Nancy Brachey

Gardening in Charlotte: Get your cool-weather vegetables going

Leaf lettuce is easy to grow from seeds or young plants that prosper in cool air and soil of early spring.
Leaf lettuce is easy to grow from seeds or young plants that prosper in cool air and soil of early spring. Observer file photo

Just about everyone has a different idea of what constitutes the first sign of spring. A purple crocus? Forsythia showing its yellow flowers? The first daffodil?

I love all those things, but what really shows me spring is on the way are racks stuffed with packets of fresh seeds and shelves containing young plants of cool-weather vegetables.

What a joy. And for many people a surprise. This is also a surprise for people who think vegetable gardening begins in late April at tomato time. But for those eager who get going now, many good things are ready and waiting for you.

On clear days, we can see that the sun is getting stronger, because it is getting closer.

The next few of weeks should be a great time to plant spinach, leaf lettuce, mesclun, green peas, beets, carrots and onions. That may be more than you thought was possible, but all will take cool soil temperatures and will grow nicely in the mild air of late winter into spring. They actually delight in these mild weeks and rarely disappoint the way leaf lettuce does when sown in the warm-to-hot days of late spring

Aim to get these plants sown as seeds or set out as young plants between now and about mid-March.

And do not fear that an occasional chill will harm them. Crops grown for their underground roots and bulbs, such as carrots, beets and onions, thrive in cool soil that would make a tomato plant shiver.

Onions, for example, can go into the ground now, set about 4 inches apart and will take whatever cold surprise winter throws at them.

Seeds of radishes, another underground crop, should go in anytime during March; carrot seeds, by early March, beet seeds by early April. Pay close attention to recommendations on the seed packages for thinning and spacing, usually a few inches.

It is also important with these root crops to ensure that the soil is loose and free. The crops will not develop well in tight clay soil, so take time to loosen soil with compost or other soil conditioner. This will allow them to develop nicely.

Young plants of such crops as cabbage and broccoli are showing up in garden centers as well, ready to set out through March. These are hardy crops that will establish and grow in cool air and soil.

Leaf lettuce, mesclun and spinach are delightful and easy-to-grow crops that tolerate cool soil, even to about 45 degrees. But the soil should not be soggy, as this can encourage seeds to rot before they sprout.

After a wet spell, give the soil some days to dry out but try to get the seeds in the ground by mid-March. You can also buy young plants of these crops, too. Should serious cold threaten, cover the young seedlings for the night with a bed sheet or a floating row cover sold in garden centers.

Seeds of green peas such as the famed Sugar Snap and similar peas with edible pods, should be in the ground by mid-March. These are superior crops that produce well in late spring. Sugar Snaps grow quite tall and require the support of a fence or trellis. Shorter forms such as Sugar Bon reach about 2 feet and can be held up by a string net placed between low posts

Nancy Brachey:

Ask Nancy

Q. Some of my perennials, especially chrysanthemums, are starting to grow. Should I be worried?

A. No. Some perennials are starting to break dormancy and show new growth at ground level. This is particularly noticeable among chrysanthemums because the color of the foliage look so fresh and light green. Trim off any stems left from last season for a neat look.