Shut Up and Dig

You Can Plant It day? Safe to Plant day? Plant Now day? Got a better idea?

Pansies

There should be a catchy name for it, like Super Tuesday or Black Friday. Isn’t the day when it’s safe to plant out annual flowers and young vegetables just as important as a primary that may or may not mean anything, or a day when shopping is like fighting for the last seat on the last Titanic lifeboat?

But there isn’t a name. Perhaps the fact that this date changes from zone to zone—and in some zones does not even exist—has something to do with it. I don’t know about you, but the day when we can plant feeling relatively secure from frost is a pretty big deal around here. The nurseries have great fun teasing us, filling their indoor spaces with diascia, pelargoniums, ipomoea, coleus, heliotrope, and petunia. “Look but don’t touch,” they say, “Don’t even think of buying these before … drumroll … MAY 15!” Out of sheer frustration, we end up buying about 6 flats too many of the short-lived pansies that are the only annuals they’ll sell (see above).

Meanwhile, it’s even scarier for our little tiny seedlings. When to risk exposing those to a possible 35-or-under night?

It used to be later. Memorial Day was the wisdom. But now, May 15 seems fine—as far as recent experience goes—and none too soon in terms of the seedlings I have from my mail order purchases. These really seem to detest their cramped black plastic quarters. Worse yet, I have colacasia from Bent and Becky’s that have been sitting in a sunny room for maybe three weeks.

Dates are so ridiculous and arbitrary in this context; anything can happen at any time. Yet, I feel absurdly comforted by the oft-repeated mantra of May 15. I know I will be planting on that day.

It should have a name.

Posted by on May 7, 2008 at 5:00 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.
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25 responses to “You Can Plant It day? Safe to Plant day? Plant Now day? Got a better idea?”

  1. Marte says:

    How about “Freedom from Frost” day? I have decided to gamble and plant a few containers today. I can always bring them into the garage if need be. The winter was so long and cold in Minnesota this year that I just can’t wait until May 15. It needs to be spring now!

  2. shira says:

    I always have to restrain myself at the nursery from telling people, “it’s a bit too soon to plant that unless you are going to cover it/bring it in” . That is unless they ask me if I work there (which I don’t, but I guess it’s my dirt covered clothes that make them think I do) then, I will give them some free advice! Even here in zone 6 I would wait until the 15th, we had two nights of frost last week.

  3. Steph says:

    My mother likes to claim it’s “Mother’s Day” but I think it’s just the excuse she used to get some peace in the garden.

  4. Bob Vaiden says:

    May 15th is what you’ll see mentioned around here, too, but my Peppers and Tomatoes went in on Monday.

    So it BETTER not frost…

    We’ll be ready…just in case:)

  5. Susan says:

    Here on the warm edge of zone 6 I use May 10 as the planting date for most things. My West Virginia grandmother always said that winter wasn’t over until after the March 15 snowstorm and summer wasn’t here until after the tenth of May cold spell. I do wait until closer to Memorial day for tomatoes and basil.

  6. Pam/Digging says:

    I sometimes feel like I live in opposite land down here in Austin. I look at mid-May as the date where I should NOT think of planting another thing, except an agave or cactus. It’s the point of no return for me in terms of trying to keep a plant alive all summer. Luckily, the other 8 months of the year are perfect for planting here.

  7. Bryn says:

    How about, “Green Fifteen”?

  8. Bob says:

    Caesar might’ve been killed on the Ides of March, but the Ides of May is the time to plant.

  9. “Gets Your Booty Out and Plant Yo Bidness Fo’schizzle Day”

  10. Laura says:

    Here in Minneapolis it’s often referred to as the “Opener” (the gardening opener as opposed to the fishing opener) and it’s always Mothers Day weekend (the same weekend as the fishing opener). I believe that the last average frost date is May 9, so the timing works pretty well, although it’s not yet warm enough for things that really need warm soil temps to thrive.

  11. I’ve been going with “Freeze-Safe Day.” Not as punchy as some of the above suggestions, but people do know what it means when they hear it.

  12. Young gardener in CA says:

    It’s fun to hear about planting time from other zones. I’m in the same boat as Susan from Austin, here in Central California. We are all rushing to get everything into the ground and all of our drip lines hung. Most people around these parts consider the 1st weekend in May to be the last good time to plant. Perhaps, for us, the day can be called the “Closer” or “Take Cover Day.” (This is the time of year when people start to look out their windows and think, what IS that woman still doing in out her garden after 9 a.m.?)

  13. cake says:

    here in bloomington, indiana (on the cusp of zone 5 and 6) i was going with april 22. then i was advised to wait until may 10. we had a frost warning april 29, and then it warmed up. i decided to go for it on may 1, though i did baby the tomatoes with some homemade “wall-o-waters.” i love the idea of a name for the date. it feels like it should be a holiday.

  14. You can’t really talk about frost without talking about microclimates — the ones in your region and the ones in your garden.

    I’ve got places in my yard that are probably safe now. Unfortunately, the vegetable garden is not one of them, because it’s in a low spot where cold air accumulates on clear nights with radiational cooling. (This is one of the major drawbacks of where I located it. But that’s another story.) I’ve had frosts in the veggie garden into early June, perhaps a month later than protected areas close to the house on higher ground.

    Then on a larger scale, 5 miles west Ithaca’s modest ‘urban heat island’ (more hardscape and asphalt absorbing and radiating heat) — also on the shores of Cayuga Lake (a major temperature moderator) — it’s probably safe to plant.

    5 miles in a different direction there are valleys with frost pockets worse than where I am and even later frosts are more common on clear cold nights.

    Laura mentions soil temps, which I try to pay closer attention to. Your air temps may be safe. But if the soils are cold, transplanted warm-season plants will just sit there and shiver. Some can’t take chilling and even if they aren’t killed outright by late frosts will just not thrive. Later planted crops will often catch up and pass them.

    Also, if air temps get cold on a frosty night, warm, unmulched soil will radiate more heat and might give your plants that degree or two they need to keep from getting zapped by frost. I’ve had mornings with frost on the lawn but tender plants in bare soil in my vulnerable vegetable garden have escaped damage.

    A lot of folks refer to ‘zones’ relative to frost dates. But the correlation between USDA hardiness zones (based on minimum winter temps) and average last frost date is imperfect. Some places can have cold winter minimums but have earlier last frost dates (due to microclimates or other moderating factors) than places that don’t get so cold in winter.

    I get asked often by folks from all over, when is it safe to plant. I tell them to find the nearest vegetable gardener to their house with 20 years of experience, then factor in microclimates.

    There’s more about frost dates and microclimates here: http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/weather

  15. “The Last Frost Date” is what most people in Chicago call it. I ignored it this year because the dark-leafed Dahlia I got from Plant Delights was starting to suffer from being in its little pot. I put it out in the large container on the patio & then a week later we had the freeze warning. I dug it up that night & brought it in. I stuffed it back the next day. That night I noticed that the temperature had already dropped to 34 degrees. Refusing to panic, I stuffed a bubblewrap-lined envelope over it. I’m happy to report the plant is doing just fine. Lesson learned: don’t ignore the last freeze date unless extreme measures can be taken to protect one or two small things.

  16. Diana says:

    Here in northern Alabama, ‘Now You Can Finally Plant! Day’ is shortened to ‘April 12.’ You can tell by the smiles and dirty fingernails.

  17. Kim says:

    I totally agree with Ellis.

  18. grouchylisa says:

    There isn’t such a day in Northern Nevada. Depending on where you live in the Reno-Sparks area, it may have been safe as early as two weeks ago, or the final frost date (as it’s generally known here) might be Memorial Day. Or later.

    In any case, the weekend of the Master Gardener’s plant sale is usually a safe date, provided we don’t get hit with a regularly scheduled fluke snowstorm. It’s snowed here in every single month of the year at some point in local recorded weather history.

    I’m in the “warm” area, so I’ve been planting hardy plants since mid-march, but I also have plenty of frost blankets handy, and have the truly tender plants in easily moveable containers. I usually just go with whatever the nurseries are selling and hope I don’t have to do to many jammie-clad frost blanket and plant-hauling runs. Once it warms up here, it warms up fast, and planting becomes nearly impossible due to the heat.

    My begonias and tender fuchsias are still inside under lights, but that’s going to change this weekend.

  19. Kim says:

    In the MD/Washington DC area, I’ve seen the last frost date listed as May 1 and May 15. This year, I was buying some annuals at River Hill Garden Center (in late April), and I mentioned potting them up that day. An employee admonished me to wait until May 15. For the record, I’ve been planting things outside the last weekend in April (and sometimes before) for 20 years, and I’ve not lost a single plant to frost. To cutworms and squirrels, yes, to frost, no. I don’t know what to call that magic day, and I don’t care because it’s never been magic for me. I think gardeners need to learn the rhythms of the seasons and then they’ll know when they can plant, no matter what the retailers say.

  20. Ollie Ollie Oxen Free Day

  21. Phanaeus igneus says:

    Very good comment by Ellis Hollow. I think it’s also important to emphasize that there’s no such thing as a magic safe date. It’s a matter of statistical averages and probability. The actual last frost date is different from year to year and in any single year the risk of frost decreases (rather than suddenly disappearing) as you get further into the season. The last frost one year may pass long before the “average” date and the next year may see a late frost long after the “average” date. Also, it’s worth considering a gardener’s tolerance for risk with respect to a particular plant. You may be willing to put out a cheap, readily replaceable plant when you get to the 50% chance of frost date. But if you have something expensive or special (attention Plant Delights shoppers), you might prefer to wait until the 10% chance of frost date.

  22. Ether says:

    For me, it’s my birthday. Our latest documented last frost was May 15, which is my birthday. Every year, as a gift to myself, I get to plant everything that doesn’t go in as an early planting on my birthday. Seems fitting to me!

  23. dirtchick says:

    Your Ideas:

    Freedom from Frost day
    Green Fifteen
    Gets Your Booty Out and Plant Yo Bidness Fo’schizzle Day”
    Opener
    Freeze-Safe Day
    The Last Frost Date
    Now You Can Finally Plant! Day
    Ollie Ollie Oxen Free Day

    Some New Ones:

    Operation Plants Storm
    Fruitful Fifteenth
    Dig it Day
    Plant it Party
    Green Day
    Do it in the Dirt Day
    Dirty Day
    Greenteenth
    Plantsgiving

  24. Carrie says:

    My tomatoes & peppers have been in for over a month. I live in the city (Philadelphia – Still a May 15th Zone) so we’re a bit more buffered. They’re not doing a ton of growing with these chilly nights, but they’re not complaining. What happens on leap year if we are to go by dates?

  25. Ann says:

    On the Cumberland Plateau, it’s called “Mother’s Day.” That’s the safe day to plant here. Most gardeners gamble, and we often lose.

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