardening?

8 Steps for Expertly Planting a Seedling

Stop Tilling Your Vegetable Garden

Don’t Make This Mistake When You Buy Vegetable Plants




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