One of the most neglected tools for vegetable gardeners is a soil thermometer. Soil temperature is a much better measure of when to plant than air temperature or the calendar. Planting when soil is too cool can cause some seeds to rot and transplants to sit there.
A number of vegetables can germinate and grow at cool temperatures. For example, peas will germinate and grow well at a soil temperature of 40 F. Though lettuce, parsnips, and spinach can sprout at a soil temperature of 35 F, they prefer at least 45 F for best germination and growth. Radishes also do well at a soil temperature of 45 F. Even if the seeds of these cool-season crops are planted below the recommended soil temperature, the seed will rarely rot.
Warm-season crops such as tomatoes, sweet corn, and beans are different. They prefer at least 55 F for germination (or transplanting), but others such as peppers, cucumbers, melons, and sweet potatoes need it even warmer, about 60 F. If planted when soils are too cool, they likely will rot before germinating.
Taking soil temperature accurately is a bit of a science. First, use a metal soil thermometer, which is sold in many garden, auto parts, and hardware stores. Take temperature 2.5 inches deep at about 10 to 11 a.m. Temperature variations throughout the day and night affect soil temperature, with the lowest readings after dawn and the warmest around mid-afternoon. The late-morning reading gives a good average temperature. If taking the soil temperature at this time is not practical, take a reading before you leave for work and a second when you return home and use the average. Also be sure to get a consistent reading for four to five days in a row before planting, and make sure a cold snap is not predicted.
An excellent guide sheet on this subject is published by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and is titled “Soil Temperature Conditions for Vegetable Seed Germination.” It can be found at https://extension.oregonstate.edu/sites/default/files/documents/12281/soiltemps.pdf
Lauren Fick is a Cottonwood Extension District Horticulture Agent. Hays Office: 785-628-9430. Great Bend Office: 620-793-1910.