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Main Content

Early Harvest

By  Jodi Torpey

In the chilly days of early spring, members of one hardy-gardening family always plant ingredients for one of their favorite recipes: creamed peas with new red potatoes. To make the most of your own early spring garden, start with vegetables that grow best in cool daytime temperatures that typically range from 45-75 degrees.

The hardiest vegetables of this group include time-honored favorites such as turnips, radishes, onions, cabbages, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, and peas. These vegetables can grow with chilly (40 degree) daytime temperatures and frosty nights, especially if covered. 

Semi-hardy vegetables include carrots, beets, potatoes, parsnips, cauliflower, Swiss chard, arugula, and parsley. Plant these cool-season edibles when daytime temperatures are slightly warmer (45-50 degrees) and plan on covering them at night with frost blankets, buckets and milk jugs, or plant them in a cold frame. 

All of these spring delicacies are known as “cold tolerant” or “frost tolerant” plants because they can survive cold — but not freezing — temperatures. For best results, plant cold-hardy vegetables about two weeks before the average date of the last spring frost for your area. 

If you’re unsure about your region’s last frost date, consult your county’s extension agents. While frost dates are approximate, they’re still a good guide for planting.

A more reliable method is taking the soil’s temperature. A soil temperature reading between 70-80 degrees is optimum for cool season crops; the lowest planting temperature is about 40 degrees. For the earliest harvest, choose vegetable varieties with the shortest number of days to maturity, either by planting as seed or as transplants.

Plant seeds directly in the garden according to the instructions on the seed packets or start your seeds indoors earlier in the season to move to the garden when the timing is right. As an easier alternative, purchase cool-season transplants from a greenhouse or garden center. 

After planting, and when seeds start to sprout, keep soil temperatures on the cool side by mulching the garden with dry, untreated grass clippings, dry crushed leaves, plain newsprint, or straw. The cool weather is invigorating and all those tender thinnings make for fresh spring eating.