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Planning your planting calendar (Part I)

If all you knew about growing vegetables was learnt from the back of one of those seed packets you find in big home DIY department stores, you might be tempted to think there was only one possible growing season. It would start after the last chance of frost, continue through the summer and end in the early fall.

However, if those plants failed, you’d be stuck thinking about what you did wrong for an entire year. This is were most people come to the wrong conclusion: “I have a black thumb.” Also, your plants might not fail at all, but never produce any fruit or harvest even with good pollination.

Maximize Your Growing Time… not just Space

For those of us attempting to do urban/suburban farming in a small amount of space, it’s important to maximize the productivity of our land. This can be done by optimizing our space (growing vertically, utilizing different layers, etc.), but quite often we forget to think about optimizing our time.

The year is a full 365.25 days long, so if we want to increase the amount of food we can grow as well as provide fresh food year round, we also have to think more deeply about the best time to grow our plants.

“Since plants have tuned themselves for specific triggers and sensory events, they will grow at a much faster speed when they’ve determined their optimal time to grow.”

Plants have evolved in specific environments so they have adapted to flourish in those environments by tuning their senses. We tend to view plants as simple organisms, but as we continue to learn more about biochemical cellular mechanisms it’s apparent that even a basic cell’s dynamics are far more sophisticated than anything we’ve constructed ourselves.

Being constantly reminded of how miraculous and sophisticated nature is gives me a greater appreciation of life in general and helps me to link gardening to something deeper beyond the immediate need to feed myself (although that’s important too 🙂 ).

What is your Plant’s Preferred Temperature Range?

Some of the time dependent environmental conditions that plants have been found to be sensitive to include the day length, temperature, and weather patterns. Since plants have tuned themselves for specific triggers and sensory events, they will grow at a much faster speed when they’ve determined their optimal time to grow. Taking advantage of that knowledge will help us maximize the growth curve of the plant. Luckily for many common crops, it’s quite easy to find published optimal temperature ranges (for example, temperature range chart).

You can also find online charts of average temperatures by day/month (for those of you in the US, weather.com has monthly average temperature charts by zipcode). If you match up the plant’s preferred temperature range with the average temperature curve for your growing location and include the number of days estimated till harvest for that plant, you can figure out the best time to grow that plant.

Here is an example using snow peas, with an average time to harvest of 70 days and temperature range of 40-85 F. For Virgina, mapping the low and high temperature ranges gives the range of possible growing dates.

What is Photoperiodism?

The other major environmental factor that’s easy for us to factor into our growing calculations is the amount of light the plant is looking to receive (photoperiodism), with plants falling into 3 categories (long-day, day-neutral, and short-day).

Long day varieties are looking for at least 12 hours of sunlight in order to bloom (flower, grow big bulbs, etc.).

Short day varieties are looking for less than 12 hours of sunlight while day-neutral plants don’t care either way.

Armed with information about the amount of light the plant wants, we can go back to our optimal days of growth and tweak the starting/ending date based off the day length. Determine your location’s latitude,(for instance, In Northern VA, we are 39 degrees N) then take your start and end dates for your target plant and look up the day length on those days using these great latitude daylength charts.

If we find the day lengths are wrong for the start or the end date, you can shift the dates accordingly. It’s more important to make sure the end date meets the day-length requirements in order to ensure proper harvest.

Continuing the previous example, Virginia has to wait till April 1 for over 12 hours of light. We shift our original date range slightly to the right to account for the day length and maximize our chance of getting our peas germinated.

This is probably already enough to digest in one session, so stay tuned next week for “Part 2: Becoming a Garden Ninja” where I go into how to rotate your plants in your garden for maximum yields and translate all of our start and end dates into a simple, cohesive strategy for the whole year.

Planting Calendar Workshop

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