Tag Archive: Spring Vegetables

  1. Best-of-the-Best Spring Vegetable Varieties

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    ‘Alcosa’ savoy cabbage and ‘Sugar Snap’ peas (trellis) are two recommended spring vegetable varieties.

    Sweet crunchy carrots, crisp snap peas, and tender lettuce—vegetables like these just shout out, “it’s spring!” This is the stuff gardeners clamor for as they peruse new seed catalogs for the first vegetables of the season. But, with hundreds of varieties to choose from, it’s hard to know which are best for taste, yield, and good performance in the vegetable garden. This is where experience helps.

    My top ten “favorites” list includes some of the best spring vegetable varieties. For over 25 years I’ve grown hundreds of vegetables—choosing new favorites, losing duds, and keeping superior standbys along the way. My findings are corroborated with university seed trials, seed catalog customer reviews, and award programs, like All-America Selections. If you aren’t sure what varieties to choose from, let this be your go to source great spring vegetables!

    Beets

    Chioggia

    Candycane ‘Chioggia’ beets

    When choosing beets (Beta vulgaris), I go for tasty, early, productive and pretty varieties. Of the reds, ‘Merlin’ (48 days) and ‘Red Ace’ (50 days) are the most reliable and sweet and have performed well for me. Both also received some of the highest ratings for taste, uniformity and performance at a recent University of Kentucky Beet Trial Evaluation. Of the golden beets, ‘Touchstone Gold’ (55 days) is an outstanding performer that produces the sweetest golden beets. For looks and taste, the red and white candycane striped ‘Chioggia’ (55 days) is the heirloom of choice.

    Broccoli

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    Broccoli ‘Artwork’ (image care of AAS Winners)

    Good broccoli (Brassica oleracea) varieties for the garden must be heat tolerant and reliably produce large heads fast. My favorite spring broccoli is ‘Gypsy’ (58 days), which has reliably large heads with small beads and good heat and disease resistance. It produces well and develops lots of sideshoots after the first harvest. Gardeners interested in broccoli with extra-large heads should try the commercial standard ‘Imperial’ (71 days). It take a little longer to develop, but plants are super heat tolerant and high performing. Those seeking thin-stemmed broccoli should choose the 2015 AAS winning, ‘Artwork‘ (55 days). It produces many thin, flavorful, cut-and-come-again broccoli stems over a long season.

    Cabbage

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    Space-saving ‘Caraflex’ cabbage

    Small, crisp, sweet heads are what I look for in a spring cabbage (Brassica oleracea). Smaller heads are easier for me to store and finish, and they develop faster, which results in less damaged from cabbage loopers and slugs. The small savoy cabbage ‘Alcosa’ (60 days) is a reliable variety with sweet, deeply savoyed, blue-green leaves. Another small-head cabbage with good performance and taste is the conical ‘Caraflex’ (68 days). It’s heads look like perfect little cones and are perfect for small-space gardens. Gardeners interested in a slightly larger cabbage should choose the mid-sized ‘Tendersweet‘ (71 days). It’s flatted heads are comprised of tightly bunched, thin, sweet leaves.

    Early Carrots

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    Sweet, crisp ‘Adelaide’ carrots

    There are many carrot (Daucus carota) varieties and some are much better suited for spring sowing than others. The perfect spring carrot is fast-growing, crisp, and very sweet. The best I have grown for flavor and texture is the baby carrot ‘Adelaide‘ (50 days). Its small carrots develop quickly and should be plucked from the ground before weather warms. Of the many new varieties available, ‘Yaya‘ (55-60 days) is a mid-sized “sugar carrot” that’s getting top marks for performance and super sweet flavor. The equally sweet ‘Napoli‘ (58 days) is another mid-sized super sweet carrot that always yields perfect roots.

    Lettuce

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    Crisphead ‘Reine des Glaces’ lettuce

    There are many lettuce (Lactuca sativa) types, but my favorites are small, sweet, fast, and crisp. My very favorite is the little gem romaine ‘Tintin‘ (55 days). The little heads are all crisp, sweet, heart and they consistently perform well. Of the crisphead type lettuces, the French heirloom ‘Reine des Glaces‘ (62 days) is flavorful, slow to bolt in the heat, and has loose heads of coarsely serrated edges that look pretty in salads. Salanova® has a high-performing line of designer mini lettuces that are really nice. Of these, try the fast, frilly red Salanova®Red Sweet Crisp (55 days). Its tiny cut-and-come-again heads are wonderful in containers or small gardens.

    Radishes

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    Classic French ‘D’Avignon’ radishes

    Most think that radishes (Raphanus sativus) are spicy and make you burp, but good spring radish varieties are mild and sweet if you grow and pick them at the right time. When it comes to classic French breakfast radishes, nothing beats ‘D’Avignon‘ (21-30 days). The early, sweet, red and white radishes should be harvested as soon as they reach 3-4 inches in length for best crisp texture. The new purple radish ‘Bravo‘ (49 days) is reliably sweet, very colorful and slower to bolt, making it good for late-spring culture. Of the white radishes, ‘Icicle‘ (27-35 days) produces long, crisp roots that remain sweet with little bite, even when subjected to heat.

    Snap Peas

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    Reliable ‘Sugar Ann’ snap peas (image care of AAS Winners)

    Snap peas (Pisum sativum) are a must in my spring garden, and those that remain stringless, crunchy, and sweet are my favorites. The classic top-notch variety is ‘Super Sugar Snap‘ (60 days). Look no further if you seek a prolific, high-quality snap pea produced on 5-foot vines. Those interested in short-vine peas that bear early should pick ‘Sugar Ann‘ (52 days), which bears lots of sweet snaps on 2-foot vines. The 1984 AAS winner is a classic coveted by gardeners with limited space.

    Ensure your spring vegetables have a great start by enriching your garden beds with the best amendments. Mix a liberal amount of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost into your garden soil. Turn it in deeply to better support root crops and encourage vigorous root growth all around.

  2. Border Veggies: Edible Ornamental Bulbs

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    Chives are pretty in the garden and on the plate. Their flowers are edible, too! (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Edible ornamental bulbs (or is it ornamental edible plants?) are wonderful garden playthings. As welcome in a recipe as in a mixed border, they appeal both to our love of beauty and to our utilitarian, subsistence-gardening roots.

    No plants go more to the root of edible gardening than the ones we know as flower bulbs (although most are not roots or bulbs in the strict botanical sense). From the moment humans discovered that many plants grow from nutrient-rich underground storage organs, we’ve been scratching the dirt harvesting and cultivating that subterranean bounty. At the same time, we’ve been captivated and seduced by the colorful things that many bulbs do above-ground. They’re a feast for the eyes and the palate.

    Allium obliquum

    Siberian native Allium obliquum has edible bulbs and yellow, early-summer flowers.

    Several other alliums make handsomer garden subjects. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) has long been treasured for its attractive clumps of hollow, quill-like leaves and its late spring to early summer globes of purple to white flowers. The somewhat similar (but much later-blooming) Allium chinense is a favorite potherb in its native East Asia, where it’s garnered a host of common names, including rakkyo and Jiao Tou. Also from East Asia, Allium tuberosum (commonly known as garlic chives) bears larger, looser heads of white flowers on 18-inch stems in late summer. The leaves and flowers make tasty and eye-catching embellishments for salads and other summery repasts. Whether eaten or not, garlic chive flowers should be deadheaded to prevent the prolific self-sowing for which the species is notorious. All the above thrive in sun and fertile, friable soil (amend heavy or sandy soil with Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend).

    Crous sativus 'Cashmerianus'

    Greek native Crocus cartwrightianus bears exceptional saffron.

    Shadier niches provide ideal habitat for two woodland onions traditionally harvested for their broad, piquant, short-lived leaves. The greens and bulbs of bear’s garlic (Allium ursinum) have played a part in European and North Asian diets for many centuries, and still find their way onto menus (especially in chic restaurants). In eastern North America, the tasty, trendy woodland onion is Allum tricoccum, subject of traditional “ramps” celebrations over much of its native range. Over-collecting has rendered it relatively scarce in the wild, but ramps (as well as bear’s garlic) is usually prolific in the garden, spreading vigorously into large leafy clumps. An ideal way to slow it down in cultivation is to sacrifice a few leaves to a springtime omelet, stir-fry, soup, or other morsel. Its flowers are also edible; they appear on 15-inch scapes in early summer, after the foliage has withered. Bear’s garlic produces similar (but slightly showier) flowers in spring, while still in leaf.

    Natural and OrganicSpringtime greens of a different sort are the stuff of Ornithogalum pyrenaicum. This high-rise star-of-Bethlehem is famous (at least in the neighborhood of Bath, England) for its succulent immature flower stalks that resemble asparagus spears. Formerly gathered from the wild and sold in markets in its namesake town, Bath asparagus is enjoying something of a culinary revival as a cultivated plant in Southwest England and elsewhere. Unharvested stalks mature into 30-inch spires of starry white flowers, which themselves are well worth a place in mixed borders and cottage gardens. Native to Southern Europe, Bath asparagus was likely introduced to England by Roman occupiers (who apparently also had good taste in ornithogalums).

    Southern Europe is also the home of what is almost certainly the most valuable edible bulb: saffron. Several thousand Crocus sativus flowers are required to produce one hand-harvested ounce of this precious seasoning, which is literally worth its weight in gold. Most of the world’s saffron crop comes from Iran, but it’s been cultivated for centuries in many other areas including Pennsylvania’s Amish country. It is not known in the wild.

    Bath asparagus in full bloom. (Photo by Garrytowns)

    Bath asparagus in full bloom. (Photo by Garrytowns)

    Crocus sativus has three sets of chromosomes and is unable to produce seed, suggesting that it probably originated as a hybrid or mutation of another crocus species (Greek native Crocus cartwrightianus is the leading candidate). Several other close relatives (including C. pallasii and C. oreocreticus) of saffron crocus also occur in Southeast Europe, all of them carrying the characteristic fragrant, orange-red stigmas at the centers of their purple to lavender, mid-autumn blooms. Crocus sativus and its relatives prosper in full sun and rich fertile soil in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 to 9. They’re perfect for planting near an entryway, where their tasty stigmas can be readily harvested for that next loaf of saffron bread.

    Edible bulbs offer possibilities for all sorts and sizes of ornamental plantings, from a container of herbs to a permaculture landscape. Dig in!

  3. Vegetable Garden Soil Preparation

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    These tidy beds have a compost mulch layer protecting vegetables and a walkway protected with thick grass clippings.

     

    Rain and snow melt make spring garden soil preparation a challenge every year, but once you can get into the garden, get into your soil! Feeding your garden soil in spring is an investment that pays off every time. Amending, turning, tilling, fertilizing, and mulching are the five practices needed to make your garden great all season! The addition of drip hoses for easy irrigation can make garden care even more effortless.

    Natural and OrganicAmending

    Rich soil yields better crops, so it pays to feed your soil. Adding the best amendments will ensure your soil is ready to work. Adding lots of compost will increase good yields, but be sure that your compost is good quality. Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost is a high-performing compost sure to give your garden what it needs. For areas where you intend to plant greens, go with nitrogen-rich amendments, such as Fafard Garden Manure Blend.

    Turning

    “No till” areas in the vegetable garden need different care.  These include beds with perennial and winter crops, like areas with asparagus, garlic, strawberries, or hardy herbs, as well as well-amended spots that are already in good shape below ground. Still, adding extra organic matter to no-till spots will ensure better growth while allowing for the addition of needed amendments. Adding a layer of compost and lightly turning it into the surface will increase organic matter while not disrupting your plants or soil structure.

    Tilling

    Compost acts as both an amendment and protective mulch.

    Compost acts as both an amendment and protective mulch.

    Many gardeners have bed areas that are tilled yearly. This has its pluses and minuses. Tilling brings the bank of weed seeds to the surface and disrupts soil structure and organisms, but it also increases tilth and allows organic matter to be worked deeply in the soil. If you plan to till, plan to double your amendment by adding a till-in layer and a mulch layer. First, put down a thick layer of compost or manure and till it deeply into the soil, then rake and berm bed spaces as needed. Finally add a second layer of compost to further enrich the soil and protect against weeds. The second step is extra important because tilling brings lots of weed seeds to the soil’s surface.

    Fertilizing

    Many vegetables require lots of food to produce good yields through the season. It’s essential to feed the garden well from the beginning with a good tomato & vegetable fertilizer. OMRI Listed fertilizers approved for organic gardening are best. Simply broadcast the fertilizer and gently work it into the top layers of soil where it’s needed most.  Heavy feeders, such as tomatoes, peppers, and melons, should be fed again at planting time.

    Mulching

    In addition to adding a compost mulch layer, I protect and define walkways with leaf mulch, straw or hay, and grass clippings. These natural mulches stop weeds and make it easier to traverse the garden in wet, muddy weather. They also hold water and keep root zones cool on hot summer days. By fall’s end, they have usually broken down into accessible organic matter.

    Living mulches are another option. Planting a dense summer cover crop in walkways, like white clover, will keep them tidy, cool, and mud-free while also feeding the soil. Just be sure to keep the edges trimmed and turn plants under in fall.

    Amendment Application Formula

    When adding amendments, determine how many inches you want to add over your garden area. Here is the simple formula needed to determine this:

    ([area to cover] ft2 x [depth in inches desired] x 0.0031 = ___ yd3).

    Example: If you wanted to cover a 20 square foot area with 2 inches of compost, the result would be: 20 ft2 x 2 inches of compost x 0.0031 = 2.48 yd3.

    A thick layer of straw helps hold moisture around these okra plants while also keeping walkways clean and weed free.

    A thick layer of straw helps hold moisture while also keeping walkways clean and weed free.

    Irrigation

    For added benefit, consider snaking a drip hose beneath mulch layers to make summer watering easier and more efficient. Below-the-surface watering keeps water at root zones while virtually stopping surface evaporation on hot days. The key is marking your drip lines from above (to keep from accidentally cutting the line with gardening tools) and securing nozzles for easy access. At watering time, just hook up your lines and let them drip for an hour or so to ensure deep watering.

    Once the vegetable season takes off, your garden will be in good shape with these five steps. Sure, weeds, drought, and hot days will come, but their impacts will be minimized  and your time and garden’s productivity will be maximized.

  4. Growing Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower and Kale Organically

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    Large-headed cabbages, like those growing in this spring vegetable garden, need lots of space to reach full size .

    Of all the cool-season vegetables, few are as variable and satisfying to grow as cole crops (Brassica oleracea), also called “brassicas”. Tasty favorites like kale, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower yield big harvests and are easily grown the organic way, even in the face of lots of pests. It all starts with healthy plants and good care.

    Smaller cabbage varieties, like these ‘Caraflex’, can be planted closer together.

    Where summers are hot, cole crops are best grown in spring or fall, but in my community garden my spring crops yield better. This is largely due to plentiful foragers, like rabbits, groundhogs, voles, and deer. By summer’s end, mammalian garden pests are in larger numbers and always take a toll on my fall crops—particularly my brassicas. Fencing and smelly organic animal repellants like 100% natural Plantskydd will help, but it’s always a battle.

    In spring, it pays to plant large, robust seedling starts for quick establishment and good success. If growing from seed, I begin planting early indoors—generally in late February to early March. By the time my plantlets are 4-inches tall, they are ready to harden off and plant outdoors. Starts are also sold at local nurseries, though they offer less selection. Seed catalogs always have newer, more interesting varieties. This year I chose seeds for the small-headed savoy cabbage ‘Alcosa’, broad-leaved ‘Galega de Folhas Lisas’ kale, bolt-resistant ‘Packman’ broccoli, and bright purple ‘Graffiti’ cauliflower.

    Natural and Organic

    Fafard’s OMRI-Listed Compost Blend is an ideal amendment for cole crop beds.

    Brassicas require full sun for best growth. Deep, fertile soil with a slightly acid to neutral pH (6-7) is ideal. Be sure to amend the soil with Fafard® Sphagnum Peat Moss and Premium Natural & Organic Compost —being sure to till amendments in deeply—and fortify with a fertilizer formulated for vegetables. These vegetables have high macronutrient requirements (NPK 14-14-14) and specific micronutrient needs (high calcium and boron). At planting time, I recommend fertilizing with an OMRI-Listed (certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute) vegetable fertilizer, bone meal, and borax, at the recommended doses.

    Set plants out after hard frosts have ended but cool days and light frosts are still expected. Most cole crops can withstand freezing temperatures down to 20° F but grow best at temperatures between 70° and 85° F. Late March to early April is the best planting window where I live in the Mid-Atlantic.

    Each brassica grows a little differently and may require slightly different care. Here are the growing basics for my spring standbys:

    Broccoli

    Broccoli varieties vary widely. Some produce enormous central clusters and others smaller clusters with ample side shoots; some have large, loose beads (buds) while others have small beads produced in tight, dense clusters. Gardeners can expect plants to bear heads 50 to 70 days after planting. ‘Packman’, ‘Diplomat’, and ‘Early Purple’ are three high-performing varieties that produce big heads, have good side shoot production, and grow beautifully in spring.

    Brassica oleracea 'Early Purple' (Italica Group)

    Grown for its good looks and flavor, broccoli ‘Early Purple’ is also a popular market vegetable.

    Broccoli seedlings look like nondescript leafy sprouts, but in a matter of months they will produce big budding heads of broccoli. Space your broccoli plants about 1 to 1.5 feet apart at planting time, and plant a minimum of six plants for good yields. Don’t allow newly planted seedlings to dry out, and ensure established plants always get ample water. Once nice broccoli heads are set, harvest them and wait for more to develop. Broccoli is a cut-and-come-again crop that should not be allowed to flower and set seed. I generally harvest mine with garden shears or a garden knife.

    There are a couple of troubles specific to broccoli. Boron deficiency causes florets to turn brown prematurely and stems to become hollow. Additionally, insufficient water will keep plants from setting florets, and heat in excess of 86 ° F may encourage plants to bolt quickly and taste bitter.

    Cabbage

    There are lots of fun cabbage varieties offering different flavors, looks and characteristics. Heads may be conical, flattened, rounded, large or small, and can have smooth or savoyed leaves. Four varieties for connoisseurs are the blue-green and purple-pink blushed ‘San Michele’, dwarf conical ‘Caraflex’, giant sweet savoyed ‘Drumhead’, and elongated purple ‘Kalibos.’ Days to harvest vary from variety to variety , but on average you can expect heads to develop 63 to 88 days after planting.

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    ‘Alcosa’ is a small, savoyed heirloom cabbage that’s easy to grow.

    Seedlings should be planted outside when they are around 4 to 6 inches tall. Compact varieties may be spaced as close as 10 inches apart and large varieties between 18 and 24 inches apart. Once healthy heads develop, cut them at the base with a garden knife and remove any large, ratty lower leaves. Cabbage will store for a long time, if refrigerated or kept in a cool dry place.

    There are several common cabbage nutrient deficiencies. Potassium deficiency is common and results in heads with leaves that become yellow then dry and papery along the edges. If comparable yellowing is seen between the leaves, then magnesium deficiency is likely the problem. Heads with weak or hollow stems are suffering from boron deficiency.

    Cauliflower

    Cauliflower comes in a myriad of sizes (tiny to giant) and colors (white, green, purple and orange). Fun, interesting varieties include the dwarf heirloom ‘Snowball’, bright purple ‘Graffiti’, electric orange ‘Cheddar’, and very large ‘Giant Naples.’

    Brassica oleracea 'Cheddar' (Botrytis Group)

    The orange cauliflower ‘Cheddar’ is higher in beta-carotene than white forms.

    The sooner you can get your cauliflower into spring ground, the bigger the heads will be, but it’s important to note that this brassica is not as frost-tolerant as cabbages, broccoli and kale. Seedlings should be planted 18 to 20 inches apart. Be sure to give plants ample water when cauliflower heads begin to develop. Layers of leaves cover and protect developing heads from sun and pests. Once the leaves unfurl and heads look curdy and fully developed, they can be cut from beneath and harvested.

    Nutrient deficiencies and heat troubles that plague broccoli are also a problem with cauliflower. Excessive heat and ill-timed harvest can cause heads to elongate and taste bitter.

    Kale

    Some of the best kale varieties for eating are the popular ‘Nero di Toscana’ (aka. dinosaur kale), heat-tolerant Portuguese ‘Tronchuda Beira’, and frilly, tender ‘Red Ursa’. Young leaves can be eaten fresh in salads and more mature leaves are great for cooking.

    Brassica oleracea 'Lacinato' (Acephala Group)

    One of the most beautiful and delicious kales for the garden is the blue-green ‘Nero di Toscana.’

    Kales are cold hardy and can be planted along with broccoli and cabbage starts. Spacing varies from variety to variety, but on average 12 to 18 inches apart is a good planting range. Leaves can be harvested as soon as plants reach a reasonable size and have ample foliage. Harvest leaves as needed using clean shears.

    Unlike the other cole crops mentioned, kales can survive hot summers with care. Be sure to water them well through the hot months while protecting them from summer pests, namely harlequin bugs and cabbage loopers.

    Pests

    Lots of pests predate on brassicas. Slugs and cabbage loopers (Trichoplusia ni) commonly attack cabbage heads, eating their way through the layers of leaves. Harlequin bugs (Murgantia histrionica) are aggressive sucking insects known to lay waste to summer kales, and cabbage maggots (Delia radicum) will de-root and gut spring plants in no time.

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    Orange, black and white harlequin bugs attacking a head of ‘Packman’ broccoli.

    There are several organic methods to tackling these pests. Sluggo® is a non-toxic, OMRI-Listed pesticide that will quickly take care of slugs. Cabbage loopers are best tackled with a product containing BT (Bacillus thuringiensis); OMRI-Listed Safer® Caterpillar Killer is a great choice. Harlequin beetles are eradicated at all stages with products containing neem oil, a popular organic pesticide, and applying a sprinkling of wood ashes around the base your brassicas will deter cabbage root maggots.

    It also pays to recognize and destroy the pest eggs on sight: Small, pearly cabbage looper eggs are laid singly or in small, open clusters (5-7 eggs) on leaf surfaces; harlequin bug eggs look like black and white bulls-eyed barrels laid in tight clusters (~12 eggs) along leaf undersides; cabbage maggot flies lay eggs near the base of plants, so it can be helpful to sink 3” plastic bottle collars (1” below ground, 2” above) to keep hatched maggots from reaching seedlings.

    With good care, any gardener can grow broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale organically. Once the harvest begins, it will make all the work worth it.