Planting Time: An Overview of How to Decide What to Plant When

Mother’s Day is almost here and in our culture it’s a traditional day for planting out heat-loving summer fruit, vegetables and herbs – your tomatoes, peppers, and basil, for instance. Likewise your heat-loving summer annuals, including the non-hardy begonias, impatience, fuchsias, geraniums or brugmansia-laden container gardens or hanging baskets. Together these vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers are the focal points of tropical taste, form, fragrance and flower that really make the summer garden.

PHOTOS ABOVE: Tomatoes and lettuce. Given the summer heat of interior Northern California, it is rare to have good lettuce (a cool-season crop) at the same time as good ripe tomatoes (a warm-season crop) from my home garden. If you want to grow tomatoes from seed and have them ready to plant outdoors after the average Last Frost Date (LFD) and/or by Mother’s Day (when the soil will have warmed close to the preferred temperature of tomato plants: at least 55 degrees) seeds will need to be started indoors about 8 weeks (or more) before this. The LFD for much of the North Valley is around the last week of April, therefore seeds should be started indoors in well-lit, protected greenhouse conditions no later than the last week of February. Lettuce can be seeded directly into garden for much of our gardening year except in the peak heat of summer. Lettuce seeds prefer temperatures of between 40 and 80 degrees for germination and between 60 and 80 degrees for best growth.

Year round, but particularly in spring, people ask me: what should I be planting now or when should I plant that? And year-round, I respond with the same vague and not-particularly-helpful-in-an-instant-gratification-way answer: “Well, it depends.”


What-to-plant-when is one of the great, age-old questions of gardening and farming since human beings began the art and toil of cultivation. In most cases the answers depend on things we don’t have the answers to ahead of time (READ: The Weather). But even while the variables will always vary, and the things on which your decisions depend will rarely be fully dependable, there are some very good general rules that will help you forge ahead anyway.

PHOTOS ABOVE: The seeds of the garden in spring and summer.

The first rule is Pay Attention to the natural world around you. What kind of plants are sprouting, budding, flowering and setting seed at what times throughout the year? From these observations, you will glean a lot of information about what kinds of plants your garden (flower or vegetable) is ready to receive at what times. The native plants around us are reacting to the very things that you need to be aware of when planting yourself – hours of daylight, average day and nighttime temperatures, and soil temperature.

PHOTOS ABOVE: Peas are cool-season crops and in our area prefer to be direct-seeded in late winter to early spring (Jan/Feb) for peak yields in May. Eggplants are warm-season crops and are treated much like tomatoes with seeds started in protected, well-lit conditions about 8 weeks before planting out in the garden after LFD and soil has warmed.


For spring planting, Mother’s Day is a traditional date to plant out tomatoes and peppers and basil and other such heat-loving annuals because mid-May, when Mother’s Day falls, is after average last frost for most areas in which people live and garden. As daylight hours lengthen, as the sun is higher and more directly warming the planet on its daily path, nighttime temperatures and garden soil responds in kind so that all conditions are warm enough to protect tender foliage and to sustain root and microbial life of these heat-loving plants.

PHOTOS ABOVE: Peppers and Tomatillos are both warm-season crops and are treated much like tomatoes with seeds started in protected, well-lit conditions about 8 weeks before planting out in the garden after LFD and soil has warmed.

Each plant has particular temperature, length of daylight and soil conditions under which it most cheerfully and successfully germinates, puts down roots, sends up shoots, blooms and then sets fruit/seed. Get a handle on these conditions for the plants you love to eat or enjoy and you will develop a sense of when it’s best to plant them and also when you can get away with planting them.

PHOTOS ABOVE: Carrots are cool-season annual root crops preferring to be direct-seeded into garden soil for germination when temperatures are between 45 and 85 degrees; they can take between 6 – 14 days to germinate, so be patient. Carrots are generally seeded outdoors in March, or August in our region. Melons are warm season annuals and can be directly seeded into warmed garden soil after LFD – late April through May in our region.


When it comes to how to approach your edible garden, some of the best advice I’ve had is to start with a list of the fruit and vegetables you already like. Then do a little research on when it’s best to plant these things. For each season of your veg garden then – Spring Summer Fall and Winter – you will have the a solid starting point of which seeds or starts you’d like to get.

PHOTOS ABOVE: Strawberries and Winter Squash. Strawberries are perennials that can be planted or divided in early spring. Winter squash and summer squash alike are warm season crops that prefer to be directly seeded into warmed garden soil after LFD.

For the research part of this task, regional planting calendars, seed packs and edible gardening reference guides are all vast sources of information and will help you rough out a general outline for when to START SEEDS of these preferred fruits and vegetables and/or when to set seedlings out in the garden itself.

PHOTOS ABOVE: Blueberries and potatoes. Blueberries are perennial shrubs that can be planted in fall, winter or early spring in our region. While they do not in general love very hot weather and need a minimum number of cold days in order to bear well, look for southern and/or heat adapted varieties at local garden centers. Potatoes are grown from seed potatoes or cut up portions of them. They are planted January – March in our region and as they grow you mound soil around the growing stalks to encourage node growth off of the entire length of the plant.

For our area, I have several different planting calendars that I cross-reference (my six years of vegetable garden journals since moving here, a published Planting Guide from the Sacramento Bee’s California Life, a published Planting Guide from C Bar D Feed Shop in Chico, two years of the Butte County Master Gardeners Calendar and a Gardening by the Moon Calendar). I frequently check my favorite edible garden reference book(s) for guidance as well – these include “Organic Food: The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing” and the “Seed Starters Handbook” among many others.

PHOTOS ABOVE: Fennel. Fennel is perennial warm season herb. If you dig and eat the entire plant, it will need to be treated as an annual and replanted each year. It sows easily from seed in late spring or later.

For all your crops, take some time to enjoy and understand the process itself and you’ll enjoy the harvest all the more – from lettuce and carrots and beets and peas which you can happily sow directly into garden soil much of the year and watch the fun begin, to the crops needing more careful calculations like the three different kinds of onions, or tomatoes for which you need to count back the number of days needed for their germination and growth before setting the beauties out into your warming spring soil on a lovely Mother’s Day in mid-May.

PHOTO ABOVE: Nasturtiums are warm season annuals and easily started indoors as seed before LFD or directly sowed in warmed garden soil after LFD.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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4 Responses

  1. Avatar Carrie Dokter says:

    Love, love, love your column!! 🙂

  2. Avatar Jennifer Jewell says:

    Thank you!

  3. Avatar Pamela says:

    The photos take my breath away. Beautiful, stunning. Who wouldn't want to have these delicious fruits and vegtables in a garden!