Planning Makes Perfect

By Steve Reiners, Professor and Chair, Horticulture Section, Cornell University, Cornell AgriTech. This is part of a series of columns that he wrote about vegetable gardening during the pandemic that ran Spring-Summer 2020. Read more articles from 2020 | Read later articles in this series.

April 10, 2020

Don’t wait until the first nice day of spring to decide where things should go in your garden. Now is the time to get your garden plan down on paper. Having a well thought out plan ensures you don’t make mistakes. This allows you to make the best use of your space and get two crops in one season from some plots.  Plus, it gives you a chance to move plantings around on paper, so you don’t have the same crop in the same location as last year, which helps manage diseases.

Items to include in your plan:

  • Vegetables you want
  • Target planting date
  • Harvest date
  • Spacing
  • Number of plants/seeds needed

By paying attention to spacing and numbers, you won’t buy more than you need.  One of the biggest mistakes I see gardeners make is planting things too close.  For example, zucchini will need a minimum of two feet between plants, tomatoes about the same.  If you pack the plants in, they compete with each other and  yield and quality are lessened. Use the table, Planting Recommendations for New York Vegetable Gardens, to help guide your planning.

Another good place to start is the Cornell Garden-Based Learning website.  Here you can find variety recommendations for New York along with fact sheets on growing dozens of vegetables. First decide which plants you want in your vegetable garden.  What do you and your family like, what’s easy to grow, what will fit in your garden space?  As far as easy to grow vegetables for first-time gardeners, I recommend, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, summer squash, cucumbers, snap beans, peas, spinach, and radishes.

As you plan the garden, you need to know the average date of the last frost in the spring for your location.  This is important because there are some vegetables that can take a light frost and others that will be killed.  For most of this region, the last frost is typically around May 20, a little later if further from Lake Ontario or a Finger Lake. But if you are feeling lucky,  about half the time, the last frost is about April 28.  You can always cover sensitive plants with sheets or plastic if there is a late-season frost.

Cool-season and warm-season crops

Vegetables are classified as either cool-season or warm-season crops.  Cool-season crops are able to take light frost and may be planted before the last frost date, as early as April 15.  These crops include beets, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, lettuce, onions, peas, potatoes, spinach and radish.  Some of the cool-season crops can also be planted in the late summer to mature in fall.

Warm-season crops need to be planted after frost and after the soil has warmed, sometime in late May.  These include snap beans, vine crops like cucumbers, squash and melons, eggplant, peppers, sweet corn, and tomatoes. 

As a gardener, you have the choice of planting seeds directly in the garden or using transplants.  A few vegetables should always be started as transplants.  These include eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and cole crops like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. 

Others are best from direct seeding.  These include all the root crops, beans, peas, spinach, and corn.  Some can go either way like vine crops, and leafy greens. 

If purchasing seeds, you’ll have more varieties to choose from compared to transplants from a local greenhouse.  If you are planning on growing your own transplants, make sure you have a bright, warm location – a sunny, south-facing window at the minimum.  If you don’t have that, don’t try to grow them.  And most garden centers are open this spring despite the COVID-19 restrictions.  Just use caution and practice appropriate distancing.  Hours might be reduced so call ahead and check.

In the garden this week, if the soil is dry enough, prepare it for planting by turning it over with a garden spade or raking the surface.  Start on the areas you will plant first – areas that have warmed up and dried out first. Safe to seed now are peas, spinach, radish and probably lettuce transplants. Next week, we’ll talk about how to prepare your soil for the upcoming season.