Treasures from the garden: early vegetables

Gillian Sandeman

One of the best things about gardening in our area is sitting snugly indoors on a snowy day, dreaming about our summer gardens. The seductive plant and seed catalogues lead to fantasies about instant drifts of perennials, a stunning specimen shrub or a painlessly installed water feature. But the spring garden can quickly produce things that are less expensive, easier and quicker to grow and very rewarding: early vegetables. We can also dream about a fresh green home grown salad or a stir fry with snow peas that were in the garden half an hour before. The earliest vegetables we harvest at home are last year’s parsnips: they are all the sweeter for the heavy fall frosts, and snow on the veggie beds provides natural insulation. We dig them out of the half frozen ground as the snow disappears and enjoy roasted parsnips, curried parsnip soup, or parsnips spiced and mashed with potatoes.

But early vegetables are usually thought of as those vegetables that can be planted as soon as the ground can be worked, often several weeks before the last frost is expected. The May 24th weekend is looked on as the last frost date in this area, but planting can start several weeks earlier. There are several vegetables that will germinate in cool soil, including some that prefer it and some whose young plants can stand frost. It is important however to be really sure that your ground is ready to receive seeds or seedlings. Some people can plant even while the last snow is melting: their soil dries out more quickly than others. Sogginess is the enemy. To test whether your soil is ready, take a handful and squeeze it into a ball. If it crumbles easily you can begin gardening, but if it holds its shape it is still too wet and you will have to wait a while. Some parts of your garden may be ready earlier than others: often higher and warmer areas will do well for early seeding into the cool soil while wetter parts can be used for later plantings.

Three of the vegetables that do well from a cool start are peas, spinach, and onions. Peas need early planting, cool moist soil and some support. They will tolerate crowding: plant them closely in double rows and enjoy a large crop from a small space. Using treated seeds can help prevent them rotting in the cool ground. We usually grow a double row each of snap peas, snow peas and peas for shelling: last spring a visiting deer enjoyed half the snap peas. We replanted and extended the harvest by several weeks.

Spinach thrives in cool weather, and can be planted as soon as the ground can be worked. It will germinate when temperatures are as low as 4C. When choosing spinach seed, watch for the varieties that are less likely to bolt or go to seed quickly in hot weather. Onion sets can be planted at the same time as the spinach and peas. Onions are both early and late plants. If you plant some of them very close and about four inches deep you can use them as early green onions. Generally the sets should go into well composted and cultivated soil with their tips about one inch under the surface and the sets about four or five inches apart. As the crop matures you can enjoy them in all your summer cooking. In the late summer or early fall, when the tops have turned yellow, dig up the rest of your harvest, dry them off and store for winter use. You can use the mesh bags from store bought onions or tie them into strings for hanging in a cool place. Keep a string in the kitchen: it will be both handy and decorative.

Lettuce too will germinate in cool temperatures: the seeds are hardy and will wait in the soil until conditions are right. Be adventurous with your choice of seeds: try different colours, types and sizes. So let your garden dreams include the wonderful flavours of homegrown vegetables. Look at the vegetable pages of those catalogues: they are as seductive as the flowers.