The gardening season can oftentimes feel too short. Maybe you wanted more time to palm sun-warmed tomatoes off the vine, gather bouquets of flowers or snip fragrant herbs into salads and onto grilled vegetables.
The solution? Short season garden crops. These are ideal if you live in the north or at higher elevations where it can take until Memorial Day (or longer) before soil warms up enough to plant heat-loving tomatoes, melons, squash and others. And if a cold snap hits by mid-September, it doesn't leave much time for plants that need at least 120 days to germinate, leaf out, bloom and produce vegetables or fruit.
Here's a look at dependable, quick growers for vegetables, herbs and flowers, along with tips to speed up slow-growing or tender garden favorites.
Short Season Vegetable Gardening
You likely consider how warm the air is before planting, but soil moisture and temperature are just as important. Before planting seeds or seedlings, make sure the soil isn't soaked from snowmelt or cold to the touch. Gardens with raised beds help soil drain quickly and speed warming. Start with cold-tolerant veggies to get a jump start on your harvest season.
Plant Cold-Tolerant Vegetables
Lettuce, radishes, chard and spinach can all be planted once the snow has melted and before the last frost. With these early spring veggies, you can harvest a colorful salad within a month. Snappy sweet peas also can handle cool temperatures and are ready within 60 to 70 days. If you're impatient for spring produce, plant asparagus and rhubarb: Both are perennials that will survive winter dormancy and be ready to enjoy by mid- to late spring.
Other short season crops that can handle a little cold weather include vegetables in the brassica family: broccoli, kale and cabbage. You can plant them in the spring before the last frost, but they often yield better as a fall crop. Plant them in midsummer for a fall harvest.
If you love carrots, beets and parsnips, fall frost can be your friend. That first hit of cold can sweeten root vegetables still in the ground. Count back from your first fall frost to find the best time to plant these vegetables.
Potatoes can be ready to dig up from the soil 80 to 100 days after planting tubers, sometimes called seed potatoes. The eyes of these small seed potatoes sprout when buried, and new potatoes grow beneath the soil. They can be harvested when small and early or left to mature for another week or two.
You can grow red, purple, white and golden potatoes, as well as sweet potatoes that can be made into savory meals and side dishes or sweetened for pies and desserts.
Give Veggies a Kick-Start
Beans, squash, cucumbers and melons can be started from seed when the soil is sufficiently warm and all danger of frost is past. You can plant them in small mounds of dirt that can warm quickly in the sun. These vegetables typically grow fast enough to produce harvests before frost threatens in the fall.
Tomatoes and peppers need a longer growing season and require extra planning to get a crop before it gets too cold. Start seeds indoors (or in a greenhouse) six to eight weeks before you plant them outdoors. You can also buy garden-ready plants, delivered when it is warm enough to transplant in your area.
When buying seeds or plants, search for varieties with fewer days to harvest or maturity. For example, the 'Fourth of July Hybrid' tomato takes only 49 days to maturity after seedlings are transplanted into the garden outdoors.
Shelter Plants From Frost
Other tricks to speed up or protect the harvest of these more vulnerable vegetables is to use protective plastic around tomato cages or above plants with hoop brackets to help insulate them from unexpected and early fall frosts. You might put a light sheet across tomato plants on cool fall nights to keep plants warm and to extend the harvest. Mulching can also be helpful in regulating soil temperatures.
Short Season Herb Gardening
Herbs are a natural addition to any short season garden crops. Because you're usually only harvesting the leaves, most are ready to snip, mince or dry within five weeks to two months.
Choose Perennial Herbs
If you want the hardiest herbs to grow, look for perennial herbs in your area. Chives, thyme, mint and lovage all come back year after year. Mint may need some containment to keep it from spreading into unwanted areas. Lovage isn't as well known but adds a delicious celery flavor to meals long before celery may be ready in the garden.
Perennial sage, tarragon, thyme and oregano also can survive winter and thrive in a short growing season. Just make sure they have well-drained — even gritty — soil. Many are considered hardy to zone 4 in the right conditions.
Rosemary and bay are two common perennial herbs in warmer climates. They also grow well in containers and can be brought indoors and grown as houseplants in the winter. You will need to re-acclimate them to the outdoors in the spring, in the same fashion that you harden off your transplants.
Give Annual Herbs a Head Start
Parsley stands up to cold and can be harvested until it's buried in snow. For dill, another popular choice, sow seeds several times a season to have both leaves and seeds ready for salads and pickles throughout the summer. Borage, chervil and fennel are less-common herbs that do well in short season gardens and add more flavor to your meals.
For more tender herbs — such as the many varieties of basil, which can turn black at the first nip of frost — give them a head start indoors or purchase seedlings. You might have success bringing established herbs indoors for the fall and winter. Check plants carefully for pests before transplanting them to indoor pots, and place them in a bright window.
While most herbs can be started from seeds, rosemary and French tarragon are far superior when grown from plants.
Short Season Flower Gardening
When it comes to flowers, your best bet for a short season garden crop is choosing hardier varieties such as perennials or natives that can tolerate some cold and frost. That helps you extend the season of colorful blooms for as long as possible no matter how short your season is.
Look for Hardy Perennials
One of the reasons people love spring-flowering bulbs is they're the first blooms of the season and can usually handle a scattering of snow and a zap of frost. They also emerge and unfurl with vibrant, lush petals thanks to the bulbs that store and provide nourishment.
Plant snowdrops, crocus and daffodils for early spring color, followed by waves of tulips, bright carpets of creeping phlox and the fireworks of decorative allium.
When the bulbs die down, columbine and anemone — perennials closely related to native woodland flowers — can hide dying bulb foliage. Cold-hardy violas and pansies can also do well as early bloomers and may be perennial in some areas of the country.
Bearded or Siberian iris, perennial poppies and peonies also can take over center stage in late spring or early summer with a kaleidoscope of eye-popping colors. Other reliable short season choices include native wildflowers and varieties that have evolved from them, such as coreopsis, echinacea (aka coneflower), monarda (aka bee balm), lupine and penstemon. To extend your bloom season, look for perennial asters, sedum, chrysanthemums and decorative grasses that can last past the first frost or two.
Maximize Annual Flowers
Many well-known annuals, such as petunias, marigolds, zinnias, cosmos, impatiens and coleus, are tender plants that will shrivel after the first frost. To enjoy them for the longest stretch possible, plant them indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost or purchase seedlings that are close to blooming.
With a good head start, annuals should provide close to three months of blossoms to brighten your garden and fill vases indoors. Some annuals, such as annual alyssum, snapdragons and dianthus, can tolerate some frost, which also lets you extend the short growing season a few weeks.
If you have annuals that self-sow — those that drop seeds that will survive winter and germinate the next spring — you could have a jump on flowers the following season. Watch for sprouts as the weather warms. You can plant fresh seeds if they don't come up on their own or plant seedlings for a speedier bloom.
You can also add cold-tolerant annuals for a pop of color in the fall with chrysanthemum plants, pansies, violas, ornamental cabbage and kale for bright colors and textures.
With careful planning, you can maximize short season garden crops no matter where you live or what you like to plant.
For more advice on seed starting, check out these Seed Starting Basics.