The Call, Column 41 – A Spring Planting Schedule

2 03 2016

(February 28, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

A Spring Planting Schedule

At this point in the year, you’ve probably ordered or bought your seeds already and are preparing to start them. I will be starting my first ones this weekend, and thought it the perfect opportunity to share my basic schedule for seed-starting and planting-out over the next few months, so we can all kick off the 2016 growing season right.

Last winter, I wrote a detailed tutorial about the tools, materials, and practices that everyone should know in order to start their seeds indoors (here). I urge you to check it out on my blog, but I’ll quickly recap the basics here. Those common black plastic trays are called 1020 flats, and in them you want to put “cell packs” (#72s or #98s for small/early crops and #32s or 3 or 4-inch pots for large/later crops) filled with a good quality seed-starting mix. This should be set up in front of a south-facing window and/or under grow light fixtures, to give your seeds the best possible start. They should be well-drained and warm, and you should water them according to the particular needs of the crop. One more thing: opt for high quality, organic/biodynamic/non-GMO/heirloom seeds whenever possible. And that brings us to the second recap.

Earlier this year, we talked extensively about how to order your seeds from seed catalogs (here). Most importantly from this column, in order to select what to grow, you need to determine 1) what type of garden you are going for (preservation versus self-sufficiency versus high-nutrient-diet versus just tasty food) and 2) how much of each crop is sufficient (based on eating patterns, intended end-use, etc). After you make these decisions, you should use my strategy to parse through your many seed catalogs, and make the final decisions about what to order.

So you now have your seeds, and know how to start them. The next question is: how much? In my experience, it’s very easy to overplant. This isn’t always a bad thing. Having the extra plants means a few things: 1) It gives you a choice about exactly what varieties to put in the ground; 2) They provide a safety net for potential crop failure; 3) They provide you with enough to give to friends and family; and 4) You can even sell or trade them, if they are that high quality.

But extra plants can also be a problem. If you have limited seed-starting space (or you’re someone like me who overplants to an unnecessary level and runs out of space no matter how much he expands his setup), too many of every type of plant can mean sacrificing a better variety of crops, and ultimately having to compost plants which cannot end up being used.

Now, in my own garden literature, I’ve broken up the crops into pseudo-taxonomic groupings (plant “families”, and then some), and that’s how I’ll divide them here. They are presented roughly in the order that they should be started. As a point of reference, northern Rhode Island is in Zone 6a, and our last frost normally occurs sometime around May 10 to May 20.

First up: the Onion Family. You’re going to want to plant bulb onion seeds as soon as possible indoors (within a week or two from now), to be planted out in early April; leek seeds should be started indoors in mid March and planted out right before the last frost (early May); and scallions can be direct-seeded outside around the same time you start leeks (once the soil can be worked). Any started indoors should be planted thickly in the planting tray, and trimmed occasionally (down to a few inches) as they grow to promote robustness. Bulb onions can also be grown from onion sets (olive-sized onions that continue to grow when put in the ground), which should be planted in April.

Next, we have the Cabbage Family. These include cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower, and are all grown pretty similarly. You’ll want to start them indoors right around now, to be planted out early-to-mid-April. Kale can also be started directly outside at that time. As I discussed last year, you can start a second crop of all of these in a cool area (indoors again) in late June, to be planted for a fall harvest in late July. These are all relatively easy to grow, but require regular watering and lots of light. They are pretty hardy in the cold, and it might be worth growing extra so you can plant out earlier and later crops.

Then, we have what I call the Leafy Greens. This includes small, leafy crops from many different plant families, like arugula, endive, lettuces, celery, spinach, and spinach substitutes (i.e. Good King Henry). These are pretty varied in their specificities, so you’ll want to check the seed packet and the internet for a better idea. But in general, these can be started indoors between now and mid March (celery and spinach on the earlier side), and planted out or otherwise direct seeded in late March (except for celery, which should wait until after the last frost in mid May). Other than celery and select alternative/exotic greens, these don’t really like the heat or very bright sunlight, as they are prone to bolt. You’ll want to plant them in succession throughout the spring and early summer, and again in the late summer and fall. Start them in small cells (like #98 trays) as they will only be a few inches tall by the time they are planted out.

Next up: the Tomato Family. This includes tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and potatoes, and all the potatoes are planted very similarly. These should be started indoors, early March for eggplants and peppers and mid March for tomatoes. I suggest starting these in smaller cells (like #72s) and transplanting the better seedlings up into 3 inch pots. They love light, water, and a nutrient-rich planting medium (like compost-based Fort Vee), and should be planted out in late May, after the last frost. Potatoes, on the other hand, can be direct seeded (from sprouted seed potatoes) throughout April and early May.

Now, we have the Roots, my grouping which consists of carrots, turnips, beets, radishes, and other similar crops. They can all be started directly in the ground in mid-to-late-March, and can be planted every week for a steady crop through the summer and fall – this is the method that I have used every year so far. I found out that it is also possible, and arguably beneficial, to start them indoors a few weeks prior to planting outside (probably in #72 cell trays because they won’t get that big), to give them some steady, warm temperatures to sprout and get off the ground in their growth (pun intended). However you do it, make sure to disturb their root as minimally as possible while transplanting them outside. I plan on trying a tray this year.

Next up: the Legume Family (beans and peas) and the Grains. None of these like to be transplanted, and all should be planted directly outside. You’ll want to start peas in late March, in succession throughout April (they are cooler season crops), and beans after the last frost in mid May, in succession through August (they are warm season crops). Grains vary widely depending on the crop and variety, but should generally be planted a few weeks before the last frost (except corn, which should be planted after).

Then, we have the Squash Family, including winter and summer squash, gourds, melons, and cucumbers. These can all be started indoors in late April (to give them a head-start), and transplanted out or otherwise direct seeded in late May. They aren’t fond of transplanting, so care should be taken not to disturb their roots. They are heavy feeders, and like plenty of water and light while growing.

Finally, if you’re growing Sweet Potatoes as I have started doing, they are very warm season crops and can only be directly planted out (from bits of root called “slips”) in late May or early June, after the frost.

That’s it, now get those seeds started! For a detailed local schedule, check out this handy calendar from URI: http://web.uri.edu/ceoc/files/RI-Planting-Calendar.pdf. Good luck and happy planting.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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