Some Like It Cool 5 vegetables for early-spring planting By Therese Ciesinski
boots for garden clogs, rejoice, for planting season is upon us. Too cold, you say? Not for crops like lettuce, peas, and spinach, which grow best in the cool soil and air of early spring. Plant them in the next few weeks, and you’ll enjoy homegrown vegetables before Memorial Day. Start from seed or buy transplants. Transplants are faster, but seed lets you choose the varieties you want. The ground should be thawed, and the soil temperature above 35°F. To measure, use
a soil thermometer, or let nature show the way: When forsythia and daffodils begin to bloom, it’s time to sow spinach, lettuce, and peas. When the lilacs are in first leaf, sow broccoli and kale seeds. The soil should be moist, not wet. Squeeze a clump in your hand. If it stays in a squishy, wet ball, it’s too early to plant. If it holds together when squeezed but crumbles when you jostle it, dig in. Follow the instructions on the seed packet or label as to planting depth and spacing. For specifics on growing conditions in your area, contact your county’s Cooperative Extension Service.
Sow seed when the soil temperature is 50°F or warmer. Broccoli initially forms a large center head. Once it is cut off, smaller heads sprout from stalks on the sides. Keep picking or the plants will flower, ending the harvest. Try Blue Wind, Amadeus, or Everest.
This nutritional powerhouse comes in flatleaved or curly varieties, and cold sweetens the leaves. Sow seed when soil is 50°F. Harvest outer leaves when 8 to 10 inches long; large ones get leathery. Varieties to try are Redbor, Winterbor, or Toscano.
Lettuce matures quickly—about 40 days when started from seed. Sow seeds when soil is 40°F. Lettuces bolt (flower and go to seed) when air temperatures reach 80°F. This turns the leaves bitter. Try Flashy Troutback or Little Gem (romaine), Tom Thumb or Buttercrunch (butterhead), and Green Deer Tongue or Merlot (leaf).
For some, it’s tradition to plant peas on St. Patrick’s Day, but if your soil is too cold and wet, the seeds will rot. Wait until soil is 45°F. Treat pea seed with inoculant before planting (buy it where you get your seeds). Tasty ediblepod varieties include Sugar Snap and Sugar Ann; Alderman and Lincoln are dependable shelling peas.
Spinach is a coolweather classic. Seeds can germinate in soil that’s only 35°F, though 5° to 10° warmer is preferable. Pick as baby leaves once 3 to 4 inches long, or allow leaves to mature to full size. For a continuous harvest, sow seed every seven days. Varieties to try are Corvair, Tyee, and Yukon.
Therese Ciesinski has written for Garden Design, This Old House, and Coastal Home magazines, Houzz. com, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives and gardens in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
DO amend the soil a few weeks in advance of planting (see p. 32).
DO loosen and break up the soil to aerate it, and weed the bed before planting.
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DO harden seedlings off by gradually exposing them to outdoor conditions over the course of a week or so.
DON’T step on the planting area. It compacts the soil so air and water can’t get through.
DON’T let seedlings freeze. Cover if frost is predicted. Mature plants can tolerate some frost.
DON’T forget to fertilize. Vegetables, especially broccoli, benefit from regular applications of an organic fertilizer.
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IF YOUR INNER GARDENER can’t wait to ditch the snow