Depending on where you are in the south, sometime in April is when the last frost usually occurs.
This is the unofficial kick-off to the new vegetable gardening season. This year, more than any previous years, vegetable gardening has boomed and a whole new generation of gardeners is eager to get started. There are many reasons for this, but the economics of a productive garden are just one that makes sense - for every $10 you spend on seeds/plants for your garden, you will reap $100 of fresh and healthy vegetables.
The Vegetable Garden
One of the biggest challenges of late winter and early spring, is that all gardeners, new and experienced, tend to be filled with optimism for the new season. Too often this results in chaos and disarray as energy dissipates with hot temperatures, and weeds take over. It is much better to plan ahead, and start small, so that you can keep up with the garden and the produce that you get.
Cool Weather Vegetables
One of the biggest challenges to new gardeners is when to plant what, and the average last frost date is the key to that decision. Cool weather vegetables such as kale, potatoes and mustards are quite happy in cool soil and they can take a little bit of frost. These can be transplanted from about two weeks before that frost date, but they can also be planted up to several weeks after as well. Before planting make sure that the soil is well drained. Too many late winter and early spring soils are not only cool but they are very wet, and will need to dry out before you plant. Too late into the season, say mid May, will be too warm for many of these vegetables to grow well, and that is the time to switch over to warm weather vegetables. To hasten drainage and heat the soil slightly, make small raised hill or rows. The raised areas will drain quickly when spring rain does occur, making a big difference to seedling and transplants. You can also plant seeds for the cabbage family in general around, or just after the frost date to give you a succession of plants maturing over several weeks.
Warm Weather Vegetables
Warm weather vegetables are those that can take the heat of southern summers and thrive in full sun. Tomatoes, peppers, basil and melons are all frost tender and should to wait until the weather has settled into warm pattern. Many gardeners rush putting out tender vegetables to get a jump on the season, and mistakenly think that no frost equals warmth. In reality just because you are past a frost, does not mean that soil has warmed sufficiently to plant, neither does it mean that the temperatures will be stable. Warm weather vegetables such as basil and tomatoes will sit and sulk if the soil is cool and the temperatures drop below 80° day/60° night temperatures. In garden tests, those that were put out just before, just after and 4, 6 weeks after the frost date, were all compared. The later tomatoes took off when they were planted and overtook the ones that were planted too early*. The message therefore is to wait until the weather has really settled before planting these heat loving plants.
With vegetables being so popular, those with no garden should not feel left out as many vegetables can be grown in containers as well as the ground. So whatever your situation, try a tomato or some lettuce – you will be glad that you did.
*Daryl Pullis, Garden Writer, did this experiment in North Georgia.