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Kale

Kale

Spring is going to start early this year. Already the normal 12″ of snow covering my garden this month is gone, the snowdrops are blooming with many honey bees hovering over them. Since most garden books say as soon as the soil can be worked, the cold crops can be planted, I’m going to try it. Just watch, a week or two from now a heavy snow storm will dump on the sprouting seeds. I’ll discover what happens to those baby plants then. I’m ever a pessimistic optimist.

So what are cold crops? Mostly leaf or root crops started from seed that actually prefer growing in colder temperatures. They vary in hardiness, but most will survive frost, and some of them even snow. What makes them great are they are typically short season, too, meaning they’ll be on the table quicker. Many ‘cole’ crops are cold hardy, but cole refers to crops from the Brassica genus or mustard family, vegetables like broccoli, kale, collard greens, kohlrabi, cabbage, or cauliflower. While these are cold crops, many other vegetables are similarly cold hardy.

Most root crops such as carrots and onions (basic cooking foods) parsnips (mashed like potatoes only sweeter), turnips and rutabaga (essential for pasties), beets (borscht and pickled beets, yumm), and leeks (leek and potato soup) prefer cool temperatures. Some leafy vegetables like arugula, lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, maché (a old leaf crop in France relatively new to the states), and parsley (combine all for marvelous salads, plus spinach and Swiss chard make good cooked greens) favor cool weather. I’ve seen parsley still fresh and ready to use growing up from snow. It is also biennial, meaning it harvests for two years, but it has also reseeded itself in my garden. Peas, which are grown for their fruit, produce best in cooler temperatures.

Some of these leafy crops like spinach, lettuce, and Swiss chard (I’m not fond of kale or collards) will be ready for the table by the end of April. If the summer is relatively cool, they’ll keep sending up new leaves even after several harvestings. The root crops will take longer to develop, but will be ready to harvest when tomatoes and pepper plants are only becoming safe to put in the ground (May 15th to 30th depending on your last frost zone).

Two more good things about cold crops are that they can be planted again in mid-August to the end of September providing a late season crop, but most seed companies have seed sales in the fall, so you get the seeds cheaper. One more good aspect of this is those cheaper seeds will be just as viable for the spring growing seed. I’ve grown fall season carrots, which are very cold, even freezing, hardy, and while I can’t get into the snow covered garden to harvest them, I have dug them from the ground in the early spring.

As March 16th came and passed under snow cover, I thought of an old garden adage about planting peas on St. Patrick’s Day. Gardeners, after a long winter of tending houseplants, itch to get an early start, and there is nothing as good as fresh peas from the garden, but not here in a northern garden. As disappointed as I was, I don’t shovel snow off my garden before planting, preferring to wait until the ground is clear. There are ways to allow you to start gardening earlier.

If this is your first garden, think about where you want to locate it. Placing your garden on a south-facing slope helps warm the soil faster. It will catch more sun and allow you to plant a few days sooner. That is if you don’t get another eight inches of snow, but even then, chances are some seeds will sprout as soon as the snow melts. Raised beds make sense, too. They also warm up faster, and if you have clay soils, drain better, permitting earlier planting. Another trick is to plant in a cold frame, just keep the snow swept off the top so the sun can enter.

Many vegetable seeds germinate even if planted in cold soil. Technically, that means soil at 40 degrees. If you don’t take your soil’s temperature, that’s about when the soil is easily tilled. Don’t disturb the ground if big clods of soil form while you work, the soil is too wet. Let it dry out a little.

Cold season vegetables grow better in the cool air and weaker sun of spring and fall. Luckily, these are some of the fastest growing vegetables, and best salad ingredients the home gardener grows. Vegetables like lettuce, spinach, kale and Swiss chard can be planted as early as the snow melts. Other lesser-known leaf vegetables like corn salad (lamb’s lettuce), broccoli raab, and some chicories also do all right planted in cold soil. This is not the optimal temperature for seed germination, but sow heavily and enough seeds will germinate to make the effort worthwhile.

Other vegetable seeds that germinate in cold soil include many root crops and members of the cabbage family. You can plant cabbage, cauliflower, beet, turnip, rutabaga, radish, onion, shallot, leek and carrot seeds at the end this month or early April. Most of these vegetables are types that do better planted directly into the ground anyway, but I have seen seedling plants of some at nurseries.

Most of the rest of the vegetable seeds you might want to grow need warm soil. Save them for planting in May or start them indoors four to six weeks before you intend to plant them outdoors. It is easy and fun. If you don’t want the fuss, most of them can be bought as well-grown plants at nurseries and garden centers all over town. Even in May we can get late frosts, so be prepared to keep these plants protected. You can use row covers, or cloches for individual plants.

And don’t forget the peas go in the ground as soon as possible.

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