The first rule of the successful gardener is to work with nature not against it. Every plant has a range of optimum conditions for growth. Learn what your plants like and they will reward you with abundance. For example, some plants are cold tolerant compared to others that are heat-lovers. This fact is helpful in spreading out the work in the garden. You need not wait until the last frost date to plant cold tolerant types. After these are up and running you can turn your attention to the heat-lovers.
As soon as the ground is dry enough to work in the Spring, (between March 30 and April 15th in my Zone 4b/5a garden) make smooth seed beds for carrots, beets, spinach, Swiss chard, kale, peas, and lettuce to name a few. They can hold steady through some cold days or nights. As soon as the conditions are right they will take off. By early May you could already be harvesting tender greens.
Note that cold tolerant plants conversely are usually sensitive to heat. Lettuce can be grown very early in spring but goes quickly to seed when the temps start to climb.* These cold tolerant plants can be grown again in the fall when in cools down. Just make sure you leave enough time for them to mature. To do this you need to know two things, the number of days to maturity (from the seed packet) and the date of first fall frost in your area (call your agriculture extension office if you don’t know). Cold tolerant vegetables can withstand frost and colder temps into the fall as well as the spring. Figure about one month past your fall frost date and count back the number of days to maturity for your vegetable. That is the last date you can plant and expect to have a fall harvest. In my area I plant carrots in early July for fall (and winter).
After the threat of frost is past in Spring, you can seed your heat loving plants. Now is the time to plant green beans, corn, zucchini, and cucumbers. When planting seeds always prepare a smooth bed. Summer’s heat and plenty of water will have you picking bumper crops of these veggies.
You may have noticed I have left out many common garden vegetables. These are the ones best started indoors or in a cold frame and transplanted later into the garden.
Transplants are required when there aren’t enough warm days in summer to guarantee a mature crop. Remember the “days to maturity” mentioned above? This implies number of days at optimal temperatures. Tomatoes need days over 80F and nights no colder than 65F. To get that, I need to start these indoors several weeks before the last frost date and plant the established plants after all danger of frost is past. Other plants that require this are peppers, winter squash, pumpkins, and eggplant. So, find out the first and last frost date in your area to see which plants can be grown directly from seed and which need to be transplanted.
*Staggered planting times
In addition to an early planting of lettuce above, guarantee fresh heads by planting a dozen or so seeds every few weeks in Spring and again in late summer into fall. This isn’t necessary for plants like kale and chard that have a wide heat tolerance. Cut leaves rather than the whole plant and come back again and again as the plant continually grows new leaves.