Working for a major mail-order seed company in the 1970s, I learned that when the economy plunges, vegetable seed sales soar. This is certainly the case these days as many Mainers get ready to plant their first vegetable gardens.
Planning the first garden — coordinating planting dates with the seasons — is not an easy task for novice gardeners. What are the dates for first frost and last frost in my garden? Which vegetable crops should be planted in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked, and which should be planted only after the soil has warmed and there is no chance of a late frost? Are there particular varieties that perform better in Maine gardens? Is there any way to extend the gardening season?
According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center, Bangor-area gardeners have a 50 percent chance of a frost-free growing season (low temperatures at or above 32 degrees Fahrenheit) from May 24 until Sept. 19. This is only 117 days!
Fortunately for Maine gardeners, there are many vegetable crops that prefer cool soil temperatures for germination or that will tolerate light frosts on either end of the gardening season. Among these are peas, beets, radishes, onions and spinach.
Also, for many summer crops, there are early maturing varieties that are well suited to short-season gardens. My favorite cherry tomato, Sun Gold, matures in only 57 days and continues to bear fruit until frost. For a complete listing of recommended vegetable varieties for Maine gardens, see the University of Maine Cooperative Extension publication, “Vegetable Varieties for Maine Gardens” (Bulletin No. 2190), available online at www.umext.maine.edu.
For each vegetable crop, there is a window of time for sowing seeds or planting seedlings that will result in a successful harvest. Seeds of crops that can tolerate a light frost can be sown directly in the garden in April, often as soon as the soil can be worked. Direct-seeded summer crops, such as cucumbers and squash, should not be sown until late May or early June.
Seedlings of tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and other crops that grow well only in the settled warmth of summer are typically transplanted to the garden in late May or early June. If grown at home, the seeds for these transplants should not be sown until late March or early April.
Correct timing of sowing and planting is but one aspect of successful garden planning. Next week I will take a look at several ways Maine gardeners can lengthen the growing season in their gardens.