Springtime offers the vegetable gardener a chance to plant cold hardy varieties for an early harvest. Depending on your location, vegetables such as peas, beets, and greens can be planted in the garden as early as March. Direct sow your seeds as soon as the soil can be worked. The key to successful vegetable gardening in early spring is choosing the right plant varieties. Information on cold hardiness is found on the seed packet.
Plant peas as soon as you can
I plant peas in my garden by St. Patrick's Day, although the soil in my northwest Arkansas garden is not warm by any stretch of the imagination. Most varieties of peas do well in cold weather. My favorite cold hardy peas are snow peas. We direct sow Oregon Sugar Pod peas in the garden. I like this variety because it is prolific and open pollinated. Snow peas are great for fresh eating and stir frying. They add crunch to salads. I find the stringless pods easy to prep for cooking.
Tips for growing peas
Choose snow peas for the earliest planting. The young plants tolerate light frost and cold weather well.
Have reemay cloth or tarps ready in case a late, hard freeze threatens.
Check with your seed supplier about treated seed. I found out the hard way that some seed companies only offer pea seeds that are treated with fungicide.
Supply a trellis for pea plants to climb on. We build our own using twine and a wood frame.
Pick snow peas as soon as you see the little peas starting to form. This when peas are the most tender.
Beets like cold weather
I love to plant beets because the entire plant is edible. The tops are cooked like collard greens or you can use them in soups and stews. Very young beet tops can be eaten fresh as salad greens. The roots are very tasty when roasted, although some people say it makes the kitchen smell like dirt. Personally, I like the way roasting caramelizes the natural sugars in the roots. Beets can be used to add color and drama to ordinary food. A vibrant pink, beet risotto adds a gourmet touch to any meal.
I sow beet seeds directly into my garden as soon as the soil can be worked. The seeds will germinate in soil temperatures as low as 45 degrees Fahrenheit and young plants will tolerate light frosts. If you are short on garden space, you can plant beets in containers or soil bags. Stagger plantings by sowing your beets at one week intervals. This gives you the longest harvest time possible. When you thin your beet plants, don't discard the pulled seedlings--use them in salads.
All of the beets listed below have performed well for me in my zone 6 garden. These varieties are open pollinated, so you can save the seeds from one year to the next. I find that saving seeds reduces your garden costs.
Flat of Egypt is my favorite variety for extra early beets. It matures in just 50 days. This is an heirloom variety that performs well in cold soils.
Early Wonder Tall Top tolerates cold soil well. One of the things I like about this beet is that the seeds mature at different rates, which extends your harvest. The roots are fairly uniform in size ranging from 3 to 4 inches.
Chioggia is a great variety for sliced beets. I love the internal color--alternating circles of red and white. Gardeners who enter canned beets into the county or state fairs score well with Chioggia because of the unique color. It matures in 65 days.
Touchstone Gold offers gardeners a beet that is red-orange on the outside with a golden-yellow interior. You can use this variety to get fussy eaters to try beets as they have a slightly milder flavor to them. The tops are different than other beet greens as they are a lighter green veined with yellow streaks. I think this beet has the best flavor out of all of the golden varieties I have tried.
Bulls Blood has deep red roots as well as red foliage. The striking color is appealing in the garden and on the dinner plate. The tops can reach up to 13 inches tall. I like to combine this variety with Touchstone Gold in flower beds to add interest to the landscape.
Greens are easy to grow
Greens are the first plants I direct sow into the garden. If you are short on space, you can grow greens in containers. Planting a mix of greens in a container is a great way to have variety in a small area. Two of my favorite mixes are Mesclun Spicy Mix and Mesclun Salad Mix from Burpee. Both perform well in cold weather. A few of the seeds remained dormant in my planters over the winter and are now growing in my outdoor containers.
Greens do not like hot, sunny locations. Heat causes the plants to bolt, or go to seed. The ideal time to plant salad greens is late winter to early spring. I extend the harvest into summer by covering the bed with shade cloth. Instead of shade cloth, I use sun blocking window screen. When replacing my window screens; I save the old ones for use in the garden.
To have a perpetual supply of greens, I harvest just the outer leaves. This allows the inner leaves to keep growing so you can harvest them later on.
Common types of greens
Greens are any leafy plant that you can eat. Kale and collards are good for cooking when allowed to grow to maturity. My kids like to eat the thinnings in salads. They add color and texture when mixed with lettuce.
Spinach is a green that is well-suited to cold weather planting. Mature leaves can be cooked or steamed. I have found that kids who hate spinach will try young fresh spinach leaves. The tender leaves are sweeter than the mature ones.
Mesclun comes in many colors and tastes, from mild to spicy. Planting a container of musclun will save you a ton of money at the grocery store. These are considered gourmet greens and they carry a premium price tag. I prefer mesclun instead of lettuce in my salads.
Mustard greens add a spicy flavor to salads. Harvest young leaves for fresh eating. The mature leaves are wonderful in stir fried dishes. I find that they add a slightly spicy kick to stir fries and soups. You can leave several plants to go to seed for use in the kitchen and save for another planting. I grind them for use in homemade mustard.
Growing cold hardy vegetables in the spring allows you to extend your harvest time. It is healthier, better for the environment, and more economical to grow your own food. Try planting a few cold hardy varieties and see how well they do for you.
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