seed packets
Image by Sandy Repp

Seed packets

Veggie Q&A

Vegetable Planting DatesBy Pat Curran, Horticulture Educator, Tompkins County Cooperative Extension

Question: I want to have a vegetable garden this year. Is it too early to start tomato seeds?

It's great that you are planning to have a veggie garden. And that's just what you should be doing right now - planning the garden! In our USDA zone 5 area (most of Tompkins County) [note: our county was changed to USDA zone 6a in November, 2023], our average last spring frost is May 14, so we quite often have frosts late in May. That's why the upstate tradition is to plant tender veggies such as tomatoes on Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day is May 25 this year, so we still have to be prepared to protect tender plants from late frosts (with boxes, old sheets, almost anything lightweight enough).

Of course, different veggies vary in how much cold they can take. Peas and spinach can be direct-seeded into the garden and planted earlier than tomatoes or peppers, which we grow from transplants (in order to get a good crop before our average first fall frost, Oct. 1). These dates mean we have a frost-free growing season of about 4.5 months!

So when should you start your tomato seeds? Count back about 4 or 5 weeks from when you plan to transplant them into the garden. Tomato seeds germinate promptly, and the baby plants grow best with lots of light, as in a sunroom or under a fluorescent light, such as a shoplight, kept about 4 inches above the growing tips of the young plants. It's better to have short, stocky, dark green plants, than long, leggy pale ones that didn't get enough light.

For a broad introduction for beginners, come to "Getting Started with Vegetable Gardening," Thurs. Feb. 26, 6:30-8:30 pm at Tompkins County Cooperative Extension, 615 Willow Ave., Ithaca. Call 272-2292 to register; $5 fee.

For more information on gardening, including vegetables, consult the Cornell gardening website or call the horticultural hotline at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County at 272-2292.

Last updated December 13, 2023