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Spring planting dates

Newly planted garden bedsOne of the most common questions I hear from new gardeners is, "When should I plant my first spring vegetables?"  I'm not surprised that folks are confused since there seem to be several schools of thoughts on the matter.

Around here, many people plant by the signs.  You pick up a calendar at the local hardware store with phases of the moon and planting dates on it, then put your seeds in the ground when the moon dictates.  People who plant by the signs also tend to believe that you need to put in your fence posts at a certain phase of the moon, but I've yet to meet anyone who set up a controlled experiment to test the effects of the moon's phase on their garden.  I dismiss planting by the signs as voodoo, although I would like to see some scientific data one way or the other.

The next faction is the scientific set, of which I'm partially a member.  They figure out their local frost free date (May 15 here in the mountains of southwest Virginia) then download a spring planting chart and use some simple math to figure out their planting dates.  The chart below comes from the Virginia Cooperative Extension, and I've posted an explanation of how to use it here.  Note that the example assumes a frost free date of April 15.

Spring planting dates from the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service
I used a chart like this to make a spreadsheet with optimal planting dates on it, but I don't mark the exact dates on my calendar.  Our seasons can be so variable that I suspect the best way to figure out optimal planting dates is to pay attention to natural signs, like when the first chorus frogs begin to call or when certain flowers bloom.  These plants and animals are more alert to the intricacies of soil and air temperature than we are, and chances are they know best.

Newly planted onion bedUnfortunately, I haven't got this method really figured out yet, beyond the old saying that you'd best plant your corn when the oak leaves are as big as a squirrel's ear.  So, for now, I just add in a one week window on either side of the "optimal planting dates" to allow for rain, drought, strange freezes, or warm spells.  For example, although I'm slated to plant our main crop of peas next week, we rushed and put them in the ground on Thursday morning before the rain came.  The ground is warm enough that my hands don't freeze as I pull weeds, and the less clayey areas are actually drying up on top (though some of the clayey beds would have liked a few more days to evaporate winter's moisture.)  I figured I'd be better off putting my peas in the ground now than waiting until the ground is dry again, which may not happen for over a week.

Of course, the real reason I planted our main crop of peas early is because I talked to my garden guru on Monday and she'd just planted peas in her own garden.  Gotta keep up with the Joneses!

Don't forget to feed your extra peas to the chickens, and then check out our homemade chicken waterer.


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Anna since I'll be moving to the mountains of SWVA as well, and since I have no clue about the seasons there (yet) I'd LOVE to be able to download YOUR spreadsheet instead of the one from the extension agent. You have my email. I'd be happy to repay the kindness with some yield, although we're getting a late start this year.

Off to Paris and Amsterdam for two weeks starting tomorrow, and when I get back we're loading up the truck and shipping off to Virginia!

Comment by Everett Fri Mar 12 12:47:24 2010

I'm always thrilled to share my spreadsheet. Also, when you're in the area, let me know --- I'd be glad to get you started on some of the perennials that every garden in our area should have --- things like Egyptian onions, bee balm, fennel, comfrey, etc.

Have a great trip!

Comment by anna Fri Mar 12 16:31:11 2010

I came across you blog by accident and found myself sitting here reading everything. I was born in Va. and grew up there on my grandparents farm and watched everything they did. I might be able to chime in once in awhile to give you some hints about the things they did. They were very good farmers. Plus, I have a green thumb. My grandparents went by the moon...it does work. It works on the tides and I know for a fact it works on calving etc... You must try it. It is a science not folklore...the Indian's have proved that it works. So there you go! Pull the information up on your internet...it will give you all the details of it. Thanks for the bread recipe...I can't wait to try it out! I am a cowgirl. I have cattle here in East Texas and an putting in a vineyard. I visit Va. often and miss it with all my heart...it is my true home.

Comment by Phyllis Emig Wed Jun 22 22:30:06 2011
I'm so glad to hear that you've enjoyed the blog! I tend to be pretty hard-nosed about my planting schedule, focusing on soil temperature and day length exclusively. I have a hard time believing in planting by the signs, but I know some people enjoy it. I haven't been able to find any scientific data to back it up, which makes me leery, but one of these days I'll probably do some test plantings.
Comment by anna Thu Jun 23 11:58:55 2011

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime