First-time NJ gardener? You’re probably anticipating an inaugral harvest of tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers. And if you’ve never gardened before, then you probably have no idea when to plant any of these vegetables.
May 15 is the generally acknowledged, official garden-planting day here in NJ Zone 6. So if you want to grow the aforementioned produce, and also other summer fare like zucchini, peppers, eggplants and herbs, then this is the day to do it. On May 15, here in NJ, you can safely place those little baby plants into the soil of your garden beds.
Why this date? This is the official time when the danger of frost is well past. Any sooner, and you run the risk of an unexpected overnight freeze, or an especially windy, chilly day, severely damaging or even destroying your young, vulnerable plants.
Now that you know all this, let’s talk about your first gardening endeavor. Some tips for growing beautiful, healthy lettuces, tomatoes and cucumbers:
Lettuce is quick to mature, and can be planted outdoors right from seed, or from young plants purchased from the local grower. You’ll have ready-to-pick salad in as soon as a month, sometimes two, depending on the variety of lettuce you choose.
Select a few different cultivars… perhaps 2 or 3 heads of romaine, a few butter lettuces, a sprinkling of mesclun greens. All of these will yield a fresh, tasty crop with very little upkeep. Before you know it, you’ll be dashing outside at dusk, to pick a quick salad to serve with the evening meal. Pluck the leaves right off, leaving the rest of the lettuce to keep on growing until the plant is fully spent.
Know that lettuce matures fast but doesn’t last long when planted in May. You’ll enjoy your lettuces for longer if you plant them in April, but it may be too late as you read this. Lettuce can’t take the heat. It will send up a long shoot as soon as the temperature heads into the 80s. Once that happens, the lettuce won’t be sweet anymore. After this, the next time you can plant lettuce is probably mid-July for a September crop. Check the instructions that come with your seeds or your nursery plant, for specifics on this.
Tomatoes take quite a while to mature. Generally speaking, they shouldn’t be planted sooner than May 15 in our Zone 6 climate, because they’re especially vulnerable to the elements. In mid-May, head directly to your local nursery for the biggest, healthiest tomato plants you can find. Now is the time to plant; bury them 2/3 of the way into your garden beds, snipping off the low leaves. Give your tomato plants lots of compost and a good, regular watering.
Include a few different varieties of tomato with your plantings. There’s a cultivar called Early Girl that’s often ready to pick by July 4. The rest of the tomatoes you plant typically won’t be ready to harvest until August, sometimes even September depending on the variety. It’s nice to have a few different selections such as cherry tomatoes for snacking, plum tomatoes for making sauce, and beefsteak tomatoes for slicing and in salads. Heirloom tomatoes are generally of higher quality, and therefore more sought-after by experienced gardeners. But hybrids are bred to resist pests and disease.
Cucumbers can be seeded directly into the garden beds. They like to spread out on hills, or up trellises, and will need a few feet of space between each plant. Seeds should be covered with about an inch of soil. Keep the soil moist while waiting for little sprouts to appear. If you plant cucumbers on or around May 15, you will be able to pick some for salads in early to mid-July. Unfortunately, lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes are not on the same schedule. Experienced gardeners look forward to having these each in their own salad, at their own peak time of the season.
What about other, slightly less popular vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, cabbage, radishes, peas or spinach? These are your early spring garden veggies. A first-time gardener can surely plant these if he or she gets a sudden urge to break ground in early March. But it’s my feeling that most beginner gardeners will probably stay indoors until shorts-wearing weather is well underway.
There are many more vegetables and herbs that should be planted on May 15. If you have something specific in mind, check the package to be sure when is the right time to plant.
So, for your first time planting a garden, you hope for success and you probably don’t want to get in too deep too soon. If this is the case for you, then a starter garden of lettuces, a few tomato plants, some basil and cucumbers might be the way to go. No, you don’t have to plant these on exactly May 15. If the spring has been a warm one, you may be able to get away with planting them a week earlier. If it’s been cold, then perhaps the opposite.
Whatever you do, make gardening a fun experiment that will have you learning something new all the time. There are many online resources to help you determine the best methods for growing healthy vegetables the organic way. We have one such resource right here – our Beginner’s E-guide to Organic Gardening in Zone 6. Have a copy delivered to your email inbox today.