When Can I Start Planting My Spring Vegetable Garden?

Sharon Hanna gives great tips on how to best prepare for spring vegetable gardening. Even if you can't plant seeds yet, there's always something to do!

Credit: iStock

Too cold?

Soil is chilly for most food crops but if you have raised beds, try sowing arugula, mache, onion sets and Asian greens as long as soil isn’t mucky. Tuck in some broad beans and snow peas too, using inoculant, which encourages microbial activity in cold soils. 


Getting lighter

As of mid-February light levels increase, plants begin to grow – hooray! Start pots of lettuce in a cool greenhouse, or sow in a cold frame. Sow “slow” annuals in a cool greenhouse or indoors with bottom heat: Salpiglossis, snapdragons, cleome, petunias, begonias, impatiens and more.


Try something other than grass

Grass lawns require work, precious water and chemicals to stay that way. Tough, environmentally friendly lawn alternatives grown from seed. Consider replacing some of your sunny lawn areas with garden beds to grow veggies, berries or fruit trees. Or, opt for raised beds. Some companies will deliver grow boxes as well as soil right to your door.


There’s always prep work

Can’t garden yet? How about some TLC for garden tools – rub spades and hand tools with emery cloth, applying a thin coat of linseed oil to deter rust. Badly rusted tools? Try an overnight vinegar bath, then dry and rub with oil. 


Mason bees

Be on the lookout for mason bees! These hard-working pollinators are vital as other bees struggle with environmental problems. Make or buy special housing to encourage them to linger. Nectar providers include native currant (Ribes sanguineum), other berries, Pieris, Doronicum (leopard’s bane) and heather, as well as dandelions and buttercups, so allow these “weeds” a place in wilder sections of your yard. 


Seeds and seedlings

Feed your garlic seedlings – a snack of liquid fish or kelp is appreciated now and occasionally through June. 

Seedy Saturday is the place to find heirloom/heritage seeds, knowledgeable growers, and enthusiastic fellow gardeners. Be sure to attend! Last year there were literally thousands of enthusiastic gardeners buying up the great seeds, many of them locally grown. See page 65 for more on seed and plant sales. 

Speaking of seed-starting, use a good quality soil-less starter mix. Regular garden soil is too heavy, full of critters and assorted microorganisms that can nip precious seedlings in the bud. 

Consider purchasing a heating cable to provide bottom heat to the many types of seeds that prefer it. Indoor grow lights are a good investment too.

If you want to grow tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica), start them now. Consult a reliable seed catalogue for growing info. 


The year of the tomato

Tomatos. Photo credit: iStock

The National Garden Bureau has dubbed 2011 as “the year of the tomato.” Tomatoes grow quickly indoors but can’t be set outside until the weather warms – usually mid to late May. On the coast, tomato lovers should choose reliable types with short “days to maturity” like ‘Green Grape’, ‘Sungold’, ‘Black Cherry’, ‘Early Girl’, ‘Elfin Cherry’ and the delectable ‘Cherry Buzz’ (Territorial Seeds), ‘Honeybee’ (McFayden) and ‘Tiny Tim’ (Veseys). 


Small fruits (raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, grapes, rhubarb, etc.) arrive in garden centres this month to be planted now, or when you are able to dig. Try one of the new day-neutral type strawberries with extended harvest and delicious sweetness! 


Fertilizing with compost and other chores

Soon your compost will come to life. Continue to layer using leaves stored from last fall. Avoid the “dump and run” method of piling on veggie wastes. The extra minute it takes to alternate carbon (dry) and nitrogen (wet) layers will give you great results. Peel potatoes, apples, and veggie parings directly onto a doubled sheet of newspaper. Roll like a cabbage roll and add to compost – instant carbon/nitrogen layering saves washing a cutting board or bowl. 

Fertilize with care – overdoing it harms the planet. Instead of “chemical” options, try kelp meal, rock phosphate, alfalfa, worm castings and more for thriving plants and a healthy Mother Earth.

Dig and divide snowdrops (Galanthus) after flowers fade if you’d like to increase your stock or give them away to friends! 

Cut type-“C” clematis back to knee height and top-dress with rich organic matter like compost or manure. 

Prune back winter-flowering shrubs lightly, and nip annual weeds now to minimize weeding chores later.

sweet peas
Sweet peas. Photo credit: iStock

Prepare sweet-pea beds by digging deeply, adding a 10-cm (4-in.) layer of compost or manure, topping with soil. Add soil inoculant to help the peas thrive. Seedlings (or seed) can be carefully planted when the soil warms a bit, usually by the end of March on the coast, mid-April in colder zones. A load of nourishment encourages long stems, nice big blooms and luxuriant scent!