How to Plan an Early Spring Vegetable Garden
Plan Your Early Spring Vegetable Garden
With careful planning, the average backyard gardener in most gardening zones in the United States can grow fresh, organic vegetables throughout the seasons. The early spring garden is similar to the fall garden, but with some key differences. Like fall gardening, the early spring garden receives cool to warm daytime temperatures and cool to cold night temperatures. But unlike the fall garden, the days grow warmer and the sunlight hours longer as the days progress. Another key difference is that the ground is cold to start with when planting vegetable seeds or plants in the spring; in the fall, plants get a faster start because the ground is already warm from the summer sun. In most parts of the country, however, you can grow similar vegetable crops. Plan now for a bountiful harvest this spring.
Plan Your Garden
The first step to planning your spring vegetable garden is to determine which gardening zone you live in. The gardening zones in the United States help gardeners estimate the average frost date in the fall and the last frost date in the spring. Most spring garden vegetables can tolerate a light frost, but you may need to cover your plants with a cold frame, an old storm window or even newspapers (and uncover them the next day) if a deep cold spell threatens.
If this is the first year you are growing a garden, plant your vegetables in an area that receives full sunlight, defined as six or more hours of direct light per day. You may also wish to have your soil pH tested; adding compost helps build up your soil and correct soil pH naturally and safely.
Wait until the soil is workable. Don't dig in the soil if it is soggy. Wet soil is not only heavy, but too much digging in wet ground can damage the soil structure.
List of Cool Weather Vegetables
In most temperate gardening zones in the United States (zones 5, 6, 7, and 8), some cool weather vegetables can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked. Be sure to wait until the soil has dried out enough so that it's not soggy; digging soil when it's too wet can compact it.
Early Spring Vegetables
- Lettuce - lettuces of all kinds love the cool spring weather. Plant early and plant often. It's better to plant a few lettuce seeds (or plants) weekly over a period of several week to ensure a continuous harvest rather than to plant a large patch all at once. Try many different types of lettuce, including gourmet salad mixes, red leaf, loose leaf, and Romaine.
- Radishes - radishes, like lettuce, are best planted by seed and planted lightly and frequently. They take only three weeks to mature, and most people only eat a few at a time, so plant a few seeds weekly over the spring so you have a continuous harvest. There are many more varieties of radishes than the red, globe-like radishes you find at the supermarket. Try French breakfast radishes, long white, cylindrical (and sweet-fiery) radishes; and many, many other types.
- Chard - Swiss chard is a green, leafy vegetable that's super-easy to plant and cook, but not as well known as its cousin, spinach. Try Swiss Chard "Bright Lights" for a beautiful garden and a beautiful plate; the stems are various shades of pink, orange, yellow and green, although the leaves are all green. Swiss chard should be planted from seeds in long rows, like spinach or lettuce.
- Spinach - plant your first crop of spinach in the spring. Spinach is one of those vegetables that is deceiving. While it may look like you have a huge garden of spinach, it cooks down to next to nothing, so plant more than you think you need. You can also blanch and freeze any excess.
- Onions - onion seeds and sets are best planted in early to mid spring. Try white onions, red and other types.
- Broccoli Rabe - Broccoli rabe or rapini is a gourmet vegetable found in Italian gardens and fine restaurants. It resembles both broccoli and bitter greens. It produces small broccoli-type florets, but you eat the entire stem, leaf and little broccoli. Grow it from seeds in the early spring. You can find seeds in specialty catalogs and gardening websites online such as Park Seed and Burpee Seed.
Should you plant vegetables from seeds or plants purchased at the garden center? Radishes should always be planted from seed. Lettuces may be planted from seed or from started plants purchased at the garden center. However, lettuce is so easy to grow and seeds are so inexpensive that it's more economical to buy a 99 cent package of seeds than spent $1.99 for a four pack of plants. Chard and spinach grow best from seeds. Onions may be grown from seeds or something called an onion 'set,' which is either a small starter bulb or a long stem and bulb. Sets are more expensive, but you'll be able to harvest sooner.
Organic Vegetable Gardening Tips
One of the best aspects of spring gardening is that few insect pests are around to bother your newly planted vegetables. If slugs are a problem, use organic slug control methods such as a beer trap or dichotomous earth, a natural product. I always work in a good quantity of well-rotted manure and compost into the spring garden to feed my plants. It's also important to label your plants; it's easy to forget what you planted and where you planted it once it's in the ground!
Be sure to read the seed packages for the time to harvest. Lettuce, chard and spinach are fairly easy to tell when they're ready to be harvested; you can just look at them and snip off the parts you want to eat, leaving the rest of the plant in the ground to produce more. The plants will keep producing more and more until the hot weather sets in and they go to seed or 'bolt'. After lettuce bolts, it becomes too bitter to eat and the plants should be removed and compost. Radishes take only a few weeks to maturity; dig down in the soil around the top of the radish and use your fingers to feel the size of the root. For regular red globe-shaped radishes, harvest when they're slightly larger than marbles. Anything larger will taste hotter than a firecracker and probably bitter. Other types of radishes may take a little longer; read the back of your seed packages to find out about how long until you're ready to harvest.
Planning your spring garden gives you something to look forward to. Now's the time to collect those seed catalogs, save the egg cartons and milk cartons for your seed starting projects, and build your seed starting light table. Before you know it, spring will be here, and with it, myriad gardening chores claiming your attention.