How Growing Seasons Affect Vegetable Gardens

Typically, the vegetable-gardening season is summer, bookended by late spring and early fall. Gardeners mark the start by the last spring frost date and the finish by the first fall frost date (although some crops, like parsnips and kale, can stay out in the cold a bit longer and even gain improved flavor).

Your local weather forecaster may announce the frost date each spring (last frost) and fall (first frost), or you can call your local garden center or the nearest Cooperative Extension Office and ask. The dates vary somewhat from one year to the next.

If your growing season is long and warm, you can get started earlier and maybe even plant two or three rounds of crops. You may, however, have to contend with hot, dry weather at the height of summer, which is stressful for some vegetable crops (so mulch them and supply extra water).

If your growing season is short, you can still have a very bountiful vegetable garden. Choose vegetables that mature faster, and try some season-extending tricks. Here are two favorites:

  • Start seeds early indoors or in a cold frame, which is basically a box made of such materials as wood or concrete blocks covered with a glass or plastic sash that protects smaller plants from extreme cold and wind. Raising them to seedling-size until putting them out in the ground is safe.

  • Use plastic coverings (from row-cover sheeting or tunnels to cones to recycled milk jugs to "water wall" wraps) to keep a plant and its immediate soil nice and warm.

    A
    A "water wall," consisting of plastic sleeves filled with water, offers protection against the cold.

You can grow some vegetables during the winter. Yes. Really! In mild climates, you can enjoy kale, carrots, leeks, and root vegetables all winter long. You may have to mulch them and then poke under to harvest them. You can even sow salad greens in October and harvest extra-early in spring.

The following table gives an overview of which vegetables tend to do better during particular seasons.

Ideal Seasons for Growing Vegetables
Type Description Examples
Cool-season vegetables These plants tolerate some frost and temperatures between 55 and 70 degrees F. As such, they're fine choices for gardeners in more northern areas or, in milder climates, for growing in a cool spring or fall. Asparagus, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, collard, endive, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, onion, Oriental greens, parsnip, peas, potato, radish, Swiss chard, spinach, turnip, and turnip greens
Warm-season vegetables These plants are readily harmed by frost; they also fare poorly in cold soil. Grow these plants in temperatures ranging from 65 to 80 degrees F. They're good in the South and West and elsewhere during the height of summer. Beans, corn, cucumber, eggplant, melons (muskmelon/cantaloupe, watermelon), pepper, sweet potato, pumpkin, squash, sweet corn, and tomato
Perennials These edible plants live from one year to the next, typically producing good crops their second or third seasons and thereafter. You can grow them in most climates, providing a protective winter mulch if warranted. Asparagus and rhubarb
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