Looking to get a jump on the spring gardening season? There are a number of crops that thrive in the cooler weather of this season. Here are a few of our favorite cool-weather crops to start early!
The secret to a bountiful early harvest is choosing the right seeds. As you peruse catalogs or seed kiosks during the cooler months, keep this in mind: Choose cold-resistant vegetables to plant this spring, and “well begun, you’ll be half done.”
Cold Snap Peas
Got a sweet tooth? Grow sugar snap peas (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon) for a sweet and crunchy early crop. Snap peas have edible pods, so pick them right off the vine and eat them whole. These prolific legumes are best fresh, so make sure that you get out there and pick them while they’re in season! Add snap peas to salads, throw them into stir-fries, or cook them on the grill for a sweet and satisfying crunch.
- Snap peas are cold-resistant but not tolerant of heat, so get them into the ground 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost has passed.
- Plant seeds just ½ to 1 inch under the soil and cover up! Spread seeds 2 inches apart in early spring and you’ll have a crop in 6 to 8 weeks!
- These vines grow up trellises easily, with little training necessary. Start picking peas once they are bright green and plump.
What’s in a Pea?
Having a hard time remembering the difference between types of peas? Let’s simplify things:
- Snow peas are tangy and crisp, growing thin peas in flat pods. Eat the pod and peas.
- Sugar snap peas are sweet and crisp, growing small peas in round pods. Eat the pod and peas.
- Shelling peas are sweet, growing full, round peas in bulging pods. Shell and eat the peas; discard the pods.
Spinach loves cool weather! One of the most versatile and nutritious greens, spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is simple to manage and can be harvested multiple times in a season. Sauté spinach leaves, throw them into a salad, or scramble them into eggs for a vitamin-rich dish.
- The trick is to plant spinach early because it will bolt when it gets hot. Starts seeds about 1 week after the last frost has passed.
- Spinach prefers an area with morning sun and afternoon shade.
- Plant seeds ½ inch deep every 2 inches, in rows 12 to 18 inches apart.
- Thin the sprouts when they are 1 to 2 inches tall to every 4 inches.
- Start harvesting tender baby spinach at 3 to 5 weeks or wait longer for bigger, heartier leaves (about 40 to 50 days after planting).
- Spinach will regrow several times during the season, providing a large and staggered crop.
What the Cook Took
Eat spinach and other leafy green vegetables raw or lightly prepared to retain the most nutrients. Water-soluble vitamins (e.g., vitamin C, all B vitamins) will boil off in water, so steam spinach or cook it with little to no water rather than boiling it. If you’re left with liquid at the bottom of the pan, use it to make a sauce so that no nutrients go to waste!
Beets Can’t Be Beat
As well as being an excellent source of puns, beets (Beta vulgaris) are rich in iron, vitamins C and B6, and fiber. Beets are a cold-hardy and frost-resistant root crop that flourishes in northern gardens. Slice, dice, or grate beets into salads or stir-fries, blend them into dressings or smoothies, or pickle them to be saved for a midwinter snack. Beets can also make an organic pink dye for tie-dyeing shirts or homemade Easter eggs.
Before planting, add aged manure to your soil; beets require a high level of phosphorus to grow well. Sow seeds in soil with a temperature of 50° to 80°F for germination in 5 to 10 days. Plant seeds ½ inch deep and 1 to 2 inches apart, thinning to 3 to 4 inches between plants when they are about 2 inches tall. To thin, cut sprouts at soil level to keep from disturbing the roots of the other plants. Keep in mind that beets are extremely thirsty, so water them regularly and heavily during the growing season. Harvest a few early leaves to throw in stir-fries, leaving the root until later (about 50 to 70 days after planting).
A History in Black and White
Ancient Greeks and Romans grew beets for the medicinal properties of their leaves and the food value of their roots. Early cultivars known as Roman beets were either black or white, unlike the common red or yellow varieties grown today.
Like spinach, lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is a wonderful leafy green to plant early in the spring season—especially in containers. Lettuce enjoys the cool days of spring (or fall), which won’t make it bolt like the hot days of summer do.
- Lettuce seeds will germinate in soil temperatures as low as 40°F (though 55–65°F is preferred).
- Sow seeds outdoors as soon as the soil can be worked. Soil should be loose and well-draining!
- In 4 to 6 weeks, you’ll have baby lettuce leaves that are perfect for use in a salad or sandwich.
This biennial herb is often used as a garnish or in soups, as it reduces the need for salt and is a good source of vitamins A and C. Parsley seeds take a long time to germinate, so it’s good to get it started early.
- Sow seeds in the garden 3 to 4 weeks prior to your last spring frost date.
- Plant radishes in the gaps between parsley seeds; they will mature before the parsley needs the extra space!
A Bad Omen?
Long ago, parsley was seen as a sign of death. Ancient Greeks associated the plant with Archemorus, the “Forerunner of Death,” and decorated caskets with wreaths of the herb. It was also thought that the slow germination of parsley was a result of the seed traveling to hell and back!