By Anita Stone, North Carolina – The snow is melting and daytime temperatures are calling you outside. Leaf buds swell on trees and your hands long to feel the soil once again. And you’re hungry. You want leafy greens, tender shoots, something … anything from your garden. Here’s an early spring vegetables list you can plant right now.
Birth of a Season
For months we’ve subsisted on autumn’s harvest. Winter squash ripened bright orange and sat patiently in storage until we cooked it. Sweet, crisp apples gave us vitamin C to battle the flu season. Dry beans simmered for hours in slow cookers for hearty, comforting meals.
Mother Nature knows what she’s doing. We enjoy bountiful, nutritious vegetables in the summer. Carbohydrate-rich fall crops provide calories necessary for hard work and building a lipid layer which, until recently, has been crucial for human survival during the winter. Even the life cycles of lambs and chickens coincide with humans’ need for protein and fat during different times of the year. And as winter shrouds the land and crops refuse to grow, we consume food storage: grains and beans, long-storage squash, root vegetables, and what we have dehydrated and preserved from our gardens.
Then spring blossoms. The first plants on a spring vegetables list to appear are the healthiest. Dandelions and parsley, sprouting and growing despite frost and intermittent snowstorms, offer nutrients we’ve lacked all season. It’s a powerful reprieve to a long, lean winter.
Miraculously, the crops you can plant first on your spring vegetables list are also loaded with the nutrients you need most right now.
You can plant and harvest several months before your area’s final frost date. And though websites may tell you to plant onions in January and broccoli in February, this is location-specific. Your own garden may differ.
If you don’t already know your planting zone, research it. This will help determine when you should start herbs and when it’s safe to finally put tomatoes outside. Along the Pacific coastline, temperatures probably didn’t drop below 20 Fahrenheit so you may be able to start radishes after the New Year. Minnesota soil may still be frozen in March.
Seed packages recommend planting as soon as the ground can be worked. That means the dirt isn’t frozen, even if the ambient temperatures still drop below freezing. Soil doesn’t bind in wet clumps, refusing to fall from your shovel. It crumbles with a gentle touch. Water doesn’t stand on top of the ground so saturated it won’t sink further.
Plant spring crops as soon as you can. Time is critical because many cold-weather crops turn bitter or go to seed when it gets too hot. Find the sunniest, warmest location of your garden. If you use containers, placing them on a driveway or against a brick wall can draw in additional heat. Plant seeds as directed on the package, paying heed to depth and spacing requirements. If you sow and then a cold snap moves in, encourage germination by placing thick clear plastic or an old glass window over the ground, allowing enough room below for air to circulate.
If seed packages instruct you to wait until all danger of frost has passed, hold tight to those for several more months.
Early Spring Vegetables List
Salad Greens: Among the earliest crops are lettuce, arugula, and mesclun mixes. You’ll have success growing lettuce and greens when the soil is 55 degrees and many can be harvested within 30 days. And though they won’t flourish during long cold snaps, they won’t die unless temperatures dip below 28 degrees.
Spinach: Plant in the spring ground, harvest within 60 days, and get the most of this crop before it bolts. Most spinach cannot tolerate a hot summer. Some varieties are bred to thrive longer, but spinach is best enjoyed when it’s still springtime.
Asian Greens: Extremely hardy varieties such as bok choy and napa cabbage still look stunning when glazed with a thin layer of ice. And once the ice melts, they shine in the sun and continue to grow. Protect these from a hard frost but don’t worry if the nights still fall between 28 and 32.
Radishes: And if temperatures do still fall below 28? Your radishes will be fine. Growing radishes of a smaller variety such as Easter Egg mature within 30 days while larger, sweeter radishes like daikon can take 60 to 90. Root crops like radishes prefer to be direct-sown, planted right in the ground rather than started as seedlings.
Kale: This tough and nutritious leafy green sits beside radishes as one of the toughest brassicas you can grow. It can even thrive during mild winters with no snow pack. Sow early and protect seedlings from a hard frost to give them a little boost. Harvest the lowermost leaves and let the plant continue to grow through the summer heat.
Onions: Choose long day onions if you live in the north; short day varieties if you live in Zone 7 or warmer. To harvest sooner, purchase onion “sets,” tiny bulbs that have been started, pulled, and dried so you can replant and continue growing. Onion seeds are useful for growing rare varieties, though this adds several months to the maturity date. Start seeds inside to encourage germination and then plant the tiny spikes in the ground after hardening them off for a few days. Onions can survive a hard frost and poke right through the late snow.
Peas: Snow peas are aptly named. They’re among the first crops you can plant, and seedlings actually fare better in a hard frost than maturing plants. Both snow and snap peas can grace your table within 60 days. Direct-sow peas for the best results.
Beets and Swiss Chard: Silverbeet is the name for chard in Australia and New Zealand because they are in the same family. And they’re extremely nutritious plants which offer edible greens and roots that live in cold conditions. Direct-sow inside or out then carefully thin and replant after seedlings emerge.
Carrots: Though they can be planted as soon as the ground can be worked, carrots do prefer temperatures a little warmer. Often gardeners plant carrots during the second month of spring, after temperatures are higher but still freezing at night. Scatter in rows then thin after seedlings emerge. Remember that carrots only grow as large as the space you give them.
In the Greenhouse
May frost-intolerant crops thrive best if they are started in a greenhouse several months before the final frost date. Seed catalogs list “days to maturity” as 60 to 95 days, but this count starts after you transplant at about eight weeks old.
A sunny window usually isn’t enough for garden vegetables, as they need at least eight hours of direct sunlight. Growing within a house window can result in pale, leggy, unhealthy seedlings. If you have no greenhouse or sunroom, supplement with a strong ultraviolet light when sun doesn’t shine directly on the plants. Set the light very close to the plants, but don’t allow seedlings to touch hot bulbs.
Always harden seedlings off before planting outside.
Tomatoes: Start your favorite varieties within eight weeks of your final frost date. Healthy tomatoes grow fast, so be prepared to transplant a few times before they go outside. The best tomatoes have plenty of root space.
Peppers: The hottest peppers originate in the warmest climates. Give them more time to grow. Start bhut jolokia or habaneros 10 to 12 weeks before your last frost date; jalapeños or banana peppers should be started eight weeks before. Transplant often enough that plants do not get root bound.
Eggplant: Starting slow and tender and then growing fast, eggplant despise the cold. Even 40 degrees can make them wilt. Sow a few weeks before your tomatoes then keep eggplant in the warmest area of your greenhouse for best results.
Herbs: Most commonly used herbs are surprisingly frost- tolerant. Perennials such as oregano and thyme re-emerge soon after the ground warms. Hardier rosemary can live through the winter. Basil, however, blackens and dies before temperatures even drop to freezing. Start herbs indoors to encourage germination. Harden off all plants, especially those purchased from a greenhouse, placing permanently outdoors.
Sweet Potatoes: Seed companies sell sweet potatoes as slips: little green shoots just starting to form roots. They also ship sweet potato slips in April, which may or may not be warm enough for them to go outside. Sweet potatoes must have heat to survive. But you can start your own slips by purchasing organic sweet potatoes from a supermarket, setting them on moist soil or half-submerged in water, and keeping them in a greenhouse. It may take a couple months for decent slips to emerge from a supermarket tuber. Once sprouts form, carefully remove them and insert halfway into moist, fertile soil so they can take root.
Though squash, beans, and corn are sold within greenhouses as starts and seedlings, they fare best directly-sown within your garden. Root damage and transplant shock can stunt the plant. Seeds sown directly sprout and flourish within the location they were intended.
Whether you have a relish for salads topped with crisp sugar snap peas or want to add fresh greens to warm comforting soups, your garden can provide early in the year with proper selection of seeds and choice location.
Greenhouse-grown plants have been pampered their whole lives. Kept warm, in high humidity and moist soil, they have never even experienced direct sunlight. Always ask your local nursery if plants have been hardened off; chances are, they haven’t. Staff in corporate-owned garden centers may not even know what “hardened off” means.
To harden off plants grown within your greenhouse or others, bring them outside for a single hour in unfiltered sunlight or for two hours during a cloudy day. Don’t forget them or they will sunburn! The next day, double the time spent outside. Double that again the following day. By the time your plants can spend eight hours in full sun without damage, and a chilly night without wilting, they are ready to live permanently in the garden.
Transplant in the evening to avoid shock. Heat and strong sunlight stress a plant and right now they need to recover as roots take hold. Dig a hole in your garden soil and fill with water. Transplant, fill in soil around the plant, mulch, and water again. Let the plant spend a gentle, cool night before the sun comes out strong again.
What About Potatoes?
You’ll hear conflicting advice regarding potatoes. Though some gardeners sow them in the early spring, potatoes are nightshades. The green tops cannot withstand a frost. If they emerge then must endure a cold snap, the tops will die back, which will stunt development of tubers. Potatoes mature within 90 to 120 days, which allows plenty of time during most growing seasons. If your season is shorter than most, plant potatoes early but mulch around tender new leaves and provide frost protection if temperatures drop.
Cold frames, hoop houses, water walls, and frost blankets are all ways to extend the season and plant your crops sooner. Even cold-weather vegetables benefit from a little-added warmth.
Cold frames combine rigid sides with a glass or plastic top, set directly atop soil to add heat and light beyond the season. They can be permanent structures built of wood and old windows or makeshift enclosures of straw bales with thick plastic tacked atop. Hoop houses can be as simple as PVC pipe or livestock panels, arched over a raised bed and covered with plastic. If you don’t have the space or finances for either, purchase a frost blanket from a local garden center or online retailer. Suspend it above the plants for the best protection, as the frost may penetrate material that lies directly on leaves. Frost blanket still allows in at least 80% of the sunlight so you don’t need to remove it on cold days. But it does filter the light, so plants grown entirely under frost protection will need to be introduced gradually to full sunlight before the protection is dismantled.