If all vegetables grew at the same rate in the same manner, gardening would be simple---but you would need an acre to raise what most gardeners can raise in a backyard garden. By understanding cool-season and warm-season crops, home gardeners can be efficient and productive. By using the same type of scheduling as commercial farms, the backyard gardener can use information on seed germination, time to maturity and harvest to the local growing zone to schedule a bounty of fresh vegetables for the table.
Decide what you'd like to plant in your garden. Choose vegetables that you know will be eaten or preserved or that can be traded with neighbors. Make a chart with six columns and label them with the name, dates to maturity, number of plants and spacing (depth to plant, distance between plants and between rows). Add three more columns; one labeled "start seeds indoors," one for "spring planting date" and one for "fall planting date." Fill in the information in the first five rows, using the backs of seed packets or a gardening reference.
Find your local zone on the USDA's hardiness zone map (see References). Plant and seed labels often refer to hardiness zones. Your growing season is the period between the last average frost date in spring and first average frost date in fall in your hardiness season. For example, last and first frost dates in Seattle are March 10 and November 17, making a long growing season of over 250 days. Cincinnati, on the other hand, has first and last dates of April 13 and October 23, making a season of 194 days.
Tick off your long-season vegetables on your chart. Use a farmer's guide, seed package directions or information from your local university extension to find out when these vegetables can be planted in your hardiness zone. If you live in zone 9 or 10, you can start planting warm-season vegetables like corn, peppers and tomatoes in February or March, followed by cool-season crops like beets, cabbage, onions and spinach from August through January. If, however, you live further north, say in zone 4, the best you can do is to start seeds indoors or in cold flats during March. "Days to maturity" becomes very important in northern zones.
Plan repeat plantings of short-season vegetables. Spinach (40 to 45 days) and radishes (25 to 30 days) can be planted as late as September in zones 5 or 6 but lettuce (60 to 85 days) will be "nipped" if planted later. Plant these salad vegetables every two weeks beginning in April to keep a constant supply of leafy greens on the table until November. Warm-season crops with long growing seasons, like corn (80 to 100 days), must be planted at very specific times to grow well and produce reliably.
Construct your planting schedule once you classify vegetables as warm- or cool-season (hardiness) and their growing season (days to maturity). Consult your spacing data to determine how many plants you can raise---or want to raise---at one time in your plot. Fill in the last three columns on your chart with the dates to plant each vegetable.