Spring Greens: Greening up Spring
By Steven Biggs
Gardener, Garden Writer, Garden Coach, Horticulturist
THE VICTORIA DAY WEEKEND in May propels many people towards an annual rite: the frenzied dash to the garden centre to buy plants for the whole yard—for the whole season. This outing is usually followed by a day spent cleaning the yard and planting, marking a return to outdoor living.
The timing makes sense, because it falls a couple weeks past the last frost date here in Toronto, when it’s safe to put most anything in the garden. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant—and other heat-loving crops—don’t take kindly to cold snaps, so Victoria Day serves as a safe and easy-to-remember date.
But for me, this time of year marks a milepost in the gardening season—not the beginning. I spread out the task of planting the vegetable garden, and the benefit is vegetables sooner, much sooner. Try it and you’ll already be eating salad from your garden before most people have planted any.
Start early—the year before
I’m not kidding when I say you can start the previous summer.
In farming lingo, the word volunteer is used to describe crops that have self-seeded. And these volunteer crops are considered weeds. For example, volunteer corn is considered a weed in a soybean field. But...in the home garden, encouraging volunteer crops helps you get an early start.
I let a few lettuce and dill plants go to seed. The seeds scatter on their own, though I help to make sure they’re well distributed. When I dig the garden in the fall, these lettuce and dill seed mix with the soil, and are ready to germinate in the spring. So, that’s the lettuce and dill seeding done, and out of the way, even before the next year has begun.
By the way, volunteer lettuce also helps you make the best use of garden space. Like dandelion seeds, lettuce seeds grow attached to silky fluff. A late summer breeze coaxes them to float around the garden and nestle in all the nooks that you would never think to seed yourself. So when next spring arrives, lettuce will pop up anywhere: amongst the tomatoes, peas, potatoes, and even in the asparagus patch.
When fall rolls around you can get another jump on spring by planting garlic. Hardneck garlic does best when planted in the fall, and your garlic will already be poking out of the ground in April.
Then, in late winter, while there’s snow on the ground...
While there’s still snow on the ground you can jump the gun with a hotbed. I mark my calendar to visit the stable and get fresh horse manure at the end of February or beginning of March.
Now, the ground may still be frozen then. But I excavated the hotbed the previous fall, setting aside a couple tubs of soil that I’ll use to cover the manure (so I don’t have to try to pry frozen soil from the garden.)
The concept is simple: The manure is in a pit underneath your hotbed. You cover it with a few inches of soil, and as the manure decomposes, it gives off heat—heating your plants from underneath. If you’re turned off by manure, you can achieve the same results with some heating cables.
The arugula I grow in the hotbed is ready in April. It’s already done and going to seed by the time Victoria Day arrives.
When the snow’s off the ground, you can plant seeds for cold-hardy crops such as chard, arugula, lettuce, and spinach in the ground. Don’t wait till late May with these crops because they do best in cool weather.
If you want to speed things up a bit, try using containers, which heat up more quickly than the garden, helping your seeds germinate and grow more quickly. I simply use large black pots.
15 Crops for greening up spring
- Arugula. I plant it in the hotbed and then in the garden to get successive harvests. By getting it in early, you also harvest it before the pesky flea beetles have a chance to shoot the leaves full of holes.
- Asparagus. A real harbinger of spring, it’s also a long-lasting perennial.
- Broad Beans. I don’t think I ever ate these while I was growing up, but they are a great addition to the garden because of their cold tolerance.
- Chives. An easy-to-grow perennial, and something with which to garnish those first salads of the year.
- Claytonia. Also known as miner’s lettuce, it’s a cold-tolerant green that I sometimes put into the hotbed.
- Dandelions. You’re probably saying, “What, they’re weeds!” Well, they’re delicious weeds when you put a few leaves in with the salad or steam them and toss with garlic and sour cream. Just get them before they bloom, or they’re too bitter.
- Dill. A reliable herb that seeds itself.
- Lettuce. If you allow it to self-seed, you’ll have beautiful plants ready to eat by the May long weekend. Don’t forget to plant some too, so you have a succession of crops.
- Mustard. Grow it as a leafy green to mix in with salads.
- Peas. Plant your main crop peas early. Try harvesting a few peas sprouts and the curly tendrils, which make a great edible garnish for salads.
- Radish. Instead of a dedicated radish patch, try planting radishes with other crops. Radishes mature quickly, so you can harvest them well before the other crops need the space.
- Rapini. Here’s another one you can seed the year before.
- Sorrel. An underused perennial that’s a great addition to salads, or cooked into tangy sauces or soups.
- Spinach. Grow it early, because it does poorly in the heat of summer.
- Swiss Chard. One of the most valuable greens in the garden. You can plant it as soon as you can work the soil. It doesn’t get bitter like lettuce or bolt like spinach. Young leaves can be used in salads, and mature ones cooked like spinach. You can even pickle the leaf stalks or cook them in the wok.
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