You can plant many crops directly in the garden, especially root vegetables, crops with large seeds, and seeds of plants that can mature within your growing season. The correct time to plant each crop varies widely according to the climate where you live and the specific needs of each crop.
When to plant. In general, plant cool-season crops (peas, lettuce, greens, cole crops, and root crops) so they can mature before the onset of mid-summer heat or freezing autumn weather. Some, such as peas and spinach, will germinate in soils as cool as 40° F. Most cool-season crops will germinate and grow if planted about two weeks before the last spring frost.
Plant heat-loving, warm-season crops (such as squash, beans, corn, melons, and cucumbers) only after the soil has warmed, about two weeks after the last frost in spring. These crops require soil temperatures between 60° and 70° F.
Choose planting pattern. Plant most seeds in 1- to 3-foot-wide beds instead of single-file rows. Wide row planting reduces weeding and watering needs and increases the yield per square foot by decreasing the space needed for paths between rows. Single-row planting works best for corn and climbing peas and beans. Plant vine crops (squash, cucumbers, gourds, and pumpkins) in 1-foot-square beds, spaced 3 to 6 feet apart. Plant 4 to 6 seeds in each bed.
Prepare soil. When the soil is dry enough to crumble after squeezing and warm enough to plant, add compost and other amendments, as necessary (see "Preparing a New Garden Plot"). Mark the rows with string and stakes, if desired, leaving 2- to 3-foot aisles between rows. Smooth the soil in the rows with a steel rake. Break up large clods and remove stones and debris.
Sow seeds. Plant seeds at a depth equal to two to three times their diameters and as far apart as recommended on the seed packet. In wide row plantings, you can space large seeds, such as beans, on the soil surface and then push them into the soil with your finger. Scatter small seeds, such as carrots, over the prepared row and sprinkle soil over them. Tap the soil gently with the back of a hoe or the palm of your hand. In single-row plantings, make a furrow at the proper planting depth with the corner of a hoe blade. Space the seeds in the furrow and cover with soil.
Water and care. Water the planted rows with a gentle spray from a hose or watering can without disturbing the soil. Keep the soil evenly moist, especially while the seedlings sprout and become established. Protect from frost and grazing animals with a floating row cover, if necessary.
The number of days listed on the seed packet refers to the time needed to mature a crop after sowing seed or transplanting into the garden. Choose varieties that can ripen within your growing season.
If your space is limited, try compact vegetable varieties; crops that provide a high yield per square foot, such as root vegetables; and trellises for vining plants.
Photograph by National Gardening Association.