February’s sludgy gray days switch to grass-greening clear skies in just a few weeks here in Northeast Georgia. Whether you have a few pots on your porch or a small plot in your yard, consider starting a spring veggie garden this month.
By April, everyone’s in the garden centers looking at tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, but if you’re looking to get a jump start on the gardening year (and grow your own food to supplement those eye-watering grocery store runs), I highly recommend a spring garden. Here are a few good selections to get started:
I prefer rainbow kale to the popular lacinato (also known as Tuscan kale or dinosaur kale). Lacinato kale sports a thicker stem prone to woodiness if not harvested regularly. Rainbow kale grows ruffled leaves with fine-toothed curls, but avoids the super twisty nature of curly kales. Curly kale types trap dirt in the folds of their leaves during late winter and early spring rains, and can be a real pain to clean. Rainbow kale needs some protection from frost while young, but as an older plant, it can survive most freezes with no protection. Gardeners should consider covering kale plants with frost cloth when temperatures go below 30 degrees or when the plants are small. Kale plants need space to avoid early season disease and pests. I suggest spacing plants about 12 inches apart.
Beets are twice as nice because you can harvest the root and the leaves. Beet leaves can add a little earthy flavor and a lot of color to a winter salad. The roots can be eaten fresh or pickled or roasted. If red beets taste too much like dirt to you, try growing golden beets. That distinctive earthy flavor is much reduced in golden or yellow beets. Beets generally take 60 to 80 days to come to maturity; if you plant them now, you’ll have them harvested and the same plot ready to receive a summer crop in April. Beets don’t need protection for most Georgia freezes—I even had a few survive an 8 degree night. I’m not sure where exactly the line is for beets, but I’ll cover my beets if it drops to 25 degrees or below for the rest of the season. I plant my beets about 4 inches apart and start harvesting the leaves when the plants produce more than five or six leaves. If harvesting leaves, allow a few to remain and maintain chlorophyll production.
Snow peas are a great late winter or early spring crop because they look so green and happy, and they germinate fairly quickly. Snow peas taste sweeter than some of the other spring produce, and, as a legume, don’t need great soil to throw up tasty produce. This veggie is more tender and can get frost burned, so it’ll need some sort of protection for nights that dip to freezing or below. I grew two varieties (Blizzard and Avalanche) last year that could handle light freezes, but I found that they didn’t grow as vigorously nor produce as much as some of the more tender varieties (Oregon Sugar Pod). I plant my snow peas anywhere from 2–4 inches apart, depending on how humid I think the rest of the season will get. My snow peas stop producing and start melting from disease in April or May—the wetter the spring, the less air flow between the plants, the more they die. If you’re really jonesing for some pea flavor but your vines haven’t produced a pod yet, you can eat the soft tendrils. This will stunt the plant’s growth a bit, but you can offset this by harvesting from every other one. Growing on a trellis will allow for more air flow and slow disease progression, but either way, when the snow peas are done, you’ll have a garden bed ready for a summer crop.
All three of these veggies can be started from seeds, with the packets generally priced at $2.50. If growing in a pot, you’ll need at least 8 inches of soil for the best results, but you’ll want to keep the above spacing for excellent growth. One of the best parts about a spring garden is that you usually don’t have to worry about watering it! You will need to check daily or weekly lows and provide some sort of cover in cases when temperatures dip. I highly recommend sticking to re-using old bedsheets or ordering frost cloth online, as opposed to frost cloth in stores. I find the frost cloth in stores to be oddly shaped and much more expensive than online offerings.
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