We’ve made it past the point when a furry, brown meteorologist named Phil emerged from Gobbler’s Knob and let us know that winter’s icy grip may soon be loosening. For some – particularly those who have grown so weary of drab scenery that if someone mentions even one shade of gray again we might lose it – thoughts turn to happier, greener times and spring gardening. We start daydreaming about the fresh salads and juicy tomatoes that summer will soon share. But before we can harvest that bounty, there is a lot of prep and consideration to put into planting the summer garden. Here are some tips and tricks to getting you on your green-thumb way.

When

To start your garden you first need to decide whether it will be from seed or with the garden-ready plants found at most garden centers. When starting from seed, you have more control over the selection and variety of plants you will be growing. On the other hand, starting with garden-ready plants is a bit more foolproof, particularly for the beginning gardener.

Starting from seed will require that you begin sooner and most likely indoors. The general rule is that you start seeds sprouting 6 weeks prior to the last average frost in your area. This is to allow the plants ample time to sprout and build strong root systems before they head out in the unpredictable spring weather. You can find your last frost date from The Old Farmer’s Almanac or from Burpee’s interactive growing calendar which allows you to put in your zip code for specific information. Most places in Pennsylvania consider mid to late April as the time in which the last frost will occur.

Start with plants you will begin planting around, or slightly later than, the previously mentioned last frost date. Some particularly warm-loving crops like tomatoes and peppers fall on the later end of the spectrum, especially in cool climates like that found in Pennsylvania.

Where

The first thing to consider when deciding on location is the amount of sun your crops will get in any given area. Anyone that remembers elementary school science recalls the magic of photosynthesis and the need of most vegetable-bearing crops to get as much sun as possible. This varies more for flowers and herbs, with indicators to the type of sun a certain variety should get on the seed packet or plant marker. Two other big factors include space and soil quality.

Space factors are a huge consideration when planning your garden. Not only do many popular crops – like summer squash, tomatoes and eggplant – need to be planted with at least two feet of growth space to produce well, a more spacious garden will also require more time for tending. Not to worry, even those with very limited space or time can enjoy homegrown goods by trying their hand at container gardening. In fact, many leading seed and plant companies, like Burpee and Bonnie, now carry special varieties of favorite vegetables specifically bred to do well in container environments.

Soil factors and their importance are going to largely depend on the type of plants you are growing. Many vegetables, like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and eggplant, prefer soil with a pH level between 6 – 7. A good mix of organic materials (i.e. composted material), minerals, and microscopic life are also vital to plant health. Some of these may be less attainable in particularly sandy or clay-heavy soils. You may also deal with very rocky soil in mountainous regions. If your area has less than ideal soil, you may want to consider raised bed gardens, which will allow you to fill them with high quality soil, enable the soil to warm quickly, and limit pests and weeds from overtaking your crops.

What

Though this is probably the first thing you thought of when you began daydreaming of green things during the depths of winter, it truly should come after plans for space and time commitment have been made. If you are having a hard time whittling down the list of all the things you want to plant, here are a few plans of action to consider.

Themed gardens can pack a powerful punch in a small space perhaps a layout that includes all of your favorite salad veggies. Or plant a garden that includes the tomatoes, peppers and herbs required in fantastic Mexican or Italian dishes. You can also consider companion planting , in which planting certain varieties together is thought to aid each in growth and pest control. One such garden is called the three sisters and was taught to European settlers by the Iroquois Indians. In such a garden, corn, pole beans and squash or pumpkins benefit from the close planting of one another.

By: Heather Hanson