By: Madi Bragg
What can I plant before the last frost and what should wait for consistently warmer weather?
I get this question a lot as folks hear statements like “don’t plant until May long weekend at the earliest” or “plant after all the snow has melted off Castle Mountain”. This week I will address this question mainly in regards to growing vegetables.
There are in fact tons of plants that grow really well here in the valley that are quite frost tolerant and would in fact prefer to be planted earlier in the season rather than later. There are even some plants that will self seed in my garden so judging by when they poke their first leaves up I know when they are ready to be planted.
We have a relatively short season here in the Elk Valley, our last frost dates in Fernie are around the end of May, in Sparwood it could even be early June and in Elkford middle of June, so taking advantage of the spring thaw and before the last frost can be a very important vegetable growing time.
In early spring vegetables that first pop up in my garden include garlic, spinach, lettuce, carrots, radishes and all the brassicas which include kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts. Most garlic should be planted in the fall for harvest the following summer.
Spinach, radishes and lettuce especially enjoy the cool weather and seed can be thrown down quite early in the spring for it to sprout whenever it is ready to. It has been my experience that they need less care then as it is cool and damp much of the time and when they go to seed the previous year they will happily self seed all over my garden.
Carrots normally require quite a bit of care. The seed needs to stay wet for 14-20 days as they must be damp when they sprout. The seed is also very light and cannot be covered too heavily with soil. I have found that early spring is optimal for creating the right conditions for successful sprouting of this seed. If you put a lightweight row cover over the carrot bed this can also add the extra touch of heat allowing the seeds to germinate even quicker. Keep in mind that you need very light, sandy soil for long straight carrot roots but if you prep the garden bed the autumn before you can quite successfully start these little tasty treats very early in the season. Also be aware that the seed is so tiny and light this crop does require thinning. Radishes are a super quick cool weather crop and are often planted with carrots as they are ready to harvest way before they crowd out any carrots.
Growing broccoli, cauliflower, kale and the other vegetables in the brassicas family here is a wonderful use of your garden space. They like cool weather and we sure do get plenty of that here. I grow just four broccoli plants and that keeps my family of four in broccoli for almost the whole year. Most varieties are frost tolerant down to about -6 or -7 degrees and if it’s going to be colder, just toss a small cover over them at night. The smaller the plants are, the hardier they seem to be to the cold so don’t try to transplant a large brassica too early, but once they have their first set of “true” leaves (not the pair of clover shaped starter leaves, but the next set of leaves) they are usually safe to transplant. This crop does like nitrogen rich soil so I like to use aged chicken manure in the bed, and a heavier mix of clay in the dirt like we find here in Fernie is no issue for this crop.
Onion sets, peas and potatoes can all be planted before the last frost date. I like to sprout my peas before planting them, but that’s optional, they will happily sprout on their own through frost and damp weather. Potatoes need to be planted so deeply that they take a while to poke up above the ground so once the soil is workable and the day time temps have warmed I usually transplant my seed potatoes.
There are lots of popular vegetables that do not do so well in the cold or damp weather so make sure you wait until the soil has warmed up and we are consistently seeing warmer nights to plant these. Examples would include tomatoes, beans, peppers, melons and squashes. Tomatoes are so tasty fresh from the garden, but require a long season so make sure to start your seeds indoors or buy some transplants from your local garden centre.
Beans can be sprouted and then planted, but if the weather turns and it gets cold and damp, you may need to replant this crop as they can rot under those conditions. Cucumbers are the same, and definitely prefer warmer soil and to be covered too. If you decide to use transplants, be very gentle with this sensitive plant and try to match the soil temperature of your seedlings with their garden bed to reduce transplant “shock”.
Melons, peppers, and winter squashes all need lots of warm weather to successfully produce the fruits we like so much. You may want to increase heat and extend the season for these crops using covered hoop houses, plastic on the beds, etc.
Zucchini, a summer squash, can be quite successful here. I haven’t bought a zucchini in at least eight years as they also freeze so well grated or chopped. Be aware that if you are not hugely successful with this crop, it may just be the variety, try a different kind and don’t give up on this prolific plant.
Don’t forget to ask your local gardeners what varieties of plants they like to use as sometimes it is just the type of vegetable you are growing that doesn’t work so well in your area, but local knowledge can be so incredibly helpful.