Spring Crops

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.

  • alyssum
  • arugula
  • beets*
  • broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • cabbage, including Chinese cabbage
  • carrots*
  • cauliflower
  • celery
  • cilantro
  • collard greens
  • fava beans
  • hardy perennial herbs, such as chives, thyme, mint, oregano, and sage
  • kale
  • kohlrabi
  • leeks
  • lettuce
  • onions*
  • pak choi
  • pansies
  • parsley
  • parsnip
  • peas
  • radish
  • rutabaga
  • Swiss chard
  • tatsoi
  • turnips
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Cilantro (foreground) often reseeds itself and grows in the spring when conditions are just right. If you like it, leave it be. Self-sown plants are often the least fussy.
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Lettuce, spinach, tatsoi, and Hon Tsai Tai, a broccoli-like green, thrive under cool conditions. Damage thanks to slugs.

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.

How’d It Grow? Premium Peas

Are you getting ready to plant peas? It’s still too early here in zone 6, but I thought I’d mention this variety while there is still time for ordering from seed catalogs.

Description and Source

Premium is the name of the pea, which can be a little confusing if you go looking for it online since ‘premium’ is also used by seed companies as a descriptor. This particular variety is available exclusively from Johnny’s.

Premium is open-pollinated and resistant to Fusarium Wilt.

Please note that Johnny’s sells both untreated and treated seeds, the latter of which is coated with a fungicide to protect them from diseases such as damping off. When I contacted Johnny’s about the treatment, the representative indicated that treated seeds are not approved for organic growing.

Planting and Growing Notes

Last year on April 1, I sneaked into the garden on that one flashy warm day we had here in MA and got these guys planted in a nine-foot row under a mini grow tunnel (with a plan to remove it as they grew). Using Johnny’s intensive spacing guidelines, I planted them in a 3-inch band, 1 1/2″ apart, around 25 per foot. These peas do not grow tall, and although a trellis is not needed, I set up supports at the time of planting to keep space for other plants and to help make picking easier.

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‘Premium’ also grew well in a pot. Supported on twine and bamboo, they were easy to pick. Following this crop, I was able to fit in a crop of scarlet runner beans.

Soon after I planted them, the temperature dropped precipitously, down into the twenties. And then we had a long spell of cold, wet weather. I’d been hoping that the grow tunnel was going to warm the soil and help them move along, but those pea seeds didn’t budge for nearly three weeks, for so long without a sign that I thought I’d lost them. Around the time they sprouted, I put in another crop of peas in a pot on my front sidewalk, and those guys matured only a day or two later than the ones I planted  on April 1.

Harvest

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After shelling, I had about a pound of peas from a 9-foot row.

Most of them were ready for picking around mid June. Even if I account for that cold snap right after I planted them, they took a little longer to mature than the 51-day average noted by Johnny’s. Still, I was able to get my next crop in the garden easily while they were finishing up.

The nine-foot row in my garden yielded a little more than 1 pound of shelled peas.

How’d they taste? After eating Premium my teens decided that they do like peas after all. The flavor was fresh and sweet, not metallic or bitter, even for ones that I missed and left on the vine a little too long.

The ones that I blanched, froze on a paper-towel-lined tray, and then stored in freezer bags held well for a few months.

Bottom Line?

I’m planting these again in 2019, probably  a week or two into April depending on weather trends. My portable grow tunnel might have saved the peas from rotting, but didn’t warm up the soil enough to make planting worthwhile so early in very cold temperatures.

Though some peas like Bistro may offer higher yields, I’m generally interested in moving things along to fit in a succession of crops in a short time. I hear Strike is another good one to try for early yield.

Best of all, they tasted good and got my teens to change their minds about peas.

 

Deer Vs. Gardeners II

I used to say that while we had a few deer visitors every year at PPCG, the humans always took home more from their gardens than the deer did.

And then last year happened.

Going into our 2019 growing season, I’m going to assume that if we want more harvest than heartbreak, we’re going to need to start off with active defenses. The good news is that many of us found some reasonable solutions that worked well for us.

For more info about deer control, see this post. Here I’m going to focus on the methods that seemed to work well for our gardeners, along with a few sources and best prices. (If you find some better options, please share!)

Repellent: Plantskydd

At least one of our gardeners, Gary  (plot 31), had good luck with this product, which is sprayed on plants. OMRI-listed, it’s main ingredient is dried animal blood. For the best results, you’ll want to spray it early in the season, before deer get a taste of what’s in your garden. 

Pros:  One of the least expensive options in terms of initial outlay. No need to struggle with fence installation. Allows you to keep your garden open and easily accessed. Doesn’t wash off in rain. Organic.

Cons: Needs to be applied to new growth, so you do have to keep up with it. Since its main ingredient is animal blood, it (1) may not be an option for vegetarian gardeners and (2) will add nitrogen to your soil, which you may or may not want. Also, although the product specifies it’s safe for garden vegetable plants, you can’t spray it on any part of the plant that you intend to eat, such as lettuce leaves or tomatoes. There’s also a granular formula that you can sprinkle around your plants.

Available at: Amazon for $23.99 for a 32-oz. spray bottle or at Park Seed for $21.95. Check here for local dealer locations. You can also buy larger quantities in powder concentrate that you have to mix and a granular formula for sprinkling.

Fence Option 1: Multi-Purpose Netting

IMG_20180503_103531591.jpgJun (plot 24) and I (plot 30, photo right) used this product by Tenax with good success. At 4-feet tall, it’s an easy jump for deer,  but I’ve read that deer don’t normally like to jump into enclosed spaces as small as our gardens. For extra measure, I put a few obvious tomato cages inside my plot to clutter up the landing zone.

This product is sturdier than the netting described below, but not really sturdy enough to support  vines such as cucumbers. I installed it using 60-inch u-posts, slipping the fence onto the hooks on the posts as I wrapped it around the garden. 

Pros: Sturdy. Should last a few years. Relatively easy to install; I was able to do it myself. Most difficult part for me was pounding in the u-posts. Allows easy access to gardens–just unhook the netting from the posts. (The whole garden can be opened quickly and easily.) Even though it’s thicker than the deer netting below, it’s still unobtrusive and doesn’t cast significant shade. Can also be purchased in 7′ x 100′ rolls, enough to keep out jumpers from two garden plots. 

Cons: Costs about $24 for the netting plus $27 – $45 for 6 – 10 u- or t-posts. Not a good choice for folks who don’t want to go to the trouble of installation or who don’t like enclosed garden spaces. Not tall enough to prevent jumpers or “leaner-overs.” The 7′-tall fencing will need sturdy, more expensive posts to be installed properly.

Available at: Lowes in Weymouth and on Amazon.

 

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Fence Option 2: Deer/ Wildlife Netting

Product Image 2A few gardeners used a product like this one, which is finer and less stiff than the multi-purpose netting above. They installed it using bamboo or green plastic garden posts, attaching the fence to them with twine, zip ties, or tomato Velcro. I’ve also seen recommendations to hook the netting onto nails, screws, or cup hooks fastened to wooden garden stakes, which then could function a lot like the netting above.

Pros: Tall enough to keep the champion jumpers out. Reusable. Lightweight and unobtrusive. No problems with product casting shade. Depending on how it’s installed, it can be removed easily if you need better access to your garden for maintenance, etc.. The cost of the netting itself is reasonable, around $20.

Cons: Must be secured properly. Potential tripping hazard. Does a number on our lawnmower. Ideally, should be marked with flagging tape so deer see it and don’t blunder into it. Could be chewed or torn. A little fiddly to use. Best installed with a second set of hands. To make full advantage of the height, you need tall support posts, which may cost more than the netting itself.

 

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Barrier Cover: Bird Netting

Bird netting is similar in weight to the wildlife netting above, but sold in dimensions that allow you to drape it over large sections. This option is a good, inexpensive one if you want to protect certain plants or sections of your garden. 

 

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Pros: Perhaps the least expensive option. Allows you to section off areas of your garden, leaving open access to other areas. 

Cons: Like the wildlife netting, it’s fiddly to use. Must be secured properly! (I used clothes pins, attaching the netting to twine stretched between stakes.) Potential tripping hazard. Gets tangled in our lawnmower. Depending on how it’s installed, can make garden access annoying. Your plants won’t like bumping up against it, so your netting supports have to be taller than your plants at full height.

 

Available at: Lowes in Weymouth and Home Depot in Quincy. (See photos below.) 

 

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Final Thoughts…

Repellents, fencing, or cover netting…there’s no perfect solution here, but we managed to find a few workable options that allowed us to recover last summer. Pick the one that works best for you and go for it–early in the season. It’s better to set up your repellents and barriers as soon as possible, before deer get a taste of the good stuff  in your garden.

Happy gardening, everyone!