What are the first crops that we should consider planting in our gardens in the spring? When the soil can be worked, we have a wide range of cold-hardy choices to consider. These crops all have a few things in common. They:
- germinate in cold soil
- grow well under cool conditions, and
- tolerate a light frost.
Many of these crops can and should be planted in cool conditions, else you risk poor germination, poor development, and inferior flavor and/or texture. You’ll want to get them in the ground as early as you can to allow them time to develop before the heat of summer sets in. With good planning and a little cooperation from the weather, you’ll be able to harvest these crops in time to follow up with a warm weather crops such as beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Pay attention to the days to maturity information listed on many seed packets, and look for quick-growing varieties to make the most of your growing season. Also, be prepared to cover your crops with frost protection if temperatures take an abrupt and extreme downturn. Or stagger your plantings with the anticipation of a few losses.
- Brussels sprouts
- cabbage, including Chinese cabbage
- collard greens
- fava beans
- hardy perennial herbs, such as chives, thyme, mint, oregano, and sage
- pak choi
- Swiss chard
In my home garden, I’ve been able to overwinter a few of these crops–lettuce, arugula, bunching onions, spinach, tatsoi, carrots, parsley, cilantro, kale, and Hon Tsai Tai, a broccoli-like green–under protection. They didn’t grow much, but under protection, the limitation seemed to be more about diminishing winter light than cold.
On the other side of spring, a few of these crops such as the ones marked* generally can carry over well into hot conditions. With regard to one of these crops–carrots–I think a better option is to select quick-growing cultivars that mature in late spring/early summer, and then squeeze in another crop of in the fall, perhaps for overwintering. They’ll taste sweeter if they are harvested in cool conditions.
Some of the others on the cool list, such as lettuce, have cultivars purported to withstand the heat. I have yet to find a lettuce I can grow well in the summer heat, no matter what the claim on the seed packet. (Anyone? I’d love to have some lettuce with my summer cucumbers and tomatoes.) BUT, you can cheat the season a little by growing leafy vegetables in partially shaded areas.
One other note: Last summer my parsley bolted (went to seed) in early summer, and I have since read that young parsley seedlings exposed to substantial cold are more likely to have this tendency. In this case, you may want to grow a backup batch for late summer/fall. If the winter is not too harsh, they’ll even overwinter.
Ready to do some cool growing? Happy spring, everyone!
For more reading:
Cold-weather growing tips from Seed Savers Exchange.
Tips on when to start cold-weather crops from GrowVeg.
Also from GrowVeg, the “mess of protecting plants from stress.” Lol, this is how my front yard looks right now, with hoop houses and frost blankets. Take a quick look at this article if only to see their simple, but smart way to keep plastic milk jugs in place as cloches.
The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour (2011) is a great beginners’ resource for learning all about season extension and growing in cool and cold seasons. It’s available free from Hoopla; I liked it so much I purchased my own copy.
Eliot Coleman is well-known for four-season gardening. Here are two titles, Four-Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook. Available through Old Colony Library Network.
Use this planting schedule as a very rough guide.
Here’s a more tailored seed-starting and setting-out calculator from Johnny’s. (Note that you have to enter our region’s frost-free date, which can be tricky to figure out. The Farmer’s Almanac reports a frost-free date of April 22, using weather data from South Weymouth and allowing for a 30% risk of frost.) I feel all right using this data for cold-weather plants, but for warm-weather plants, I like less risk of frost.