Picture a warm day in April: Sun shining, birds singing and a general feeling of serenity all around. The urge to get some seeds in the ground has become nearly overwhelming. But don’t do it. The soil is nowhere near warm enough and freezing nighttime temperatures remain a possibility until sometime in late May.

I can testify planting too early is a bad idea because I have fallen into the “winter is over, it’s okay to plant” trap. Even if a late frost doesn’t kill your newly emerged plants, cold, damp soil will certainly rot the seed.

Also, don’t believe everything you read. That goes for the advice on certain seed packages that say, “plant as early in spring as soon as the ground can be worked.” We’ve all seen those words, or some similar ones. But the truth is, even if the ground can be worked, meaning it is no longer frozen, that is no sign it’s okay to plant.

I notice two kinds of planting suggestions on lettuce packets from two different companies. One says, “Sow in average soil in full sun in early spring.” The other says, “Direct sow outdoors in spring through early summer when soil temperatures are between 50-70 Fahrenheit.”

Notice the big difference here between the two sets of instructions? One is general, telling you to sow in full sun in early spring. I have always wondered about the implied question: When in early spring? Is March too early? April? Early May? There is no way to tell because it doesn’t say.

The other seed packet contains detailed instructions regarding when to plant: “…when soil temperatures are between 50-70 Fahrenheit.”

The first instructions are ambiguous and the second are specific. I would disregard the first and pay heed to the second, because soil temperature is all-important. Cold soil, especially wet, cold soil, will rot your seeds. It’s maddening to plant rows of seeds, only to wait for them to germinate and then realize they are ruined.

Certainly, some cold-weather crops can stand being planted earlier than warm-weather crops. Lettuce, radishes, spinach and peas, for example, can go in the ground much sooner than cucumbers, squash or beans. Even so, you must not plant the early crops in too-cold soil.

Container Planting

There is an exception to this rule. Soil in raised beds warms sooner than in-ground beds and soil in containers warms faster than either. So if you absolutely must get something in the ground now, choose containers.

Container gardening differs from planting in the ground or even raised beds because containers need more tending. Everything the plant gets, soil, water and nutrition, is supplied by the gardener. Water is especially important because containers tend to dry out faster. When planted in the ground, plant roots can reach out for some distance to take up water, but in a container, the roots have no way to spread out in search of moisture. In that case, the gardener must supply water.

The same applies to nutrients. In the ground, plant roots can take up nourishment from some distance away. In a container, whatever the gardener supplies is what the plant gets. Period.

Containers do offer an option not available in other kinds of gardens. You can take them inside at night when a late frost threatens. You can’t do that with an in-place garden.

Also, containers offer some degree of protection from soil-borne diseases and pests. Last year, something destroyed my pea seeds that were planted in the ground. I never got one pea. This year, my Tom Thumb shelling peas will go in an EarthBox, a commercially available container I have written about numerous times in these pages.

To summarize, it is best to wait for the soil to warm completely before planting most crops. Wait, and you will be rewarded.

Tom Seymour, of Frankfort, is a homeowner, gardener, forager, naturalist, registered Maine Guide, amateur astronomer, magazine and newspaper columnist, and book author.