Plant early-season crops for a very cool garden

April 18, 2012
Broccoli is a great addition to the cool garden.

Lester Young was an American jazz tenor saxophonist who also played clarinet, trumpet, violin and drums. Young became famous as part of Count Basie's orchestra, but he should be best remembered for being cool. Or, more exactly, Young pretty much coined the term “cool” to mean “desirable.” While gardening has always been a cool hobby, in early spring with low temperatures, gardening literally becomes a cool hobby.

Cool-season vegetables grow best when temperatures average about 15 degrees cooler than summer, so they do best in early spring and late fall.
Since vegetables with fruits have to first grow and blossom and only then set fruit, most fruit-producing plants such as tomatoes are warm-season vegetables. We eat most spring or cool-season vegetables as edible leaves or roots that do not really have a “ripe” date. In fact, most leaves and roots are preferable if they are a little young or underdeveloped.

Some plants set early flowers that we eat before the flowers set seed, such as lettuce, spinach and Swiss chard.

We eat other cool-weather crops as immature flower heads, such as broccoli and cauliflower. Some extra-hardy plants are able to grow, set flowers and set seed, all before temperatures heat up. These include peas and fava beans (broad beans).

Because cool-weather crops are accustomed to low temperatures, many can even put up with brief frosts.

For all of these vegetables, you need to plant and harvest in cool weather, or they can become bitter or “woody” tasting. Many plants such as lettuce will “bolt” or go to seed as the weather turns warm.

Unless your garden stays cold longer, say because of heavy shade or just a poor location, plant all cool-weather crops as early in the spring as you can work the ground. So what to plant in the cool garden? The list is huge and includes arugula (also called rocket), beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, collards, carrots, cauliflower, celery, Swiss chard, fennel, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, Asian greens such as mizuna and pak choi, mustard greens, onion sets and onion seeds, peas, potatoes, radishes and spinach.

Young seedlings need constant water so they do not dry out. Keep your seed beds wet but not soggy. A light misting does nicely.

You can extend some of the cool-weather crops by offering them shade. Even shade from taller plants can help. Old Italians often plant romaine lettuce in the shade of tomato plants. Set the romaine lettuce out as early as possible and set the tomatoes out only after the soil has warmed.

You can put down wire hoops and lightly drape cloth over them to shade your cool-weather crops. Replant your cool-weather crops every few weeks so you do not run out of these early vegetables.

You will find that some root crops like radishes and carrots perform great in cold weather only to become woody and tasteless as the season gets warmer. Lettuce, spinach and many greens become bitter with the heat.

A trick to delicate-flavored vegetables is to keep them growing continuously. Apply a light fertilizer to the entire garden before planting but don’t overdo it. Too much fertilizer can harm plants. In addition to fertilizing the entire bed before planting, you can side dress your crops as the season progresses. Side dressing is simply applying small amounts of fertilizer around or on the side of plants once they are growing. For best results, use a slow-release organic fertilizer. Chemical fertilizers can burn plant roots and if overapplied can kill the plants.

Many gardeners like to add a light liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion to the watering can. This way, you apply a small amount of fertilizer with every watering.

If there is danger of a late frost, you can cover your crops with floating row covers. These are spun-fiber fabrics that drape lightly right over the crops. Save individual plants by covering with plastic milk jugs that have their bottoms cut out and the caps removed to form tiny greenhouses.

Plant cool-weather vegetables now, and in just a few weeks you can begin harvesting leafy greens, crunchy radishes and baby carrots. Now how cool is that?

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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