Have you ever felt mildly depressed seeing the pictures of gardeners who live in a climate where things are green by the end of March/beginning of April? Have you ever seethed with envy seeing these same warm-climate gardeners start to do actual gardening or have the very first inklings of a harvest during this same time period? Do you look out your window at three feet of snow (minimum!) with above-freezing temperatures far off in the distance?
While we cold-climate gardeners will probably always experience the green-eyed monster during this time, take heart. You can actually start gardening as soon as the snow melts–especially if you have raised beds. Many cold-tolerant plants prefer to be seeded as soon as the soil can be worked. While you can’t just put any old plant outdoors and hope for the best, you can scratch that gardening itch and have an earlier harvest when everyone is still dreaming.
Figuring Out Spring Extension
When I first started out on this journey to extend my season, I was met with much hesitation. Most gardeners use the May Long Weekend (3rd weekend in May) as their safe-to-plant day, and no seed shall go out before then. But I had seen the occasional person use a cold frame and knew it was possible. I was also motivated by a severe lack of space under my grow lights and needed any plant that could handle it to get outdoors ASAP! As I started my experiments, I had three main questions:
What plants could survive the last frost?
How could I use cold frames & row covers effectively?
How much earlier would I need to start these plants?
I started by researching cold-tolerant plants and by trying anything that said it liked cooler temperatures on a seed packet. Anything with directions to plant as soon as the soil could be worked was fair game! I also used row covers like this one, as I found they were a bit more forgiving than cold frames.
Honestly, many plants were killed along the way–especially cut flowers! I needed to know how much I could push these plants, and the only way to find out was to take some risks.
Eventually, I would come up with four main rules to guide my early plantings.
My Working Rules
- Aim to plant all plants as soon as the soil can be worked or shortly after
- Start any plants that aren’t direct sown with an April 15-30 plant date in mind
- Raised beds work best
- Start hardening off outdoors as soon as the weather allows
The Most Important Rule Before You Get Started
When you start experimenting with early season growing, one rule must be followed: don’t plant anything you aren’t willing to lose or replace! Living in a place like Saskatchewan, you must be prepared for the possibility of surprise -10 to -20 temperatures late into the season. So please don’t put all your hopes, dreams, and most precious plants into your cool-season garden!
A good rule of thumb with any precious starts you’re worried about, but want to plant anyway, is only to plant half of what you have early. That way, you’re still freeing up space in your grow room, but you won’t lose everything should the worst happen.
Don’t Forget to water!
The other thing that will kill your plants (besides the cold) is forgetting to water them. I don’t know why, but my brain doesn’t register that I need to water my plants until I send out mostly everything in late May. Check your plants every day, and water accordingly.
Since there are still freezing temperatures occasionally overnight, you likely can not use your hoses without risking them breaking. Unfortunately, this means many trips to the sink indoors with the watering can. However, the annoyance of making many trips is far less than having a burst hose (or worse, a burst pipe and an expensive plumbing bill).
Cool-Loving vs Heat-Loving Plants
Cool-loving plants can be planted out early once the snow melts and the soil is workable, whereas heat-loving plants need warmer soil temperatures and can’t tolerate frost. Tomatoes, peppers, and other heat-loving plants will suffer if you stick them out too early! If you want to push the boundaries of your garden, try it with cool-loving plants, not heat-loving plants. Doing this ensures you kill fewer plants!
COOL-LOVING VEGETABLES FOR EARLY PLANTING
Arugula is one of the quickest greens to grow and is delicious in salads and on top of your pizza.
2. Asian Greens
I love growing bok choi, as it’s quick to grow and delicious in stir fry or as a baby green in salads.
Beets are a bit less cold-tolerant than some of the others listed here and can be used for both the roots and the greens.
You can direct sow broccoli or put your starts out.
Carrots are tricky to germinate. Cover with a board or cloth to help keep the moisture in.
Kale is very cold tolerant and a good vegetable to start with in your cold-tolerant garden.
I like to plant lettuce in many different colours so that my patch is both good to eat and beautiful.
Peas are very cold tolerant and do better planted early than at the usual time in late May.
Another quick to grow crop that is more successful if planted immediately after the snow melts.
14. Russian Tarragon
Russian tarragon is an extremely tough herb and can handle cold temperatures up to -10°C/50°F.
The only time I have grown successful spinach was when I started it very early. Whenever I plant it during the May Long Weekend, it bolts before I can eat it.
16. Swiss Chard
My favourite green! Plant the bright lights variety for maximum prettiness.
COOL-LOVING FLOWERS FOR EARLY PLANTING
Ammi is considered invasive in some areas, so please check your areas invasive plant list before planting!
Anemones are an incredibly tough flower and are good to start with when you’re new to planting early-season cut flowers.
I love calendula because it is so easy to save seeds from! Plant it in a spot that you want it for years to come, and it will easily reseed itself.
Cress is one of my favourite cut flowers, and I was overjoyed to learn that it can handle the cold.
7. Frosted Explosion Grass
Larkspur are happiest direct sown.
Because of our short growing season, I always have to start my ranunculus indoors and they are quite sizeable by the time I get them outside.
Snapdragons are very cold-tolerant in the fall but a bit more tender in the spring.
Statice is one of my favourite flowers to use, dried or fresh.
Stock has the most delicious scent, and even though it’s a one-and-done flower, it still gets a place in my garden.
Strawflowers are a little less cold-tolerant than others on this list but can still be planted out early.
15. Sweet Peas
This is my first time starting sweet peas indoors to send out early, and I’m very pleased by how cold-tolerant they are.
There you have it! Growing an early garden can be rewarding and fun!
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