Grow a Garden Salad with These 13 Vegetables You Can Plant in Early Spring

updated Jul 17, 2020
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Charred carrots. Warm, roasted potatoes. Juicy, delicious sugar snap peas. In the dead of winter, the joy of cooking up some of these comfortable favorites may be the light at the end of the tunnel we all need, but don’t sit in that dreamland too long, because before you know it, it will be time to ready your garden for vegetables to plant in spring. And with direct sow vegetables that are so inexpensive (usually just under $3), even beginners can grow vegetables without much to lose.

What are cool season vegetables?

Cool season vegetables are the first ones to be planted in the calendar year. Depending on the vegetable and your zone’s growing season, they might also be planted again in the fall. Cool season vegetables can withstand (and even thrive in) cooler temperatures, and they need to be harvested before the summer heat hits, as some cannot live in hot temperatures. Examples include lettuce, cabbage, kale, turnips, Brussels sprouts.

Warm season vegetables can’t survive in cold temperatures, so they are planted safely after the last frost date. These are your summer vegetables such as tomatoes, beans, the squash family, melons and peppers.

“They have totally different physical needs—cool season and warm season crops. It has to do with the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients from the soil in the right or wrong temperatures,” says Ben Flanner, co-founder and CEO of Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farming and green roofing business in NYC that grows over 80,000 pounds of produce each year (on urban rooftops!).

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When does early spring start?

Knowing when to plant your early spring vegetables is not an exact science, and it involves a little bit of well-calculated risk. The first day of spring in 2020 is March 19, but that doesn’t really help here. You’ll need to know your hardiness zone and when the last frost date is in order to really be able to determine when “early spring” starts for your area.

The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone is a map that breaks down areas by temperature. It’s based on the average minimum winter temperature of the area and there is a 10 degree F difference for each zone. If you’re an avid gardener, you’re probably well aware of your zone, but if you’re not, you can enter your zip code in the top left corner of the website and it will tell you. For example, Atlanta is in Zone 8a. Los Angeles is in Zone 10b. The higher the zone number, the warmer the average minimum temperature.

Once you know your zone, you can find the last frost date for that particular area. The last frost date is usually when the last light freeze hits the area (29-32 degree F). Most cool season vegetables usually won’t be harmed by that last light freeze. Warm season vegetables won’t survive it, though. They’ll need to be planted well after the last light freeze.

The Farmer’s Almanac even has a Planting Calendar where you can put in your zip code and they’ll tell you exactly what to plant and when.

But what if you follow all the guidelines and then a heavy frost comes through? “I think that’s something that intimidates a lot of people about planting vegetables. They’re scared they’re going to kill their plants,” says Josie Connell, Deputy Park Manager at The Battery Conservancy, a non-profit organization that manages The Battery and in turn, Battery Urban Farm, an educational farm in New York City enjoyed by over 5,000 students across the city, as well as many residents and visitors. “It can be worth the risk just to try. If they don’t make it, you can plant them again,” she adds.

Connell says even though they are technically in Zone 7, sometimes they go by Zone 6 standards depending on the circumstance. Flanner says they use their historical planting records and notes to determine when to start their early spring planting for each crop.

How do I know when it’s OK to plant?

For cool season vegetables, you’ll generally want to plant at the end of March or beginning of April, depending on when your last frost is set to hit and what your current weather conditions are. 

“If you are planting in the ground or raised bed, the earliest stuff can go in as soon as the ground is no longer frozen,” says Connell. “If you work the soil a little bit and it’s not soaking wet or frozen, then you can go ahead and put in your earliest, most cold-tolerant seeds such as peas-either peas that you shell and eat or snow peas or snap peas.”

“We start planting weekly or bi-weekly starting in late March,” says Flanner. “It’s a calculated risk for us because at that time of year you also have significantly elevated winds. You also have hit-or-miss weather, but we figure if mother nature cooperates, then we get a super early and abundant crop, and if mother nature doesn’t cooperate, then we get them at the normal time, because we’re still planting at the normal time, as well [mid-April].”

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What is direct sowing, and can I do it? 

Direct sowing is when you sow the seeds directly into the ground where they will grow, as opposed to starting them indoors and growing them in containers under light until they can be transplanted into the ground where they will grow.

“The earliest spring crops are all seeds, besides potatoes, which are called seed potatoes, but they’re actually pieces of potato,” says Connell.

Most cool season vegetables can have their seeds sown directly into the ground. That seed packet is your friend, as it will contain zone and planting time information, light and water requirements, as well as spacing and depth information for sowing, and harvest time. “They very consistently will grow with what’s on the seed packet. For example, if you have a 22-day radish…on the 22nd day, it’s probably right about perfect,” says Flanner.

“You also want to think about what you’re putting next to each other in the soil,” says Connell. If you’re planning on continuing your vegetable gardening, take note of what you plant where so that you can rotate it next year.

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When will my vegetables be ready to harvest?

For above-ground crops, you can use your best judgement after the harvest time window on your seed packet has come to pass. “If you’re growing things that you eat regularly anyway, if it looks like something you’d find at the grocery store, then it’s ready to pick,” says Connell.

For some root vegetables such as carrots, she suggests digging around it a little bit to check on it before pulling it up prematurely. Although, if you happen to pull one up prematurely, that’s not the end of the world either.

“People shouldn’t be afraid to just pull one out. Don’t be shy. Just grab one. Worst case is it’s just kind of small, but it will still taste delicious.” says Flanner.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

What are the best vegetables to plant in early spring? 

Radishes (Raphanus sativus): Radishes are root vegetables that may harvest in about 3-weeks time. When the roots are about 1 inch in diameter, pull one up to test if it’s ready.

Turnips (Brassica rapa subsp. rapa): Turnips are root vegetables that can harvest anywhere between 30-60 days. When the roots are 2-3 inches in diameter, carefully dig them out of the ground.

Carrots (Daucus carota subsp. sativus): These are root vegetables that can take up to 75 days to mature. Although it will depend on the variety, you’ll usually know they are ready when the tops are about ¾ to 1 inch in diameter. You’ll want to loosely dig around them before pulling them out of the ground.

Sugar Snap Peas (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon): These usually harvest in about 6 to 8 weeks, and while they are cold-tolerant, they require support in other ways. “You really should trellis them and give them a little support, because they’ll grow so much happier and healthier if they do grow vertically,” says Flanner. “They’ll reach 4, 5, or 6 feet high.” 

Growing them on a trellis also makes them easier to harvest when the time comes. On that note, Flanner also suggests letting them get a little more plump before harvesting, (maybe wait one more day) so they’ll be extra delicious.

Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum): “You can put those in in very early spring, with the peas,” says Connell. To do so, cut up a potato in quarters, but make sure each quarter has two eyes. Then plant each quarter in the ground, and it grows a new potato plant.

Potato harvest time is based on preference. “New potatoes” can be harvested 2 to 3 weeks after the plant stops flowering. For more mature potatoes, wait 2 to 3 weeks after the foliage has died away. Dig up a test one first to make sure the skin is thick.

Lettuce (Lactuca sativa): Most lettuce will be ready for harvest in about 45-55 days. This is one you can definitely use the “grocery-store-ready” rule to know when it’s ready. “We usually wait until middle or late April [as opposed to March] to plant other leafy greens that are a little bit more tender that you might want in a salad, like our lettuces,” says Flanner.

When harvesting, make sure to pick the lettuce before it has bolted (sent up a stem to start a new phase of life), as the flavor will change drastically once this happens. “If you see a plant starting to bolt, you need to pick it immediately, otherwise you’ve basically lost your window,” says Flanner.

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea): These leafy greens can be harvested after about 37 to 45 days. Once the rosette has 5 or 6 leaves, it’s ready. If it gets yellow, you’ve waited too long. “It doesn’t like the hot weather, so it really is important to get it in early,” says Flanner.

Kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea): Kohlrabi can usually be harvested around 45-60 days. It needs to be harvested before temperatures reach 75 degree F, so you’ll want to sow it 3-4 weeks before the last frost date. “These are a lot of fun to grow and you can use the tops—you can sautée the tops like kale,” says Flanner.

Broccoli (Brassica oleracea var. italica): Broccoli can be ready in 100 to 150 days. (Again, the grocery-store test is great for timing the harvest of this.) Cut the stem about 5 to 6 inches from the main head. 

Cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata): Cabbage is ready for harvest anywhere between 80 to 180 days, depending on the variety. When the base of the head is somewhere between 4 to 10 inches across, depending on your preference.

Collard Greens( Brassica oleracea var. Viridis): Another great grocery-ready-test vegetable, these can be harvested about 85-95 days from their direct sow date. 

Brussel sprouts (Brassica oleracea var. Gemmifera): These are fun because you don’t have to harvest them all on the same day. After around 85 days, you can twist off the lower ones when the heads are 1-2 inches, prune the bottom leaves, and the plants will continue to grow upward and produce more sprouts.

Cauliflower (Brassica oleracea var. botrytis): Cauliflower may be ready for harvest anywhere between 85 to 130 days. Again, it will look like something you’d buy at the grocery store, with a head about 6 to 8 inches wide.

So this (early) spring, take a risk and try vegetable gardening. We’re sure you’ll reap more than one delicious benefit from it.