My garden confuses me. The calendar tells me it's spring. But from the looks of things, no one has told my very bare garden. I know that I need to fix this. But where do I start? And what vegetables can I plant now?
After researching many resources, I learned there are multiple vegetables I can plant now. Many factors shaped my choices but, mainly, these three: (1) identifying the hardiness zone I live in (zone 10 in sunny California) and what would work best in our climate, (2) finding spaces in our yard that get enough sunlight to grow vegetables, and (3) taking into account what my family likes. I chose five plants: beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash, and lettuce. Hopefully, this article will show you how to decide what vegetables to plant now in your garden.
Start with a Vegetable Garden Plan
Recently, I moved into our old family home, so I'm starting from scratch with planning my garden.
How do you plan a vegetable garden? I had so many questions.
As you can see, I really needed help.
Get Expert Input at Your Local Garden Store
So, I started my research by visiting several local garden centers near my home.
I never realized just how much expertise was available there. Often, you'll find experienced horticulturalists working in these centers. And what they can teach you about your home gardening needs is more than worth the trip.
Best, you'll find they love helping. And, they can talk to you about local conditions and what vegetables grow best in your area.
So, start there.
Creating Your Vegetable Garden Map
Creating a garden plan was a new idea for me. And once I started researching garden mapping online, I was blown away by the examples I found.
I particularly enjoyed one site's sample vegetable garden plans, because they featured a variety of veggies mapped to fit differences in available space.
Today, there are even apps you can download to help you map out and plan your garden.
Of course, if you're good at sketching and representing available space accurately, you can map your yard the old-fashioned way with a pencil and paper.
I wound up using this easy free online garden planner. I liked this one because when you select a vegetable for a 1 square-foot space, it shows how many you can plant in that space. The page also gives tips on how to plant each of your selections for best results.
Be sure to watch the video on the page, which explains in detail how to use the options there.
One great thing about using a planner is you can adjust your plans as you learn more about what works in your garden. You'll see that we had to adjust our initial plan a few times to accommodate differences in soil, sunlight, and other requirements among our vegetable plants.
Study Gardening Websites
I expanded my research by taking advantage of the many wonderful websites online that specialize in gardening and growing vegetables. Just Google phrases like "vegetable garden planner" and "how to map your garden for planting" and a whole world of expertise will offer itself to you for free.
Contact Your Local Cooperative Extension Services for Expert Advice
This was another great discovery for me: cooperative extension services. These services are your taxpayer dollars at work in a way you'll love. They are partnerships between the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) and local universities. What began as service branches formed to offer advice to farmers from agricultural experts grew into services we all can use.
Contact them for advice on everything from battling insects that can destroy your plants to the best plants to grow in your neighborhood.
Today, there are cooperative extension services in all 50 states.
How to Decide What to Plant Now
After all our research, we made our decision on what to plant after narrowing our options based on these factors:
Our Hardiness Zone
First, we had to identify our "hardiness" zone, using zone maps. Hardiness zone maps are determined by the USDA. Think of them as guidelines for which plants are hardiest, or most likely to thrive, within a given zone. Gardeners depend on this information to make good plant choices.
There are 11 zones, and they are based on the average annual minimum winter temperature in an area. We live in zone 10, so we only considered plants known to thrive in our hardiness zone.
Last Frost Dates
For spring planting, knowing the last frost dates in your area is critical to ensure you don't plant too early, leaving young plants to freeze. The last frost date for our area was January 22, so we should be fine if we plant now.
What We Like to Eat
So, based on our location in zone 10 and our research, here's a list of the vegetables recommended as the best to plant now in spring:
beans, beets, carrots, corn, cucumbers, eggplants, green onions, lettuce, onions, parsnip, peas, peppers, radishes, spinach, strawberries, squash, sunflowers, swiss chard, tomatoes
And the herbs:
basil, chives, cilantro, dill, parsley, thyme
Yes, that's a lot of choices. But the experts at the local garden centers we visited all recommended that we settle on 3 to 5 vegetables. Because we're new at this, they suggested that we start small and learn.
So, our choices:
I took the advice I received to heart, electing to start with a 1 x 5 patch in the sunniest area of the garden. Here's what our vegetable garden layout looks like:
Not exactly adventurous I'll admit. But this is what we like, and these selections will get eaten in our household. Even with these vegetables, I'm learning that there are so many varieties of each we can try.
For example, with beans, do we choose pole beans or bush beans? And then there are multiple varieties of each of those. If we choose pole beans, we'll need a trellis, but they do tend to produce more. Bush bean plants will produce a large number of beans, but only over about a two-week period.
So, we will need to stagger plantings if we go with bush beans. With either variety, we need to remember to pick them regularly (like every two days). This extends the growing period.
Also, do we want to start with seeds or starter plants from a local gardening center? Seeds will take longer to mature but we'll probably get more plants.
And lettuce? Burpee seeds offer 56 different varieties of lettuce! Who knew there were so many?
This will be fun. But this is also why it was essential to start with a garden plan.
Where Should I Plant?
Next, where should we plant our five selections?
Well, you'll want to match your plant's sun needs with your garden's sunlight patterns. The plants we chose require lots of sunlight. Part of putting together a garden planner is discovering the areas of your garden that get bathed in at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight every day. This is what is meant by "full sun," which is what our plants require.
How do you determine where to get full sun in our yard? Step outdoors, and start paying attention. Plan to spend a day tracking the way and times sunlight enters, moves around, and leaves your yard.
Take photos of multiple locations throughout your yard at varying times of day when it's sunny. Note where the sunlight falls at each interval.
Don't make this a chore. Grab a notebook and a cool drink or a lovely glass of wine.
One resource recommends setting up your digital camera to take time-lapsed pictures every hour.
Another method is to make a sunlight chart by tracking several areas of your yard at hourly intervals over a 12-hour period on a sunny day. Start early. And at each location, mark whether the area is in full sun, partial sun, or shade.
Most of the vegetables we selected need full sun. So, after identifying the full sun areas in our yard - those that get at least 6 hours of sunlight each day - we selected one area near the house to plant our vegetables.
Know When to Plant
Whether we plant seeds or starter plants, the dates for placing them outside revolve around our last frost date - January 22.
According to one site, we're safe to plant each of our selections outside now:
The frost-free date passed more than three weeks ago, so we're safe to plant any of our selections.
Build the Best Soil for Vegetables
What about soil? Our vegetable plants will draw their nutrients from the soil we plant them in. So, what's the best soil for vegetables?
It's important to know both what kind of soil is best for each of your plants and the current "health" of the soil where you'll be planting. If you're starting with soil that's deficient in important nutrients, you'll need to build it up first. Great soil starts with organic matter.
Why Organic Matter Matters
Plants feed through their roots, so planting them in nutrient-rich soil is essential to strong growth. Organic matter, such as compost and peat moss, provides this type of nutrition for growing plants.
Preferably, you want to add organic matter at least one to two weeks before you start planting vegetables.
Organic material loosens soil, so that plant roots can spread freely. It also aids in retaining water moisture in the soil.
To build the health of your soil long term, add organic matter at least once a year.
How to Know What Soil Your Plant Needs
So, what's the process for ensuring you have the best soil for your plants?
Easy, right? How?
To learn what each plant needs, read. Ask questions of the experts when you buy your seeds or starter plants. Alternatively, you can read guides written for planting each of your vegetables online.
Soil Requirements for Each Plant
Best Soil Type
Slightly acidic to neutral
Slightly acidic to neutral
Partial to full
A bit of research reveals that each of our selections requires "loamy" soil. This is soil that contains a fairly even mixture of sand, silt, and clay. (Silt is a combination of sandy and clay soil.)
Generally, it's more moist and nutrient-rich than sandy soil.
You don't want the soil to be too sandy or too "compact."
What Is Nutrient-Rich Soil?
Good soil needs the right blend of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium to feed roots.
Together, they form the primary nutrients needed by plants to thrive. When gardens are lacking sufficient levels of any of these nutrients, soil amendments, like organic matter, and fertilizer help restore the needed balance.
Fertilizer for Each Plant Type
When to Fertilize
A few days before planting, then monthly
5-5-5 or 10-10-10,
2 – 3 weeks after planting seedlings
Slow release 5-10-10
After seedlings appear; again after blossoms appear
5-10-5 or 5-10-10
When you purchase fertilizer, you'll see three numbers on the packaging. A common one is 5-10-10. The numbers stand for the nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium percentages in the fertilizer. This one means 5% nitrogen, 10% phosphorous, and 10% potassium.
Test Soil to Determine Its Health
How do you know if your soil needs nutrients? By testing it. The easiest way is to purchase a soil testing kit you can you use at home. (This is not an affiliate link.) For less than $20, you can buy a kit that measures your primary nutrient levels and your pH level. This takes the guesswork out of whether you're planting in the best soil for your vegetables.
The test will measure pH, nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium levels. Compare the results to the ideal conditions for each of your plants to see if the pH or any of the primary nutrients need to be supplemented.
The pH level of your soil measures its level of acidity and how well the plant is using its nutrients. Generally, 7.0 is considered neutral. Anything less is acidic. Anything above is alkaline. Vegetables each have an ideal pH level that will help them thrive.
Our selected plants all need soil that is slightly acidic to neutral - that is, with a pH of 7.0 or slightly less (about 6.8).
You can also get your soil tested for a small fee at your local cooperative extension service.
Add Nutrients to Help Soil Do Its Work
After testing your soil to see what it lacks, adding compost will be beneficial in most yards. It's a natural fertilizer. It can also lower the acidity, or pH level, of the soil. Put down enough to create a 1- to 2-inch deep cover.
To raise the pH level and make the soil more alkaline, add lime.
How to Plant Your Vegetables
After all the preparation, you finally get to plant your vegetables. This seems easy enough until you try to do it the first time without directions.
During the planning phase, you'll make decisions on whether you'll be planting directly in the ground, in raised beds, or in pots. Whichever choice you make, some of the basics are the same.
Follow the directions on the seed packet or the plant container label. This will tell you how deep to plant and how far apart to space plants or seeds.
Here are the specific directions I found for each of the plants I selected.
Beans - 50 to 55 Days to Maturation
For space considerations, we chose bush beans. Green bean seedlings need to be planted 4 inches deep and spaced at least 8 inches apart. Within a 1-square-foot section, that limits us to two plants. Each plant will grow about 2 feet tall.
We could plant them closer together, but this would increase the risk of disease and failure, because they would battle for nutrients.
To lengthen the growing season as much as possible, we're going to plant new seedlings every two weeks. That leaves us with two choices: expand our planting area to 2 x 4 or select a second location for planting the next set of bush beans in 2 to 3 weeks.
This was a miscalculation in our earlier planning, because I didn't consider the need to stagger plantings for ongoing harvests. I also thought we'd be able to include four bush bean plants per 1 sq ft area.
I might also elect to use containers for the staggered plantings. I'll have to see how this goes. You can learn more about growing beans here.
Squash - 30 Days to Maturation
Pattypans. I rarely see them in the store anymore, so even though I love zucchini, crooknecks, and yellow straightneck squash, this was the variety we decided to try. Yes, this is me being "adventurous."
I love squash whether we grill it, sauté it with onions and mushrooms, stir fry it, bake it, stuff it, or steam it. It's just plain good stuff!
To grow pattypans, set the seedlings 4 inches deep with 3 feet between rows if you do multiple plants. Water after planting but hold the fertilizer until after the first blooms appear. Squash benefits from adding mulch around the plant to protect the roots and retain moisture. The bush will grow to 2 to 3 feet.
As you can see from our revised plan, we only have space for one plant in our designated area. But if we pick the pattypans regularly, we should get multiple harvests. And, frankly, that will give us dozens of pattypans and be more than enough for our family.
Pattypans are their tastiest when they're small. So, remember to pick when they're about 2 to 3 inches. That's when they're most tender. (And do wear gloves because they can make your hands itch.)
I'm excited to see how these turn out. We'll be eating pattypans throughout the summer, starting in about 30 days.
Peppers - 50 to 60 Days to Maturation
We love sweet red bell peppers, too. They're great whether eating them raw in salads, stuffed, or as a snack dipped in guacamole. Whether we grill them, stir fry, or roast the peppers to flavor soups and other dishes, they're delicious and versatile. Add to that the fact they can easily run $1 each or more in the stores, and growing our own just makes too much sense. Easy choice.
The 1-square-foot space in our garden plan will hold one pepper plant, which will grow to about 2 to 3 feet. To plant the peppers seedling, dig a hole about 2 inches deeper than the height of the plant. You need to seat the seedling about 4 inches deep. Make sure there is loose soil in the hole - about an inch is good. This will help the plant develop larger, stronger root systems.
Set the seedling inside, making sure to keep it straight. Cover the root and about an inch of the bottom of the plant's stem. Then, fill the hole around it with garden soil.
Water the base thoroughly, but do not add fertilizer now. We should be able to pick our first peppers in about 50 to 60 days.
Learn more about growing peppers in this guide.
Lettuce - 21 Days to Maturation
For our lettuce, we again deviated from the garden planner. (The great thing about planning is it allows you to be flexible when you realize something else might work better.) Because lettuce does not require as much sun as our other choices, we're going to plant it separately in a self-watering container. Still, the location needs to give us about 4 to 6 hours of sunlight daily.
We found a beautiful gourmet mix of red and green baby lettuce varieties for our container. This way, our salad will never be the same two days in a row.
If we like these, next year we'll start earlier with seeds, so we have more varieties available to us.
According to our garden planner, 1 square foot of soil will allow for up to 16 lettuce plants.
Using multiple containers, we can also stagger our plantings, with a new one every two weeks during the growing season.
One great thing about lettuce is if we harvest the outer leaves first for our meals, the rest of the plant will continue growing.
One garden center recommended that we also plant garlic or chives with our lettuce to keep aphids away from the containers.
Lettuce gets bitter when it doesn't get enough water, so this is another reason to grow it separately.
Plant lettuce seedlings 4 inches deep. They will grow to 21 inches when mature, which should take about 3 to 4 weeks.
We'll be eating fresh lettuce out of our garden in no time!
Check out this guide to learn more about growing lettuce.
Tomatoes - 54 Days to Maturation
When it comes to tomatoes, there are simply so many varieties. We settled on the Early Girl bush variety because they thrive in small gardens and containers.
Also, tomatoes thrive best in soil that is more acidic than is required by our other vegetables. So, planting them in a separate area or container makes sense. (Yes, this is another departure from our original garden plan.)
As the name implies, they also mature early - in 54 days. Further, they are big producers and bred to be disease resistant. Just what we need.
The important thing about growing tomatoes is to plant them deep. The seedling needs to be planted 11 inches deep in full sun. A mature plant will grow to 3 feet.
Tomato plants develop a large root ball and use lots of nutrients from the soil, so it's important to plant them far enough away from competing plants.
In our revised garden planner, we planted them in a corner away from our other vegetables.
Dig a hole that is a bit deeper than the plant's height. Fill it with a couple inches of soil. Spread out the roots of the plant, and set it in the center of the hole. Fill the hole with water. When done, the plant should only sit up about 2 inches above ground.
If it sits higher, you need to dig a deeper hole. Make sure the plant is level.
The part of the stem below the ground will become part of the root ball, making the plant stronger.
Continue to remove leaves from the bottom 12 inches of the stem as the plant grows. This helps prevent diseases spreading from the soil to the leaves.
Mulch. Lay a thick layer of mulch around the plant to help preserve moisture in between watering.
Speaking of water: You can make all the right vegetable selections, prepare the soil properly, plant your choices in the right places, and still lose everything by not making the right watering decisions for each plant.
So, What About Water?
Here's the recommended watering schedule for each of our plants:
Water Requirements for Each Plant Type
Weekly as needed
Every 2 to 3 days
3 x week, or as needed
Weekly as needed
Weekly as needed
Most vegetable plants need 1 inch of water per week or less. (This includes rainfall.) Most also can benefit from adding mulch around the plant after its first watering. Mulch helps retain the moisture around the plant's base and roots to aid growth.
Lay a good organic mulch from your local garden store on top of the soil. Do not mix it with the soil. The mulch will help keep the soil cooler so it doesn't need as much water.
One way to test whether the soil is moist enough is to take some in your hand and try to form a ball with it. If the ball holds together in your hand, it's probably moist enough.
4 Basics of Good Watering Habits
When you're trying to decide whether it's time to water your vegetables, focus on these four basics of watering. They're essential to to aiding plant growth and health:
- 1Water early. Late night watering can result in plants remaining soggy overnight, inviting disease. Early watering gives the sunlight the opportunity to absorb excess water away from the plant.
- 2Water deeply. Use a soaker hose or drip irrigation if possible.
- 3Water only as much as is needed. Too much water can be worse than not enough. Check the soil about 4 to 6 inches down below your plant to see if it's getting enough water. Also, make sure it's not soggy (too much water).
- 4Water roots, not leaves. Wet leaves can lead to diseases that destroy the plant.
Follow these tips to encourage deep growth in your plant's roots. A healthy root system fosters growth in the plant. This yields the healthiest plants and the most vegetables.
Want more tips? Here's a great video from the GrowVeg channel:
Be sure to subscribe there to get notifications when they release more gardening tip videos.
Watering Tips for Our 5 Vegetable Plants
Here are the best tips we found for the plants we selected:
How much water does a bell pepper plant need?
Pepper plants need to be watered for a few days after planting.
After that, they need about 1 inch of water per week. Aim for watering about 3 times per week. Your plant and the soil around it will tell you if you need to water more.
To assess whether the plant needs water, stick your longest finger into the soil, about 3 to 4 inches. If it's dry, it's time to water.
Yellow leaves are another indicator that your plant is not getting enough water.
When you water, choose a soaker hose or drip irrigation to ensure that the plants get a slow, deep soak.
To grow larger peppers, spray the plants with a solution of one tablespoon of Epsom salt in a gallon of water. Do this once when it begins to bloom and again ten days later.
When lettuce plants consistently fail to get enough water, the leaves turn bitter. If the soil is dry down to 1 inch below the plant, it's time to water.
Lettuce roots are not deep, so it's best to water every 2 to 3 days, rather than one long, deep soak weekly. This helps keep the soil cool and the leaves tender.
(This difference in watering needs is one more reason for us to lean toward growing our lettuce separately, in containers.)
Lettuce also benefits from mulching around the plant.
Use a soaker hose or try pricking a hole in a water jug and allowing water to seep out slowly next to the root. Self-watering containers are also great for growing lettuce, because they allow the plants to absorb water as needed.
As with the other vegetables, the soil and the bean plant are the best indicators of when it's time to water.
Generally, beans need about a ½ inch of water weekly. Unlike lettuce plants, a slow, deep soaking is best for the plant's health and growth. Avoid watering during the midday sun, and always water at the roots.
If the flowers or blossoms are falling off your bean plant, it's a good indicator that you're not watering enough.
Squash plants require frequent and consistent watering to produce their best growth.
Aim for at least 1 inch of water per week. As with many of our other plants, squash benefits from slow, deep soakings.
How do you know whether the plant needs water? Stick your longest finger all the way down into the soil around the plant. This should be about 3 to 4 inches.
If you feel moisture at the tip of your finger, that's a good thing. If it's dry, it's time to water.
It's normal for the plant to wilt midday when temperatures rise. However, if it's wilting early in the morning, the plant may need water.
Tomatoes need the equivalent of about 1 inch of rain per week. As temperatures rise during the summer, you might need to increase this to 2 inches per week.
Water is especially important when planting the seedling and again once flowers and tomatoes begin to form. Also, continue to water well the first few days after planting your tomato seedling.
Base your decision on how often to water your tomato plants by paying attention to the plant and your soil. Sandy soil requires more water; clay-based soil requires less. If you've prepared your soil properly to get a nice loamy soil, made up of equal parts sand, clay, and silt, aim for once a week.
It's normal for tomato plants to wilt during the midday sun, but if they wilt in the morning, they need water.
Always water the root of the plant, not the leaves. Use a soaker hose or drip irrigation to achieve a long, deep soaking of the roots. You want the water to seep down about a foot into the soil.
You can test the depth by carefully inserting your trowel into the ground around the roots to see how far down the water is penetrating.
Closing Tips for What Vegetables to Plant Now
Grow what you like.
Enjoy every minute.
Click here to visit one site with great tips on what they wished they had known before starting their first garden. They can save you time and headache.
I hope sharing my questions and research will help some of you. Now, get started. Spring has arrived, and your garden is calling.
Carol Hidalgo loves making memories with her children and 11 grandkids. She believes that aprons are a fun part of building and sharing memories with the people we love. Carol infuses her love for family, friends, and fun times into the making of each Specialty Aprons and More apron. Learn more about her here.