Planting a garden brings with it lots of possibilities. Gardeners dream of bountiful gardens filled with fresh vegetables, colorful fruits and beautiful flowers. A lot of work, though, goes into gardening, and it all begins with planting. When you put your seeds or plants in the ground plays a key role in how well your crops do. To achieve maximum potential, you must plant your crops at the designated times, and that means doing your homework long before you do your digging.
Frost damages or kills many warm-weather annual plants. Therefore, you need to avoid it if you wish to achieve success with certain crops. The most important step is ensuring that warm-weather fruit and vegetable crops go into the soil after the last frost of the spring and are ready for harvest before the first autumn frost.
The average first and last frost dates in Massachusetts vary by as much as 36 days. According to the National Climatic Data Center, the last spring frost for Springfield usually occurs on or around April 29. In Greenfield, the last frost usually occurs in or around May 26. The first fall frost in Massachusetts usually occurs in late September, but it sometimes does not occur until well into October. The range provides for a growing season that is 120 to 180 days long.
Gardening experts have allowed for this variation in the date of the first and late frost by splitting areas into hardiness zones, which are based on temperature information. The United States features 11 hardiness zones. Massachusetts features six different hardiness zones ranging from the coldest, Zone 4, to the warmest, Zone 7. The eastern half of the state, particularly the coastal areas, is the warmest. Thus, the beginning planting dates are a week or two earlier in this part of the state.
One website, Skippy’s Vegetable Garden, features a vegetable planting calendar. It allows you to input the likely date of the last frost in your area. Then it uses that information to indicate when you should begin planting various crops, including some that are sown indoors as early as February and March.
In most parts of Massachusetts, Memorial Day is considered the start of planting season for annual flowers and summer vegetables. Some vegetables, though, prefer to do most of their growing before the summer heat comes on. These cool-season crops include peas, onions, carrots, broccoli, spinach, beets, lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower and turnips. Plant them first. Frost does little damage to these crops. They are somewhat frost-tolerant. This is particularly true for carrots and onions, which grow beneath the soil.
As a general rule, planting dates in the northeastern United States start in April, when beets, carrots, lettuce, onions, spinach and peas are planted. Be aware that tomatoes and peppers are often started indoors in March and April and are transplanted outdoors in May and June.
Summer and Fall Planting
Plants that are more susceptible to the effects of frost must wait until after the last frost. Waiting until Memorial Day weekend generally assures little chance of damage from frost, but planting dates as early as mid-May might work well in some areas of the state. Crops to plant at this time include tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, eggplants, melons, sweet corn, beans, pumpkins and sweet potatoes. Some herbs, such as basil, also need to be planted during the summer months.
While most of the gardening in Massachusetts occurs during the spring and summer months, a few crops can be planted in the fall. These are crops that are least affected by frost and have a short growing season. Such crops include beets, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, kale, carrots and spinach.