The First Green of Spring
Updated: Apr 2
NINE PLANTS TO START IN YOUR SPRING GARDEN
In the homestead's growing dome, spring is upon us. Greenhouse temperatures have been reaching the eighties during the past week, and the soil is ready for production. On a recent afternoon, Kindra and I planted the first round of spring vegetables that will kick off the season in the growing dome. Some plants, like kale, Swiss chard, beets, and lettuces, have survived from fall; the rest of the spring plants go in as soon as light and warmth will allow.
If you have a greenhouse, you are likely feeling the urge to get started on this year's planting. Even if you don't have an indoor space, cold frames and high tunnels can be planted within the month, and many outdoor gardens will be ready soon after that.
What to plant?
There are countless options for the spring garden, but we have narrowed down our cold-weather plantings to a few consistent favorites. Why "cold-weather" when the dome temps have been hitting the eighties? Because it's still March, and we aren't deceiving ourselves; we've been fooled before! We may have weeks of snow still ahead of us. In your early garden, you will have to experiment and see what works best for you. Here are nine plants to get you started:
ASIAN GREENS: RADISHES, TURNIPS, AND PAC CHOY
Because of their cold hardiness, many of the first plants in the dome are Asian greens. Our primary goal for the first round of planting is to have salads and stir fry during the spring. These greens can be used for both the root and the top, which makes them even more efficient in the garden:
Daikon Radishes are fast growing, cool-weather tolerant, and produce an abundant amount of both foliage and root. The leaves, which have a strong, green flavor but are not spicy, are an excellent addition to salads. As the plants mature, the roots can grow very large, extending above the soil surface. The roots are best used for fresh eating or stir fry when they are between one to two inches in diameter, but they can still be used even when they are much larger. An additional benefit of daikon radishes is that they produce such an abundance of leaves and root that they supplement the animals' spring diet as well. (Note: We often grow a few of the traditional "Cherry Bell" or "Red Head" type radishes for fun, but because the daikons produce much more and are a better use of space, they are our primary choice for radishes.)
Japanese turnips are smaller, sweeter, and faster-growing than traditional American varieties. We have grown several types, with Tokyo Market, Scarlet Ohno, and Shogoin being the best. Unlike purple-top globe turnips that are the common standard, Japanese varieties will mature in our brief spring season. They also have the advantage of producing smooth, hairless leaves that are excellent in salads. (Have you ever tried the hairy ones in salad? We have. Whew.) Both the white and scarlet varieties' roots have excellent flavor and can be eaten fresh, roasted, or used in stir fry.
Pac choy is a cold-hardy, short-season crop that takes relatively little space in the garden and is a great addition to salads and stir fry. The deep green leaves are thick and flavorful, and the white stems add a nice crunch to cooking. In our experience, they need more light than do some of the other greens, and they won't grow well during the fall unless they get a good start before daylight recedes. This time of year, they will get plentiful sunshine in the dome's south-facing outer beds.
Because we save our own seed from many plants, we isolate varieties from one another that have the potential to cross pollinate. Beans grown in the dome are sufficiently isolated from outdoor plants, which means that we can grow a common bean variety both inside and outside the greenhouse. (To learn more about the beans we grow in our gardens, check out the articles: Runner Beans, Common Beans, and Yard Long Beans.) We also grow a yard long bean variety in the greenhouse, where it can benefit from the early heat and long season.
Red Noodle Yard Long Beans
Fortex is a filet-style common bean that produces plentiful clusters of long, thin beans that are totally stringless. We have grown several excellent types of common beans, but Fortex is the variety that has stuck around. Since they are started early in the dome, we can usually begin harvesting them well before outdoor beans, and they are a welcome supplement in the spring kitchen.
Red Noodle yard long beans grow 18-inch, tender, deep red beans. Yard longs need consistent heat to thrive, making them much more successful in the greenhouse than outdoors at our latitude. They will produce in early summer and then can be removed, as needed, to make room for tomatoes.
Kale has gained a reputation with many northern gardeners for its cold hardiness. Its ability to produce a significant amount of greens and survive even under snow (in some cases) has earned its standing as a winter garden staple. We grow two varieties of kale:
Red Russian Kale
Red Russian Kale has broad, smooth leaves that are easy to clean and process. Unlike curly kale varieties, leaves of Red Russian can be rinsed easily and stacked for slicing, etc. It also has a more tender texture than many other kale varieties and a sweet, green flavor that is great in salads. We have found that, of all the winter greenhouse plants, Red Russian Kale is the most likely to overwinter.
Lacinato Kale is an Italian kale variety, and is known for it's long "embossed," blue-green leaves. These plants can become very large, but their upright growth habit allows them to produce a substantial amount of foliage for the space required. Leaves of Lacinato Kale have a firmer texture than do Red Russian, making them better suited to soups, quiches, etc. As with the daikon radishes mentioned above, Lacinato plants produce enough to provide spring greens for both us and the animals.
The first seeds in the greenhouse soil (and in the outdoor gardens a month or two later) are peas. We love them fresh with our meals, sautéed in stir fry, or straight off the vines! Although we have grown a few different types, we always make sure to select a fast, tall variety for the greenhouse. This allows us to make use of the vertical space and maximize production while that space is available. Tomatoes will dominate the vertical space throughout summer and fall, but spring is the time for peas to shine. This spring we planted the Super Sugar Snap variety, and they are already pushing through the warm soil.
Although there are already cold-weather lettuces growing in the dome (these were held over from fall planting), now is the time to start lettuces that will grow in spring and early summer. The heat of our arid landscape will cause even the most tolerant lettuces to bolt by midsummer, so it's important to get an early start on them in the greenhouse. There are three warm-weather varieties that we have found work best for us:
Grandpa Admire's Lettuce
Devil's Tongue Lettuce
Both Valmaine and Devil's Tongue are romaine lettuces. Valmaine has vibrant green leaves that are crisp and sweet. Devil's Tongue has a deep burgundy tinge toward the edges, making it a striking addition to salads. Grandpa Admire's is an old heirloom butterhead variety with delicate, bright flavor.
Beets are a substantial part of our winter storage food supply on the homestead, but storage beets are grown in our outdoor garden, and they will be started as we approach the last expected frost. Beets that we grow in the greenhouse are chosen primarily for their vibrant tops, which make a beautiful addition to salads.
Bull's Blood Beets
McGregor's Favorite Beets
Both Bull's Blood and McGregor's Favorite produce an abundance of leafy tops. Bull's Blood greens range from green with red veins to deep crimson in color, and McGregor's Favorite grow in glossy green-to-purple hues. Both of these have shown an excellent ability to survive the dark days of winter and last from one season to the next.
Swiss chard comes in a rainbow of colors, but we usually grow Ruby Red Swiss Chard for its vibrancy in the spring garden. In addition to its cold hardiness and color, Swiss chard has the benefit of being a nutritional powerhouse. We cut leaves from the chard plants to supplement salads throughout winter and into spring, giving the oldest and largest leaves to the animals as a treat.
With spring just around the corner and the sun-warmed soil calling, life is happening in the spring garden. Most of the newly planted seeds have already sprouted in the greenhouse, and soon there will be fresh salads for our bountiful table.
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