The days are noticeably longer and you’re thinking it may be time to start a vegetable garden. Don’t worry that you haven’t started seeds indoors — in most areas of the country, you can direct-sow many vegetable seeds after all danger of frost has passed. Check this map for average dates of last frost in spring.
Here are our top choices for vegetables to direct-sow in your garden this spring.
There are two types of lettuces: head lettuce and leaf lettuce, and they all thrive in the cooler weather of spring and fall. As a rule, tender lettuces like daytime highs between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Read online descriptions and seed packets for “days to maturity” and work with your average date first frost in fall and last frost in spring (found in this frost date calendar) to sow seeds.
The beauty of growing lettuces is in succession sowing. Set aside a raised bed or a garden trug just for lettuces, fill it with organic gardening soil enriched with compost and sow seeds every week for a continual harvest. Plant a variety of leaf lettuces and make your own gourmet salad mix. Get more tips for growing lettuce.
Grow spinach in your garden for good taste and good nutrition. The sturdy leaves are packed with vitamins and iron, and are delicious when added to salads or sautéed in olive oil. Spinach needs cool temperatures, so you can plant an early spring crop, and sow seeds again in late summer for a fall crop. You can harvest spinach by cutting a bunch of leaves at the soil line, or picking leaves a few at a time.
Like the lettuces above, spinach is a good candidate for container gardening. Look for Burpee’s Spinach Space Hybrid for leaves that mature in just 38 days for “baby spinach.”
If they’re not already, radishes should be near the top of your list of favorite vegetables to grow. Plant them, and when you taste the real, fresh roots from the garden, you will always include them in your plans. Part of the appeal is the quick reward: varieties like Burpee’s Cherry Giant are ready for harvest after just 25 days. Like lettuces, radishes like mild temperatures in spring and fall, and are ideal for succession planting.
Grow beets in your garden for delicious greens and edible roots. Pay careful attention to the days to maturity for beets, they can range from seven to nine weeks before you can harvest. Plant early in spring, as soon as you can after the last frost. Beets can be harvested and sown every three weeks throughout the warm months of summer.
Varieties like Ferry-Morse Detroit Dark Red can be harvested early for sweet ‘baby’ beets.
Carrots are a classic starter vegetable in a children’s garden, and they’re grown best in raised garden beds that have the loose, friable soil that helps the roots grow straight. Carrots are tasty fresh from the earth (rinse them first), and have myriad culinary uses, both raw and cooked. Carrot greens are edible, too, and can be chopped up in a carrot top pesto or sauteed with other garden greens.
Plant carrots as soon as the soil can be worked in spring. They’re a cool weather vegetable, growing best when nighttime temps are 55 degrees and daytime temps are 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Sow carrot seeds in rows and cover with about a half inch of soil. Carrot seeds take 14 to 21 days to germinate, so keep the soil evenly moist after planting. Look for Seeds of Change Garden Carrot seeds for a mix of sweet Nantes and Imperator types.
Bok choy is a quick-growing Chinese cabbage that is sometimes called “pac choi.” It’s delicious cooked in stir-fries and sautees. Bok choy matures quickly, in about 50 days, and needs a lot of sun, at least six to eight hours a day. Consider a variety like Ferry-Morse ‘Toy Choy' for containers.
Sow peas in cool soil to enjoy them within 60 days, or sometimes as early as 45 days after planting.
Three types of peas can be planted: crunchy Sugar Snaps, which are eaten whole; tender, flat Snow Pea pods, also eaten whole; and Shell or English, from which sweet, plump peas are removed from tough pods.
Peas can be vining or bush variety, so check the seed packet before planting to determine whether you will need to plant along a trellis or fence if you choose the vining variety.
Steps for planting peas:
- Soak peas in water 12 to 24 hours before planting to increase germination.
- Choose a spot in the garden with full sun and loose soil.
- Plant climbers in double rows 6 to 8-inches apart on either side of a trellis or along a fence line.
- Space seeds of bush or dwarf peas 1-inch apart in rows 2-feet apart.
Pods are ready to pick about three weeks after blossoms appear. You should harvest peas daily to catch them at their prime and to encourage plants to keep producing.
Edible beans are popular and easy to grow. Look for snap beans, shelling beans and dry beans for your garden, and growth habits including bush beans, half-runners and pole beans. Beans can be directly sown in the garden once the soil has warmed in spring.
Pole beans and half-runners will need trellising for support. A DIY planter box with a built-in trellis is convenient. There are other options, just be sure to get them in the ground before the plants take off.
Corn is a garden favorite for many reasons: it’s easy to grow, it's versatility in the kitchen, and, you know, corn on the cob. Sow corn seed in the garden after all danger of frost. Plant in several short rows so that the plants can cross-pollinate. Sow seeds three to four inches apart, and after they germinate, thin to one seedling every foot. Corn needs the space so the light can reach the ears.
Silver Queen corn is the standard, a tried-and-true favorite for gardeners, producing 8-inch long ears. Look for Burpee WP White Silver Queen corn. Corn takes around 90 days from seed to maturity.
Cucumbers are most successful when foliage shades the ground and vines scramble up toward the sun on a trellis designed to please their curling tendrils.
Cucumbers trained up a trellis tend to be very robust, so you will need only four to six plants to grow a lush, productive harvest. Remove weeds and spent plants from a sunny, well-drained site, and make a trellising plan before preparing planting holes. After the trellis is installed, make 8-inch deep planting holes for cucumbers, enrich each one with a spadeful of compost and add one-half cup of a balanced, organic vegetable garden fertilizer.
Zucchini is a winner in the summer vegetable garden. You only need a few plants to keep you well-supplied with tasty squash throughout the summer. Sow zucchini seeds in spring after all danger of frost is past. Look for varieties like Ferry-Morse Black Beauty. The plants can be large, up to 4 feet across, so allow space for the plants to grow.
To get the most out of your plants, pick zucchini often to encourage more fruiting. Pay attention in high summer because the squash is ready to pick just when the blossom falls off.
Summer squash, like zucchini, can take up a lot of space in the garden. If you have a patio garden or a raised bed, look for climbing varieties that you can support on a trellis.
In the garden, sow summer squash in hills, 9 to 12 inches tall and 2 feet across. When the seedlings reach 3 inches tall, thin to the 3 strongest seedlings per hill. Mulch is always a good idea around squash plants.
Watermelon needs a long growing season, on the order of 80 days from germination to maturity. They are absolutely worth growing, but you need to get started early. To warm up the planting bed in spring, spread black plastic over the soil for up to three weeks. Sow seeds after all danger of frost has passed, about 1-inch deep in garden soil amended with compost. Give watermelon vines room to ramble and feed with a balanced fertilizer at planting, when the vines emerge, and when the fruit sets.
Look for favorite watermelon varieties like ‘Sugar Baby’ that will weigh in at 8 pounds, and Giant Garden Leader Monster seed, that, if all goes well, will yield fruit in the 20 to 30-pound range.
Winter squashes like Buttercup, Hubbard, Acorn and Spaghetti are grown in summer, but are called “winter squashes” because their thick skins make them ideal for storing and using in fall and winter. Look for vining varieties that you can tie to trellises and let them soak up sunshine in summer. Unlike tender summer squash, they are not edible until fully ripe. One test for ripeness is to run your thumbnail against the skin; if it’s hard to dent, then the squash is ripe. Ferry-Morse offers a winter mix seed packet that includes Burgess Buttercup, Gold Nugget, True Green Hubbard, Table Gold Acorn and Vegetable Spaghetti.
Grow pumpkins for Jack O’Lantern carving and for pie filling in fall. Look for varieties from small decorative pumpkins to sugar “pie” pumpkins, and the larger, flat-bottomed squashes that are ideal for carving. Pumpkins need 100 days to mature and need full sun, at least six to eight hours each day.
Tips for planting pumpkins: For planting, follow recommendations on the seed packet, most varieties are planted in hills at least 2 feet apart.
- Sow seeds in hills 9 to 12 inches tall and a foot across. Keep the top of each hill flat, not mounded, so that water can reach the plants. Seeds will germinate within 10 days.
- When plants are an inch tall, thin to three plants per hill. When vines are 3 inches high, thin to the strongest plant in each hill.
- Protect plants with a few inches of organic mulch to suppress weeds and retain moisture. Top dress with organic compost to keep plants healthy and growing.
- Water frequently. Like most vegetables, count on at least an inch of water a week, and focus the spray on the plant’s roots, or consider drip irrigation or a soaker hose on a timer to regulate watering.
- Pumpkins are ready to harvest when you scratch the rind with a fingernail and you can’t puncture the skin. Use a knife to cut the pumpkin from the vine, at least 3 inches from the fruit. Pumpkins need to be cured before using or storing.
Direct sowing seeds is a popular and easy way to plant your vegetable garden. Sow after the danger of frost has passed, in good quality soil and a sunny location for the very best start to growing your own food.