Act 1 of the vegetable gardening season is open. Yet this is not an act for watching, but for doing. Longer days, stronger sunlight and gradually warming weather all signal the time is here for a crops to plant starting now. These are the cool-season vegetables that will take the cool soil of late winter and early spring, then grow beautifully through spring’s mild weather.
The ensemble that makes the cast of this great first act includes grand players such as spinach, leaf lettuce, mesclun and snap peas, as well as a fine supporting cast of cabbage, carrots, beets, onions and more. Together they make a great show that will keep the vegetable beds going and growing until tomato time.
Seed racks are filled already with lots of choices for crops that grow easily from seeds if sown over the next few weeks. Young plants of such crops as cabbage and broccoli are showing up in garden centers as well, ready to set out. These are hardy crops that will establish and grow in cool soil temperatures.
The lucky gardener is one with a raised bed that is 4 to 6 inches higher than surrounding ground and filled with good soil that requires only turning with a fork or shovel and quick removal of pesky winter weeds that sneaked in when your back was turned.
A garden bed, even a very small one, has the advantage of draining faster so that soil does not stay soggy in wet weather to the detriment of seeds and seedlings. Even a small bed that is 5 by 5 feet, prepared now with deep digging and the addition of good compost, will be large enough for many of the Act 1 players.
Once that is done, you can add more garden space for the warm-weather crops that go in starting in mid-April for Act 2. In case you are wondering, Act 3 of this drama opens in the late summer with the fall crops, but more about them at the right time.
Crops such as onions, beets, radishes and carrots are grown for their underground roots, bulbs and tubers. These almost demand cool soil. Onions should go in from now until mid-March, carrot seeds before March 1, radishes and beets by about April 1. Keep in mind that root crops demand loose soil that allows the plant to expand easily underground. Pay close attention to spacing requirements stated on the seed envelope.
Lovely leafy greens, including mesclun, leaf lettuce and spinach, are easy-to-grow vegetables. Like the underground crops, they will take very cool soil temperatures of late winter and early spring. Grow them from seed or small plants sold in garden centers. Plant by mid-March. It helps to stretch the season by staggering plantings every 10 days or so from now until then. Broccoli and cabbage are two more vegetables typically grown from purchased, small plants and should be spaced 12 to 18 inches apart when set out in the next few weeks.
The popular Sugar Snap peas and their close cousins are outstanding cool-weather plants that bear peas before summer heat hits. Most require the support of a light fence or trellis made of stakes and heavy string.