How to Get an Early Start on Your Spring Garden

Baby lettuce growing in a cold frame.

If you just can’t wait to get to work in the garden this spring, here are a few secrets for getting a successful head start.

It’s All About Temperature

Air and soil temperature are the critical elements when planting a spring garden. For example:

  • Cool-season vegetables need daytime temps in the 60s F and nights in the 40s F with an occasional light frost.
  • Warm-season vegetables need daytime temps in the 70s-80s F with nights above 50° F, and they don’t tolerate frost.
  • Planting seeds depends more on soil temperature than air temperature. If the soil can be warmed enough for the seeds to germinate, the growing plants may tolerate cooler air temps.

To get a head start in the garden, you’ll need to understand the temperature requirements of your plants, as well as the average spring planting time for your region. Armed with this information and a good thermometer, you can try some of these tips to help Mother Nature warm things up more quickly.

Containers are easy to bring indoors in cold weather.

Outdoor Early Planting Tips

Here are some tips to take advantage of the sunny days in early spring:

    • Build a Cold Frame: A cold frame is a simple, low wooden frame with a glass or clear plastic top. It’s placed over seedlings in the garden or over a raised bed to give protection from those last frosty nights in early spring. Sort of like a mini-greenhouse, a cold frame keeps the air and soil inside about 5-10 degrees warmer than the surrounding garden to give you about a month head start on spring.
    • Use Containers: Plant early veggies and flowers in containers that can be moved indoors at night and on chilly days. Try this tomato wagon for an easy moveable garden.
    • Warm the Soil: Use black plastic, row covers, or solar plant cones to warm up your garden soil and make spring come early to your garden! Plastic helps hold in the sun’s heat, and you’ll get the added bonus of killing some of the weeds and pests under the plastic. Plan on a month of preheating for about a month’s head start. After preheating, you can remove the plastic or simply cut slits for your plants, leaving the plastic as mulch. The warmer soil will help seeds germinate outdoors, but make sure the nighttime air temperatures are above freezing before planting summer veggies.
  • Add a Hotbed: You can purchase heating elements to turn your cold frame into a hotbed, or use the traditional manure-heated hotbed technique. A heating element allows you to have more control of the soil and air temperatures, allowing for seed planting and a head start on summer veggies like tomatoes and squash.


  1. For two years, I’ve started tomato plants indoors in a plastic covered box about 6′ long by 2 1/2 ‘ wide and 3’ tall. I used 2 grow lights about 24″ above the pots. I start the plants from seed about 8 weeks before moving them to the garden. I keep the grow lights on about 12 hours a day. The problem is the plants get tall and spindly and are very fragile. Any ideas? Thanks

  2. Lower your lights to just above the plants. As the plants grow, raise the lights, but still keep them just an inch or two above the plants. Hanging the lights from adjustable chains works well.

  3. I try to grow Asian tropical Bottle Gourd here in MA by sowing seeds in April. ;Plants do come up but mostly they last a few weeks and die out often without going to three leaf stage. I always wonder how these Nurseries grow plants for weeks anD weeks and deliver us plants with bunch of leaves and when we open to transplant the container is full of roots spread in the entire soil. what is the secret? Or in other words my mistake. can someone help. Thanks.

  4. Last year I tried my hand at starting my seedlings indoor for the first time.
    They geminated extremely fast and I was unprepared.
    Right away I rigged up a light but could tell this would not be workable in the long term.
    I found a site talking about leggy seedlings and the suggestion was to take them outside during the day time.
    I had my seedlings in clear plastic totes so this was easy enough to do.
    The theory is that the cool temps keep the seedlings from growing too fast. It keeps them lower to the planting medium.
    (Lower to the ground) so to speak. They tend to get more leaf growth instead of stem growth.
    The process was great! And.. there was an added benefit because in this process they were already hardened off due to the exposure of the daytime outdoors while they were just tiny little sprouts.
    I’m doing this again this year! Big clear plastic totes with covers are like little movable greenhouses.
    For me the only drawback to sprouting seeds was putting them out in the great outdoors all by themselves.
    One rabid slug could clear cut my newly planted darlings.
    As an insurance, I lined a circle around each one with Epsom Salts. Works much like salt to repel snails and slugs,
    and its also beneficial to the seedlings.


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