GROW: 5 Easy Cool Season Vegetables for Spring
Like each of us, vegetables have their preferred seasons and they have many ways of showing us it’s either too cold or too hot for their ideal growing conditions. In hardiness zones 3-8, early spring is the best time to grow vegetables that don’t like heat but it can be a challenging season to sow seeds. Cold soil, heavy rains, an occasional frost, maybe a dusting of snow are all factors of the spring season for those of us in northern latitudes. But gardeners are optimistic and eager if they are nothing else and so we sow.
Cool season vegetables - peas, lettuces, greens, cabbage clan members - are nutritious and made for immediate eating. I love growing heat-loving tomatoes, peppers and squash but like most prima donnas, they can often require additional attention (work) after they have completed their performance on the garden stage. Cool season vegetables can be harvested, cleaned and prepared in less than 30 minutes.
Tips for Growing Cool Season Vegetables
Most vegetables need full sun (6-8 hours) so observe your growing area to ensure it has enough sun each day.
Create a soil with lots of organic matter (i.e., compost) because it will warm up quicker, drain better (from spring downpours) and offer a good foundation for plant growth.
Raised beds are not necessary; simply create mounds to plant in. Mounding or raised beds help with draining excessive moisture.
Mulch vegetable transplants to regulate moisture and soil temperature and protect from a late frost.
Plant early flowering herbs and flowers alongside (called intercropping) the vegetables to help with pest management. Dill, cilantro, lemon balm, chervil, borage and sweet alyssum will attract beneficial insects who will consume any undesirable insects who are interested in your early spring vegetables
High temps and sudden drops to cold temps can cause bolting in some vegetables.
WHAT IS BOLTING?
When To Plant Cool Season Vegetables
The best time to plant your cool season vegetable starts depends upon your hardiness zone, your current and upcoming weather and the temperature of your soil. In the spring, wait until the soil is workable and outside temperatures rise above 40 degrees.
But soil temperatures are the more important factor and they should be at 50°F (10°C) for growth to happen. Soil thermometers are inexpensive but a digital meat thermometer with a long probe on it (often used when grilling) can be substituted. Be sure to insert it at least 4-6 inches into the soil to get an accurate reading of the area where the roots of your seedlings will grow - typically called the root zone. Next is hardening off your starts.
What is Hardening Off?
Hardening off vegetable starts is an important step for spring seedlings that have been enjoying the warmth of indoors. They need to build up their hardiness, and I start by moving them outside, in the elements (no freezing temps) each day for a week. Toward the end of the week, I let them spend the night outside for a couple of days. Keep track of the weather during this period; an overnight hard freeze may kill your otherwise hardy cool season starts.
When to Direct Sow Seed in the Spring
Sowing seed directly into the soil in the unpredictable spring weather can be a bit trickier: the combination of water-logged soil and spring showers can rot seed quickly. Incorporating several inches of compost into the top 6 inches of your bed will help with draining. Since most seeds are planted in the top ½ inch of the bed, the soil’s surface temperature is the more important factor.
Cool Season Vegetable Choices for Spring
Sow seed lightly over a bed and keep moist for germination (7-14 days). Once seedlings appear, mulch lightly compost to keep moist. Harvest individual young leaves for salads or pull the entire plant when the rosette is mature (25-35 days). There are three types of spinach: Savoy, which has dark, crinkled and slightly curled leaves; Flat-leaved, which has smooth broad leaves and Semi-Savoy, which is a hybrid of the two. Spinach can be started indoors and transplanted.
Lettuce loves cool weather and is easy to grow. Direct sow the tiny seeds four to six weeks before your average last frost date. There’s an abundance of varieties (romaines, butterheads, loose-leaf and crisp-head types), and I dedicate one bed to successive planting of lettuces. For a continuous harvest during spring, sow seed every two weeks until the heat arrives. Don’t bother sowing once temps hit the 80s; lettuce won’t germinate and some of your lettuce may bolt and turn bitter.
Keep moist during germination (7-14 days) and begin harvest at about 25 days by cutting small leaves. Allow some plants to grow into a head and harvest the entire plant. Lettuce can be started indoors and transplanted but does better when it is directly sown.
Peppery tasting arugula makes a great addition to salads and is delicious on a sandwich. Sow the tiny seeds the same as lettuce. Arugula forms little clumps so it benefits from thinning but I just cut leaves off when they are 3-4 inches tall. Like other lettuces and greens, arugula will get bitter and tough as the heat increases.
Several years ago, I had an infestation of leaf miners in my garden beds and they love swiss chard and spinach which are members of the chenopod family. I started looking around for greens that are from another family. I have been growing tatsoi for the past several years and now prefer it to spinach. It can be similarly used fresh in salads or cooked in soups, pastas and stir-fried.
Grow tatsoi much like you grow spinach - either direct seed or as starts. It is a bit more picky about drainage so if your soil is very wet, create 8 inch tall mounds and plant into the mounds. Unlike spinach and lettuce which will bolt when it’s hot, when tatsoi is exposed to extreme cold, it may bolt. Leaves can be harvested as early as 21 days from sowing seed. Tatsoi can be started indoors and transplanted.
Easy to grow and quick to harvest! Delicious in salads, as a quick snack or fried in butter and layered onto a baguette with some fresh dill leaves.
Direct sow seeds and count the days - approximately 22-25 days for the small round types. There are many varieties so buy many and try out the subtle taste differences and varying sizes. Radishes are the perfect introduction to growing vegetables for the small hands of child.