When to Start Planting Vegetables in Your Garden, a Month-by-Month Guide

Here are the best times to plant, water, harvest, and enjoy.

Photo: Enrique Díaz/Getty Images

As the saying goes, timing is everything—and that's certainly true when it comes to vegetable gardening. Unless you are utilizing a year-round indoor garden system to grow your vegetables, determining the right time to start seeds and to plant outdoors is essential. Following a month-by-month to-do list can mean the difference between a happy harvest and a heartbreaking one. One important note: Since the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map divides North America into 13 separate zones—each zone is 10 degrees higher (or lower) during an average winter than the adjacent zone—the correct start dates vary for different parts of the country. (The timeline featured here is roughly based on the timing for zone eight.) The best way to determine the exact timing for your garden is to ask the county cooperative extension in your area for a localized calendar. (Contact info is available at extension.org.) Now, get growing!

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The bottom line: The more prep work you do now, the better your plants will fare.

Whether you're gearing up to plant a new vegetable garden or make improvements to one you already have, start by creating a map with the outline of your beds. Sketch out your arrangement for the coming season; remember that crops need to rotate every year. Get in the habit of saving and dating the maps from year to year: You'll have a convenient record of what was planted where and when. Jot down notes on the back of the maps as reminders of successes and failures to help steer you on what to plant the next year.

Starting plants from seed? Peruse catalogs and order early, because popular varieties can sell out. Keep an eye out for words like "new" and "improved"—in this case, not just a marketing gimmick—to take advantage of research advances in disease resistance, flavor, and fruiting.

If you want to begin with seedlings that are ready to be transplanted, make a shopping list of what you'll buy at the nursery when the time comes. Newbies should ask for recommendations about which vegetables are easiest to grow; begin with a small assortment and add to the selection as you gain confidence and experience.

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The bottom line: While it's too early to start planting most vegetables, there are tasks you can take on inside and outside.

Finish up your seed orders. When the seeds arrive, read the instructions on the packets and make a chart of what date to start each variety, working backward from the last frost date for your area. Germination rates—how long it takes a plant to go from seed to the first sign of leaves—vary, and in order to have the little guys ready to plant, you must start them at the right time. To keep your information straight, write down your ideal planting day for each seed on a sticky note, attach it to the individual packet, and organize the seeds in chronological order in a card file.

To prep for seed starting, hit the stores and stock up on enough of the right growing mix, seed trays, and peat pots (or whatever other method you plan to use). It's also a good time to explore different outdoor planter options.

Make sure you have the necessary tools; fill in any gaps in your collection and clean and sharpen the tools you already own. The essentials: a round-headed shovel, a garden spade and fork, a scuffle hoe, a dirt rake, a bypass pruner, a trowel, a garden thermometer, and a wheelbarrow. Invest in a new garden hose if your current one looks worse for wear. Gloves and—c'mon, you know you love 'em—garden shoes complete the list.

Outside: If the ground is workable, plant bare root perennial vegetables like asparagus, artichoke, horseradish, and rhubarb.

Inside: Start seeds for cool-season vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, kale, lettuce, spinach, and onions.

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The bottom line: Since this month's weather tends to be unpredictable, have row covers ready for any late-season frosts or freezes that might damage perennials.

Outside: Most vegetables prefer slightly acidic soil (6.0 to 6.8 pH); pick up a pH test kit at a garden center to make sure yours is in the right range. No such luck? Make adjustments as recommended on the package, using organic matter to increase or decrease the soil's acidity. Even if your test is good, you should amend the soil—e.g., add conditioners, such as compost, peat moss, or coir (coconut fiber), that improve its texture—yearly, and give perennial vegetables a boost by "side dressing" it with organic compost or aged manure. (Scatter the fertilizer along the sides of a row of plants; turn it into the existing soil with a spading fork and rake it smooth.) If you're stuck with soil that's beyond saving, consider building raised beds instead and filling them with good soil.

Inside: Start seeds of warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, pumpkin, snap beans, squash, and sweet corn.

Use a garden thermometer to determine if the soil temperature is at or above 40 F. When it gets there, start planting (or "setting out," in garden lingo) the seeds you've started for cool-season crops: kale, lettuce, spinach, and onions.

At the end of the month, plant peas. If the ground is wet and muddy, hold off so you don't destroy the soil by working in it too soon.

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The bottom line: The weather can still work against you—keep those row covers handy in case of a nighttime cold snap—otherwise you should be getting into full swing.

Check soil temperature regularly with your thermometer. When it consistently registers at 60 F or above, you have the go-ahead to plant some warm-season crops.

If you didn't start your own seeds, buy transplants and seedlings of early-season crops like radishes, spinach, onions, leeks, lettuce, cabbage, beets, peas, Brussels sprouts, and carrots.

Begin setting out your early-season crops. Try to pick an overcast day to minimize transplant shock—the stress that occurs when plants are moved from a cushy greenhouse environment to the harsh real world. Be sure to water well at planting time. When finished, add a two- to three-inch layer of mulch to suppress weeds and keep in moisture.

For greens, sow seeds directly in the garden where they'll grow. Plant them in succession, every few weeks, for a continuous harvest through the season.

Until newly transplanted seedlings develop root systems, make sure they don't dry out or you'll lose them. And stay on top of weeds, catching them before they begin to spread. Use a natural weed killer for vegetable gardens.

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The bottom line: Take advantage of higher temps, longer days, and moist soil to do the bulk of your remaining plantings. But resist the temptation to plant more than you can reasonably take care of as the season advances.

Check soil temperatures for readings consistently above 70 F to know when to plant heat-loving crops like tomatoes and peppers. Confirm that you have the gear you need, such as a good watering can, to water the garden: As temperatures rise, consistent moisture will be of the utmost importance.

You can continue (or start) planting any early-season crops, plus tomatoes, squash, melons, eggplant, peppers, sweet corn, cucumbers, potatoes, and herbs. Water and mulch any new transplants with care.

If choosing to sow directly in the garden, start your carrots, beets, and radishes. Don't mulch these areas until seedlings are up several inches and have been thinned (you've sorted out the small, damaged, or overcrowded seedlings).

Follow packet instructions for proper spacing of the crops that were direct-sown and thin the seedlings accordingly.

Watch for insect damage on leaves (missing notches, holes, pits, or stripped stems). When you spy signs of trouble, control the situation by removing the affected leaves, employing a row cover to create a barrier, or spraying or dusting with an organic pesticide. Consult a garden center or extension service for a recommendation of the best action.

Cool-season plants like asparagus, peas, and spring greens will be getting ready for harvest. (P.S. The more you harvest, the more they produce!)

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The bottom line: Full speed ahead! Through the next few months, your focus will be on maintenance and harvest.

Early in the month, finish getting any warm-season vegetables into the ground. Direct sow the warm-season crops you plan to grow in place. Continue to thin seedlings of direct-sown crops that were planted earlier.

As your plants shoot up, be prepared with staking materials; you'll need plenty of bamboo stakes at different heights to keep your crops from succumbing to gravity.

About one month after planting, side-dress crops with organic compost. If you didn't use mulch, get out there with a scuffle hoe and attack the weeds.

Harvest during times of the day with lower temperatures—early morning or evening—when plants are least stressed. Continue to pick greens, peas, beans, and herbs. Stop harvesting asparagus and rhubarb, which need to rebuild their food reserves to produce a good crop again next year.

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The bottom line: You can't slack off completely, but get ready for the big payoff.

Extend the season with a late harvest of beans, carrots, cucumbers, cauliflower, and other cold-season crops. Where you have room, cultivate and amend the soil with compost before direct sowing seeds or planting seedlings.

Remove suckers—the growth between the main stem and the leaf—on tomato plants and pull out any finished early-season crops. Continue staking tomatoes and other plants as necessary.

Water in the early morning—the best time to reduce evaporation. Try to water the soil, not the leaves, to reduce fungal disease. Be sure to maintain consistent moisture so fruit develops successfully. (Drought-stressed plants are more susceptible to fungi and insect trouble.) Check mulch, topping off areas that have thinned. And weed away; weeds rob plants of water and nutrients.

Harvest daily. If there's too much of a good thing, share your bounty. Use an old plastic laundry basket to collect produce that is ready to be picked, and hose off the contents outside—it'll act as a giant colander.

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The bottom line: It's the dog days of summer, and both you and the garden need a break. Kick back and enjoy.

Make some notes about your successes and failures. (You may not remember those ravishing radishes or sickly heirloom tomatoes come January when you start to plan next year's garden.)

If you haven't planted for the fall harvest yet (see July), it's not too late to start now.

Monitor moisture, insects, and disease; if there's an issue, deal with it right away. Pick up and discard fallen or decaying fruit—leaving it encourages diseases and insects.

Keep picking! Cut fresh herbs for freezing or drying to use over the winter.

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The bottom line: With the weather getting less predictable, your priority is to protect tender plants such as tomatoes from frost with sheets or covers to keep them ripening on the vine as long as possible.

As temperatures lower, this is a good time to dig and prepare new beds for the spring or build additional raised beds and fill them with amended soil.

Pot up selections of your favorite, healthiest herbs in planters to bring inside for the winter. Continue planting cool-season vegetables for winter harvest.

Keep pulling up finished plants and discarding fallen or rotten fruit to discourage overwintering of insect larvae (meaning they stay alive underground through the cold months ahead). Check that the mulch is layered thick enough on cold-season crops.

Some plants will keep producing even through light frosts. Others will continue only if protected overnight with covers. Green tomatoes can be picked and wrapped individually in newspaper and stored in a cool spot (55-60°F) to ripen. If frost is predicted nightly and your tomato plants are covered with unripe fruit, you can pull the whole plant up by the roots and hang it upside down in a protected place like a garage, where the fruit will continue to ripen on the vine. Promptly remove any tomatoes that go bad.

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The bottom line: Mother Nature will dictate what you can accomplish. If the weather holds, then, by all means, plug away. But if winter-like weather is upon you, prioritize and do what you can.

Continue planting cool-season crops like beets, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, chives, celery, onions, parsley, parsnips, peas, radishes, spinach, lettuce, turnips, and Swiss chard.

Protect new seedlings and winter crops from weather extremes using floating row covers, which are made of lightweight polyester that "floats" on plants. Pull out and rake away garden debris; rake leaves out of beds and add to a compost pile. Compost anything that is not diseased or infested with insects. Store garden supplies and potions in a dry place. Remove, dismantle, and store stakes and cages that were erected for plant support.

Dig up potatoes and store in a dark place with low humidity, and pick winter squashes and pumpkins before a hard freeze. Keep harvesting fall crops like beets, cabbage, chard, and leeks.

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The bottom line: Weather permitting, you may still get in some garden time. The more you do now, the easier it all becomes in the spring.

Order seed catalogs for January planning.

Continue watering cool-season vegetable plants if rainfall isn't enough. Feed vegetable plants with a water-soluble organic fertilizer (like fish emulsion) every two weeks.

Cut asparagus plants to the ground as soon as the foliage has turned yellow or brown. Spread a few inches of aged manure or organic compost over the bed.

Harvest greens and other cool-season vegetables that are produced.

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The bottom line: If you planted a winter garden, keep harvesting, weeding, and watering as needed. If you didn't, enjoy the holidays.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are some of the best vegetables to grow for beginners?

    Radishes, asparagus, leaf lettuce, garlic, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, and cucumbers are the best vegetables for beginners to grow. The first five veggies listed are cool-season vegetables, which can tolerate a bit of frost, so they can be planted earlier in the season. The warm-season vegetables—zucchini, tomatoes, and cucumbers—should be planted after the last frost in spring and harvested before the first frost in the fall.

  • Does climate affect when you should start a vegetable garden?

    Yes, climate is an important factor affecting when you should start a vegetable garden, because the growing season is dependent on your local climate. To determine when to start a vegetable garden, find out the first and last frost dates in your area and check the hardiness category of the vegetables you're planning to plant.

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