As a beginner gardener, get familiar with your growing zone, your first and last frost dates, and the difference between warm vs. cool season crops, for the most success!
March on the Homestead
The cold, dark, and icy mornings are starting to be replaced with earlier sunrises, less chill in the air, and more sunshine in general; Spring is just around the corner! As a repeat gardener, these first tastes of Spring are such a welcome sign every year. Before having my own garden, I never noticed the transitions between the seasons like I do now. Even a difference of fifteen minutes more of daylight is something I notice and crave in those late winter days.
However, it is still the middle of March and those frosty mornings are still coming around. Daylight savings has just begun, and in Ohio, Spring is still several weeks away. So for now, we keep dreaming and preparing!
If you have never grown a garden before, I am so excited you are here! It’s a great time to dip your toes in and learn the basics before those warm summer days are here. Growing your own food is such a rewarding feeling and having the skills is so important now, more than ever. Gardening has been one of the most fulfilling experiences in my life. Before getting started there are a few things to understand. These are your growing zone (hardiness zone), your estimated frost dates, and the difference between cool and warm season crops. This information will help you avoid mistakes that make people believe they have a “black thumb” or they can’t garden.
Growing Zones for the Beginner Gardener: What are they and which zone am I in?
A growing zone, also known as a hardiness zone, is a way of determining which plants will grow best in your area based on the average annual low temperatures. The USDA outlines a map of where the zones start and stop. You can find that map here.
The USDA breaks down the zones by 10 degree ranges. For example, zone 5 has average annual low temperatures of -20 to -10 degrees Fahrenheit, zone 6 has average annual low temperatures of -10 to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and so on. To determine your growing zone, enter your zip code into the search bar at the top left of the USDA interactive map here. Alternatively, you can enter the name of your closest city into a Google search with the question, “Which growing zone is [your city name] in?”
Growing zones are not perfect guidelines for low temperatures. They are averages and it is not uncommon to see temperatures lower than the zone guidelines in any given year. Growing zones aid in understanding which plants can withstand the average high and low temperatures in your area.
The information tag on any perennial plant will list a growing zone recommendation. A perennial will stay alive year after year without replanting. This raspberry plant lists its hardiness zones as 4-8 (bottom right corner of the package). For me, in central Ohio, I am in zone 6a, and fall between the zone 4-8 recommendation. Sticking to plants that thrive in your zone will set you up for the most success as a beginner gardener.
First and Last Frost Dates for the Beginner Gardener
Arguably, first and last frost dates are more important for beginner gardeners to understand than knowing the growing zone. Frost dates are exactly as they sound. They are the estimated date you will have your first freezing temperatures at night in the fall, and the last night of freezing temperatures in the spring. This is important because many plants will die once they are exposed to freezing temperatures. We call these frost-tender plants. Knowing your estimated last frost date in the spring will tell you when it is safe for these frost-tender plants to be outside full-time. On the other end of that, your estimated first frost date in the fall will tell you when you need to take extra measures to keep those frost-tender plants alive, if they are staying outdoors.
You can find your first and last estimated frost dates by doing a quick Google search asking “Estimated first frost date for [your city name]” or by going to this Almanac site and entering your zip code in the search bar.
Last note on frost dates: they are an estimation. Personally, I tend to give myself an extra 10-14 days after the estimated last frost date to ensure there aren’t any crazy weather events in the forecast. Best practice is to keep your eye on the forecast as your frost date approaches. If you see the nighttime low temperatures going below freezing, err on the side of caution and do not plant out any frost-tender plants.
Cool vs. Warm Season Crops for the Beginner Gardener
One misconception beginner gardeners have is that all plants should be planted right at the beginning of summer. It is tempting to go ahead and plant everything out in the garden immediately when you see those seedlings at the nursery in the spring. There are several plants that might survive as long as the temperature stays above freezing, but they have a more specific time of year when they will thrive.
A cool season crop thrives in the cooler seasons like the spring to early summer, and again at the end of summer and into the fall. A warm season crop thrives in the heat of the summer months when the soil temperatures are high and the weather stays consistently warm.
Cool season crops tend to be less frost-tender and more frost-hardy, meaning they can withstand light to moderate freezing temperatures without dying. Some crops even benefit from a light frost making their flavors more robust. These crops can be planted before the last frost date, and they will stay alive past the first frost. Common cool season crops include broccoli and cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, kale and spinach, radishes, onions, and garlic.
Warm season crops are frost-tender. They can only be grown during the warmest parts of the year. If your climate sees warm temperatures year-round and never gets below freezing (zones 10b and greater) this does not apply. Plant these crops only after the threat of frost has passed. Common warm season crops include tomatoes, peppers, squash and melons, eggplants, beans, corn, and cucumbers.
More Info for Beginner Gardeners
I hope the information here is helpful and gives you the confidence to start your gardening journey. This is the first post in my Gardening for Beginners series, where I will walk you through every step. Beginning with understanding the concepts discussed above, all the way to harvesting the fruits of your labor. Follow along to make sure you don’t miss any part of the series!
I also have a series on keeping Backyard Chickens if you are interested in that! I go into detail on setting up the chicken coop and even how to raise baby chicks at home! I even did a post on some of the pros and cons of keeping backyard chickens.
I hope you enjoyed this peek into Life at Metzger Acres.