Spring Into Gardening

By COPE Food Systems Specialist, Carole Palmer


The weather is warming up quickly, teasing us with the thought, “It must be time to get the garden started… right?”


The answer is… maybe. WHEN you plant your garden depends on WHAT you decide to plant and WHERE you want to plant it. Even garden vegetables which are replanted every year have developed their growing traits based on temperature and on how many hours the sun shines during the day. They are often divided into two basic categories: Cool Season Crops and Warm Season Crops.

Wild Parsley found growing in St. Michaels, AZ

Cool Season Crops are better able to survive colder temperatures and unexpected frost. As a survival mechanism, leafy green vegetables such as kale, cabbage and broccoli convert carbohydrates to sugars in response to cold. Sugar water freezes at a lower temperature than plain water, making the plant's cells more durable. This is why some Cool Season Crops can actually taste sweeter after there has been a frost or even a late spring snow.


In the traditional Navajo way, many plants that are now considered Cool Season Crops were not planted by people but could already be found growing naturally at this time of year. Wild parsley, wild onion, wild “spinach” (bee plant, lamb’s quarters and other wild greens), wild carrot and wild mustards are among the first plants that can be seen popping out of the ground during the early weeks of spring in this region. The month of April is known as “Tʼą́ą́chil” in Navajo, a time when one will see the growth of early plant life and find wild foods to harvest for the family.

Wild Onion growing in Hogback, NM

Warm Season Crops such as corn, squash, melons, beans, peppers and tomatoes do not usually survive cold temperatures. They grow best in hot weather. Tʼą́ą́tsoh (May) is the time of “Big Leaves”, when nature is in full swing. Planting of Warm Season Crops can begin in May if the soil and weather are warm enough but can also be delayed until Yaʼiishjááshchilí (June) which is also known as “the Planting of Early Crops”.


Ultimately, the best time to plant is also based on location, since of course the growing season will be shorter for those living in or near the cooler mountain areas than it will for those in the warmer valleys and drier desert zones. For centuries, many Navajo families have used natural indicators such as the position of the stars (especially the Pleiades), the moon, the leafing out of aspen trees or the blossoming of “slim” yucca plants to determine the appropriate time to plant what we now call Warm Season Crops.


The popular phrase “Timing is everything” definitely applies to growing vegetables, whether you have a big field, a home garden or even if you’re growing everything in pots. Once you have decided WHAT to plant, you will have greater success if you also pay attention to WHEN the best time is to plant it. Happy gardening!

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