The Vegetable Garden Life Cycle
Sometimes it can be hard to know when to plant and when to harvest different vegetables, which can make gardening seem complex and overwhelming. But it’s actually simpler than you might think. Here’s a guide I use to help me remember when different veggies come into season.
In the U.S., we’ve become spoiled by an “all-produce-all-the-time” mentality. Mangos in March? No problem, ship them in from India. Avocados in April? Thanks to Mexico, they’re abundant here year-round. But in reality, crops grow and are harvested at different times of year, which means there will be some seaons when some produce isn’t available. While this could feel like a sacrifice, once you come to know the seasons of produce, it makes you appreciate the seasonality all the more. There is nothing like a mid-summer peach, or butternut squash in September. When picked and eaten at the peak of ripeness, fruits and veggies are bursting with flavor, juice and nutrients. When they’re eaten out of season, after having been packed, frozen, shipped, stored and shelved, they lose much of their nutritional value, and almost all of their flavor and texture. If you’ve ever eaten a grocery-store tomato in January, you know what I’m talking about.
Where we live in Virginia (USDA Zone 7a), vegetables begin to ripen in late April, and continue to be harvested through mid-fall. (This can be extended with cold frames over frost-tolerant plants).
So we have about six months when veggies can be grown in our gardens. As a rule of thumb, you want to plant outdoors after the last frost of the year, and you can expect your plants to remain strong until the first frost. According to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s frost calendar, the last frost in our area is around March 30, and the first frost can be expected around November 15. This gives us about 200 freeze-free days when our veggie garden can be productive.
Barbara Kingsolver, author of the wonderful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, invented what she calls the “Vegetannual” — a fictional plant that produces every known vegetable. If this imaginary plant existed, it would sprout a full life cycle of vegetables — beginning with leaves, then flowers, then fruits, then seeds, and then back to roots.
The growth cycle of the Vegetannual makes it easy for us to understand the sequence in which (most) produce comes into season. Here’s how this cycle works in our region:
1. Leaves (April/May): First come the leaves — things like leafy greens such as spinach, kale, lettuce and chard.
2. Buds & Flowers (May/June): Then come the early buds and flowers — such as cabbage, romaine, broccoli and cauliflower.
3. Young Fruits (June/July): Next come the first fruits — snow peas, baby squash & cucumbers, followed by green beans, green peppers and small tomatoes.
4. Ripe Fruits (July/August): In the heart of the season come the deeply colored, mature fruits — beefsteak tomatoes, eggplants, red and yellow peppers.
5. Hard Fruits (August/September): Then come the large, hard-shelled fruits, with developed seeds inside — cantaloupes, honeydews, watermelons, pumpkins and winter squash.
6. Roots (September/October): Last come the root crops — potatoes, carrots, onions and yams.
Note that this cycle doesn’t hold true for every vegetable, but it’s a general rule of thumb that can help guide us as we plan the sequence of our garden.
Remember to enjoy the seasons, and each new fruit and veggie they bring!