beets broccoli row covers Seed seed starting Tomatoes

Frost Free Date – Deciding When to Start Seed / When to Set Out Seedlings

There are several seed starting charts online. They list various vegetables, how many weeks before or after the last frost it’s safe to set them out, and how many weeks beforehand you need to start the seed.

You use your area’s last frost free date to determine the date to start your seed and the date to transplant your seedlings to the garden.

Frost-Free Dates are Only Guidelines

Sounds easy enough. But frost free dates are only guidelines based on past weather statistics.  There might be a probability of 30 to 50% (depending on what chart you use) that it will frost on that date, but there is usually a greater probability that it won’t.

Different sources = Different Frost-Free Dates

To make it even more tricky, the “frost dates”  vary as much as a month, depending on the source. For example, one website gives April 6 as the last frost date for Richmond, Virginia.  Another gives May 7. And there are probably other variations as well.

Here’s a source.  Here’s another.

Your Best Bet: Experience – Notes – Current Weather Forecasts

Most of us who have gardened for years have a feel as to the probability of what the date should be in any given year. For new gardeners who have never really had to pay attention to a frost free date it’s pretty tough.

Bottom line is:  each of us can best determine when the actual last frost will be in our own garden based on past experience, notes taken in past years, and current weather forecasts. If you’re new to gardening and don’t have this experience — you soon will have.

Warm-weather Crops will need protection.

If there is a frost on that last frost date, cool weather crops like onions, lettuce, garlic, parsley, cabbage, broccoli, shallots, spinach, beet and kale should sail through just fine even without the protection of a cold frame or row cover fabric. It’s those hot-weather-loving crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and basil that we have to be worried about.

It’s the Gardner’s Call

This winter has been so mild and even though colder weather is forecast for March, I feel I’ll have a great chance for success in starting seedlings a bit early.  At least, I think its worth a try. It’s always the Gardner’s call.

Figuring Guideline Dates:

#1 – Using a Cool Weather crop – BEETS as an example:

According to the Organic Gardening seed start chart beet seedlings should go in the garden 2 weeks before the last frost.  Depending on which chart I use, my area’s last frost date could be early as April 11th and as late as April 25. Based on what usually happens I’ll use the April 11th date to figure guidelines. Thus, 2 weeks prior to the last frost date of April 11th would make March 28th the date for transplanting beets to the garden.

According to the chart seed should be started anytime from 4 to 6 weeks before the set out date. Figuring 6 weeks back from March 28th, that gives us February 15th for starting seed.

Make Your Decision Based on your Experience

I usually sow beets directly into the garden in March.  This year I decided to try them winter sown and seeded a jug on January 4 and another on January 25.

The beets winter sown on January 4th have already germinated and I plan to transplant to the garden within the next few days. (Way ahead of the dates the charts would indicate.)

Just to be on the safe side,  I’ll have either heavier row cover cloth or a cold frame ready for the icy weather forecast for March 1.  Just to be on the safe side I’ll sow more in a jug this month (February) and then after the cold spell in March I’ll direct sow in the garden as well.

#2 – Using a Cool Weather crop –  BROCCOLI as an example:

According to the Organic Gardening seed start chart broccoli seedlings also go in the garden 2 weeks before the last frost.  And seed should be started 4 or 6 weeks ahead of that date.  So for guidelines only I’ll use the same dates as the beets: March 28th to set out and start seed date as early as February 15th.

My Decision on Dates for Broccoli – Different than chart guideline dates.

I planted broccoli seed via the winter sown method on February 3rd.  I brought it inside to germinate. It germinated February 8th and I moved it outside. If all goes well, I’ll transplant the seedlings to the garden  by March 15.

Again — even though it probably won’t get cold enough after that to harm the broccoli —- I’ll be ready with heavier row covers for protection just in case some unusually cold temperatures show up in the forecast.

#3 – Warm Weather Crops – ExampleTomatoes

According to the Organic Gardening seed start chart tomatoes can go into the garden 1 or 2 weeks after the last frost date.  Seed should be started 6 to 8 weeks before that. Using April 11th as our last frost date, that makes our guideline dates for transplanting as early as March 28th and as early as February 1st for starting the seed.

My Decision on Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplant and other warm weather crops DIFFERS A LOT from chart guideline dates.

Warm weather crops LOVE warm weather and they don’t like cold weather.  I’ve learned over the years that it’s no need to rush to start these crops because those started just a bit later will catch up quickly to those started too early.

I plan on waiting until at least March 1st to start seed for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. I’ll start them in the manner of the winter sown things and plant about 2 seeds per jug. Hopefully, this will give the roots enough room so I won’t have to move them to a bigger pot before moving to the garden.  After they germinate, the jug will be moved outside since I don’t have adequate light for them indoors.

The jug serves as a mini-greenhouse for the seedlings.  If necessary for extra protection I’ll have my makeshift cold frame close by. I might even use one of the heavier fabric row covers to make it easier to cover the jugs if the forecast calls for the temperature to drop severely.

On April 1st I’ll make a decision based on the weather and the size of the seedlings as to whether or not they should be moved to the garden. If I decide to move them to the garden that early, I’ll cut the bottom out of a new jug, take the cap off, and place it over the seedling to act as a mini greenhouse until the temperatures are sufficiently warm.

If the temperatures get warm in the day and stay cool at night, I’ll remove the jugs in the day and place them back over the seedlings at night.

Backup – for when you make the wrong call

If you make the call to move seedlings to the garden earlier than what you really feel is safe, have a few extra seedlings waiting in the wings for a few weeks just in case.  That way — if you do lose transplants to the cold, you’ll have a backup. And you won’t have to start all over or buy the chemical soaked seedlings from the market.

A few years ago, in a part of Michigan where frost can happen EVERY month, there was a hard freeze in May.  Most people lost their gardens and started again.  There was another hard frost three weeks later in June.  They lost their gardens again.  When starting for a third time it was hard to find transplants and too late in the season to start somethings from seed.

Thankfully, in Virginia we usually don’t have to worry about things like that. But — it’s always a good idea to have backup in case something unforeseen goes wrong.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve started seed and gardened for any length of time, I’m sure you’ve learned these things from experience.  If you lack experience I hope this will make it easier for you.  You really can’t do anything wrong.  The main thing is TO DO.  If you sometimes make a wrong call — just start again. The rewards of healthy, delicious food make it worth it.


Related Posts:

Hardening off Your Seedling

Tomatoes – Starting Your Own is Easy

Seed Starting – Its Easy Even with Less then Perfect Conditions

Seed – The Advantages

Looking at Winter Sown Seedlinga and the Garden

Onions – Starting from Seed is Easy and Economical


Organic gardening is easy, effective and efficient —and it’s a lot healthier!


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  • Theresa, I’ve been gardening for over 30 years but have learned so much from your posts. I appreciate your thoroughness and orderliness. Thanks so much.

  • Good Morning Mary,
    I sure appreciate this wonderful compliment! I am so glad you have benefited from my posts!
    It encourages me to continue writing in this manner.
    Thanks for starting my day off in such a nice way!
    And — you are so welcome!

  • Hi Theresa,

    I have a question for you a little off topic. I planted beets for the fall garden. The leaves of the plants did very well, but they did not form beets. They are still in the ground and look alive. I want to plant beets again this spring, but I do not know what I am missing to make them produce the beets. I am in zone 7a.

    Thank you,

  • Hi Sue,
    Rather than answer your questions here, I’ll answer as a post.
    I think a lot of folks might have the same question.
    I might be a few days in getting it written, but I’ll put it up as soon as possible.
    Glad you asked the question.

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