It’s hard to be patient about spring planting. Even veteran gardeners who have tried and failed at planting too early are still foolish enough to give it another try. It’s better than simply waiting and, who knows, they just might grow.
For better success with spring vegetables you need to allow the soil to dry out and warm a bit. If you can squeeze a handful of soil into a ball and it falls apart with a gentle tap of your finger, you can plant. If it stays firm, you’ll need to wait awhile.
If you’re frustrated by soil that never seems to drain, you might want to consider installing raised beds. Even a few inches of height can improve both drainage and the speed at which your soil heats up. Ideally you want to create beds that are at least 12 inches high, to really see improvement. One caveat is that raised beds don’t just dry out quickly in spring; they will also dry out quickly all season, requiring extra water during dry spells.
Once we get to the stage where our soil is workable, here are several good candidates for your spring vegetable garden.
❧ Arugula (Eruca sativa) – Many people are ambivalent about arugula. Some consider it hoity-toity, some think it has a foul odor and taste (Julia Child hated arugula) and other consider it a quick growing treat. If you’re an arugula lover, grab your seed packets. Arugula seeds can handle the cool soils of spring and they love the moisture. If the weather cooperates, you can start harvesting within 3 weeks. The plants can handle light frost and the leaves are often sweeter for it.
When the temperature starts to heat up, expect your arugula to decline. This is true of many spring greens that get the signal from lengthening days to speed up the seed setting process. You can try growing plants in a shady spot in the garden and there are varieties, like ‘Astro’, that are a bit more heat tolerant, but once they start to bolt, it’s wise to let it go and use the space for another vegetable. You can even let the plants go to seed, so that they will self-sow, giving you new plants later in the season, with no work on your part. I like ‘Appolo’ because it has less of that musky arugula flavor. ‘Astro’ has good heat resistance and ‘Wasabi’ packs a punch.
❧ Asian greens (Brassica rapa and Brassica junce) – Although Asian greens haven’t traditionally been grown as spring greens, they certainly fit the bill. Thankfully, there are seeds of more and more varieties being sold in garden centers. For impatient early spring gardeners, go for the fast maturing types.
My favorite is Mizuna, a fluffy head of serrated leaves that are pleasantly bitter and great fresh or tossed in stir fry at the last minute.
Even easier to grow is Giant Red Mustard. Grow it once and you will probably have volunteers forever. Don’t worry , it’s not invasive, just persistent. It has very mild flavor, for a mustard. The young, tender leaves are great for salad and the older leaves make a great cooking green. If you have trouble keeping spinach plants happy, give yourself a break and grow ‘Giant Red Mustard’ instead.
One more favorite is Tatsoi. Spoon shaped leaves form a loose rosette that looks like a cabbage gone horribly wrong. Give it a chance. This mild mustard is very versatile in the kitchen. You can eat it fresh, sautée it or turn it into a soup. It’s very similar to pak choy, but more tender and faster to grow.
❧ Broccoli Raab (Brassica rapa) – I think the preferred term now is broccolini. It seems shoppers are less likely to reach for raab than for a baby Italian vegetable. While it is related to broccoli and even tastes a bit like it, but it’ more closely related to the turnip. However it is its own vegetable. This is a great choice for wide rows and succession planting. Harvest when the flowers are still in tight buds. If you leave a few inches of stem, it should fill back in. I’m not sure it’s an actual variety, but ‘Spring’ raab has a long season in my garden. ‘Apollo’ is also a reliable variety and ‘Aspabroc’ is gaining in popularity.
❧ Corn Salad or Mache (Valerianella locusta). When corn salad grows well it is a delight, maturing in just a few weeks and re-sprouting as a true cut-and-come-again green. The trick is getting it to grow well and that all depends on the weather. It likes cool soil and cool days. In fact, many gardeners either winter sow their corn salad seed or sow it in late fall and wait until spring for it to sprout. Corn salad is one of the hardiest greens. Even if the leaves freeze, they will thaw and be fine for eating, when the sun comes out. It has a mild, nutty flavor that makes it great for fresh eating, which is good because it virtually dissolves with cooking. It can handle a light steaming, but its true calling is as a salad green. I’ve had great luck with ‘Bistro’. There aren’t a lot of named varieties and I think many are actually interchangeable. You’ll find a lot of variations of ‘Vit’.
Some Tips for Great Greens
Leafy plants – plants that aren’t grown for their flowers or fruits – need a lot of nitrogen. They need all the major nutrients, of course, but their greatest need is nitrogen. A rich soil is ideal for greens. Amend the soil with plenty of compost or rotted manure, before planting. If your plants need supplemental feeding, your best bet would be a fish or seaweed fertilizer or alfalfa or kelp, or soy meal. If you can find one of the meals, they are really convenient to use. You just have to scatter handfuls on the soil and water them in.
While nothing will prevent the plants from bolting to seed as days get longer, keeping the soil moist and cool can forestall the inevitable. Moistening the soil will also help with seed germination. A handy tip for starting seeds of cool season greens later in the season, for a fall crop, is to saturate the soil in the planting area and then cover it with a board. The board not only conserves the moisture, it can lower the soil temperature by a few degrees – enough to encourage the seeds to sprout. Leave the board in place for several days, re-wetting the soil when it dries out. Then sow your seeds and replace the board. Check daily for signs of green and remove the board as soon as you see germination.
One final tip – harvest frequently. The more you pick the outer leaves, the more leaves the plants will produce. Leave the center heart of the plant, but don’t allow the older, outer leaves to mature and get tough and bitter. No technique is guaranteed, but at least you get some great meals by trying.