Find Out What You Can Grow Before Your Threat of Frost Has Passed
I'm looking forward to my last frost date, but not so I can begin planting for the spring. I've already been growing and even harvesting loads of delicious things in my garden, including spinach and lettuce leaves to fill my salad bowl.
You too can plant and grow many of your favorite veggies before your last frost date. My rule of thumb is, by the time the birds start chirping in spring, your garden should already be planted with frost-tolerant herbs, leafy greens, and root crops.
In order to understand what's possible though, it's a good idea to get to know your growing seasons a little better.
What Is the Significance of a Last Frost Date?
Your last frost date is the average date of the last light freeze in spring for your area (note the word "average"; this is just an estimation based on historical climate data). In case you're wondering, a light freeze is when the temperature ranges from 29°F to 32°F. This type of freeze is enough to kill tender plants like tomatoes and basil, but there are many plants that don't mind these temps at all. Some, like kale and Swiss chard, actually have tastier leaves after a light frost!
So with that in mind, your last frost date is not the date when you can begin gardening for the year. I'll say it again: You do not have to wait until your frost date has passed to plant in your garden.
The only thing your last frost date tells you is when your cool season ends and your warm season begins. Your cool season is when your average monthly temps are between 35°F and 64°F and there is a likely chance of frost and snow. There is plenty of gardening to do in your cool season. In fact, cool season plants are some of my favorites!
How to Figure Out Your Last Frost Date
All you have to do is search "last frost date [name of your city or town] [year]" in Google to find the predicted last frost date for your area. You could also type in your zip code on the National Weather Service site or consult Home Depot's helpful frost date calendar.
Mark your last frost date on your calendar. This date will help you figure out what you can plant and when, wherever you're gardening. Now, let's look at some plants that thrive in the cool season.
Learn more about my kitchen garden seasons system
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Cool Season Plants
What You Can Grow Before Your Last Frost
Now that you know more about your last frost date and cool season, let's look at the plants that can start growing before your threat of frost has passed. (If you happen to be reading this in the fall, you can also leave these plants in your garden, at least for a while longer.)
Note that we're mostly looking at plants that can handle light to moderate frosts. We're not talking about planting and growing during the dead of winter when temps are in the single digits and your garden is covered in feet of snow. That's your cold season.
Instead, we're talking about things that can be planted 30, 60, or even 90 days before your final anticipated frost of the season.
These are our cool season plants, and they thrive in temps in the 40s, 50s, and 60s but can also handle a bit of frost, especially if you cover them with cold frames and/or frost cloth before a freeze. Like I said, the leaves of several of these plants actually taste sweeter after a little frost.
A List of Plants That Can Be Planted Before Your Last Frost Date
- bok choy
- lemon balm
- Napa cabbage
- purple mustard
- sugar snap peas
- Swiss chard
- winter peas
Don't forget to add some cold-hardy flowers like pansies or snapdragons in your garden to attract pollinators for your peas.
What's Growing in My Garden 30+ Days Before My Final Anticipated Frost Date
To give you an idea of what's possible during your cool season, here's a snapshot of my garden in late February, months before my last frost date in April:
- The hardier perennial herbs like chives and oregano that I kept in my raised beds from last year are popping back up from their roots.
- My sugar snap peas, which I started in root trainers in mid-January, have recently been transplanted to my garden space and are growing near my arch trellises.
- The garlic I planted by cloves back in November is really taking off.
- My Rocky Top spring lettuce mix from Baker Creek, which I sowed back in November, is growing and ready for harvest.
- My purple mustard plants are bouncing back after surviving winter, and I'm transplanting out kale and Swiss chard seedlings that I started indoors.
- I've filled an entire 1ft-tall raised bed with carrot seeds.
Extending your total growing time does come with some setbacks. Even cold-hardy plants can be affected by temps that stay too low.
Take my radishes, for example. I planted some 18-day radishes—that means they're supposed to be able to sprout, grow, and be ready for harvest within just 18 days of pushing the seeds into the soil. Day 18 came and went, and my little radishes were barely starting to leaf out. Several weeks of cold weather could have been what caused them to slow their growth. Warmer weather should encourage plants that are taking longer than anticipated to grow to pick up the pace.
Time to Plant Your Cool-Season Favorites!
I hope this encourages you. I don't know what hardiness zone you're growing in, but if you're anywhere close to your last frost date, this gives you an idea of plants that can be growing and thriving in your kitchen garden.
Get out there and start planting!