Many people like to grow their own food and there are a lot of spring vegetables that are ideal for the cool weather start that will help gardeners fill the void of fresh vegetables and herbs during the cold spring months.
Take advantage of the cool, wet weather of spring to put in multiple crops of peas and lettuce. It’s also a great time to get your perennial vegetables, like asparagus and rhubarb, started. These all grow great in a greenhouse, raised garden bed, or right into the ground.
There are 4 top picks for cold weather crops that will add a great deal to your gardening experience. One is a perennial and the other 3 are annuals. They are all similar in terms of needs to grow, temperature, timing to harvest, harvesting styles with the exception of asparagus.
There aren’t many perennial vegetable crops, vegetables you can plant once and harvest for many years to come. Asparagus is one that will take 2 years to produce quality vegetables. Looking forward to the first tender, pencil sized spears of asparagus poking through in the garden is a rite of spring. If you thought you didn’t like asparagus, you haven’t tried it freshly picked.
Generally, asparagus is established by planting one-year-old crowns. Choose your location carefully, preferably on the northern side of the garden to avoid shading out other plants. Loosen the soil 16″ deep and amend it well with compost and rotted manure. If you are planting it in a greenhouse, make sure that the pots are at least 18” deep to allow for rooting. Fall preparation for spring planting is best, but spring preparation will work unless the pH of your soil is low. Plant the crowns about 6″ deep and 1 1/2 ‘ apart, cover them with soil and mulch well. Keep the bed moist, but not wet. Good drainage is important to the healthy growth of asparagus. Raised beds are preferable to ensure that weeds and grass cannot encroach.
To produce the best long-term crop, it is not recommended that the asparagus be harvested in the first year. Allow the plants to grow lush foliage, which will be cut back in the fall after turning brown. Harvest lightly the second year, choosing two or three of the heavier spears per plant but allow the wispy spears to grow into ferns once again. The third year, you can eat all you can cut, and the wait will be well worth it.
Keep in mind that asparagus produces early, but still needs to be fed, watered, and kept well mulched throughout the growing season. Taking care of the plants year-round will reward you with delicious asparagus for years to come.
Begin the harvest when the spears are 6-8 inches tall and about as thick around as your little finger. Snap them off at ground level and new spears will continue to grow. Stop harvesting about 4-6 weeks after the initial harvest, to allow the plants to produce foliage and food for themselves.
Lettuce may take a little protection to get it going in the early spring, but it is a hearty crop, and well worth the early planting. Cool, wet springs are perfect lettuce growing weather. It won’t bolt and you’ll probably have time for 2-3 succession plantings.
Lettuce grows well under cooler conditions and needs plenty of water. If you plant your lettuce when low temperatures are around 40 degrees F and high temperatures are around 60 degrees F, it should do fine. Be aware that a hard freeze will still damage your lettuce. However, lettuce can survive light freezes, which makes it an ideal crop to grow either during the fall or the early spring.
By protecting lettuce from frost your harvest will be that much larger and by using a greenhouse or cold frame to start the growing process you can normally double your harvest. The key is to keep frost off the plants. While light frost will cause minimal damage, it will over time cause the growth to be stunted. By starting the seedlings indoors or in a greenhouse you will be able to harvest much earlier.
Peas are another great cold weather vegetable. They are good for ornamental growing as well as for food harvesting. There is an old rule that you should plant your peas on St. Patrick’s Day for a May harvest. This is not always possible, especially if you live in the North where snow might still be covering the ground.
Sow them in spring, about one month before your last frost date. Where summers are cool, additional sowings can be made three weeks apart. Peas produce poorly in hot weather, so an early start is always a wise strategy. In climates with mild winters, a second crop can be sown in late summer for harvesting in late fall.
Since peas are vine plants they will benefit from a trellis or other support. Install a 6-foot-tall trellis before planting long-vined varieties. Compact varieties can be staked with woody branches or unemployed tomato cages after they sprout, or you can interplant short-vined peas with oats, which serve as a living support.
Peas can also be planted earlier in a greenhouse or under a cold frame. If you are planting them in a greenhouse it is recommended that the pot sizes used are at least 10” deep and 8 inches across. Well drained plants grow much better and faster than poorly drained ones.
Spinach is a cool weather lover, like its leafy relative, lettuce, and it grows quickly so you won’t have to wait long to enjoy it. But you’ll also have to keep planting new spinach, to extend the harvest. Getting spinach to grow is easy. Keeping your spinach growing takes time but is worth it. Fresh spinach is crisper, tangier and tenderer what you’ll find in any store and just one more benefit of growing your own food. Spinach can also grow in the shade of crops that will be taking off just as your spinach fades.
Samantha Michaels is an avid gardener and freelance writer.