By Ken Lain, the mountain gardener
Because our springtime mountain soil can be so cold, there can be delays to our spring planting dates. Many plants are best started by planting baby plants directly into your garden soil. This especially is true for large fruits like beefsteak tomatoes, large pumpkins, and watermelons.
But not all vegetables are as temperamental and those that aren’t almost prefer being sown directly into the garden. Below are 15 popular vegetables that can be sown directly into the garden soil and still have plenty of time to mature and bear fruit. So grab your trowel and a couple of seed packets, and let’s learn about vegetables started from seed.
Beans – are such an easy vegetable to grow. The seeds are large enough for a child to handle. They sprout quickly and take off growing. Remember Jack and the Beanstalk? I like to begin the season with a couple of succession plantings of quick-maturing bush beans while I wait for the pole beans to get under way. Although equally easy to grow, pole beans need time to grow tall before they start bearing beans. Short bush beans grow faster, but don’t last as long. So, might as well plant both!
Beets – are like all vegetables grown for their roots: They are best direct sown so the root isn’t disturbed, which can cause it to become stunted or deformed. You can get away with starting the seeds in peat or paper pots and transplanting the whole thing, but beets are such a quick crop, why make extra work for yourself? Beets will need to be thinned, but you can eat any young seedlings that you remove. They are good candidates for succession planting.
Carrots – don’t like being disturbed, once they start growing. They don’t even like it when you pull nearby plants to thin the row. Sow them somewhat thinly, to appease them, then cut off the seedlings you thin, rather than pulling them. Pulling carrots also releases their scent and attracts the cabbage rust fly, who will lay its eggs on the broken soil and make it that much easier for their larvae to get to those coddled carrots.
Corn – plants have a very long tap root and, although we don’t grow corn for its roots, like root crops they don’t like being disturbed. Luckily chunky corn seed is large and easy to handle and if your garden soil is friable, you can just poke the seed down a couple of inches and water it! Corn can be succession planted, too, or you simply may choose early, mid, and late season varieties to extend your harvest.
Cucumbers – love warm soil. You can plant them in late spring once the soil has had a chance to heat up. The vines grow quickly and sprawl up or out. Plant several seeds to ensure enough flowers for good pollination. If the flowers are not pollinated, the fruits will wither and die before they mature.
Lettuce – and other salad greens, like arugula, mache, and spinach will sprout a few days after planting and be ready to start snipping in a few weeks. Lettuce transplants are readily available or you can start your own, but for a steady supply, your best bet is succession sowing. (To get lettuce to sprout during the summer, cool the soil first by soaking it with water and then covering it with a board for 2-3 days.)
Melons – like it hot! There’s no sense rushing them since they’ll just bide their time. As with cukes, plant melon seed in a “hill”, a small mound with 5 – 6 seeds planted in it and a circular depression around the hill to act as a moat. When the seedlings are a few inches tall you can thin them to 3 or 4 of the strongest plants, This will give you plenty of flowers for good pollination and well-formed fruits.
Parsnips – take several months to mature, but, luckily, they can be planted in mid-spring and left in the ground until well after frost. These carrot cousins get sweeter with a good chill. If your ground doesn’t freeze in the winter, or if you can provide them with some winter protection, you can leave your parsnips in the ground until spring, then harvest as needed.
Peas – are a spring celebration. You know the vegetable garden is in full swing when you can plant the peas! Although they can take a little frost, they don’t thrive in cold, wet soil. But you can’t wait too long to plant them because they need to be up and flowering before the air temperature turns warm. Hedge your bet by using an inoculant ; it will help prevent the plants from rotting in muddy spring soil.
Pumpkins – germinate very easily. If you ever have tossed Halloween pumpkin guts on a compost pile, you know how easily they germinate! In fact, many gardeners actually grow their pumpkins in their compost heaps. That’s because the plants have large, sprawling vines, and not having them in the vegetable garden frees up a lot of space. The plants are very tasty to groundhogs, so they may need some protection.
Radishes – like to grow quickly, and in cool weather. You can direct seed these as soon as the ground can be worked and succession sow every 2 weeks until it’s so warm that they start to bolt. Because they grow so fast, radish seeds often are planted with slower-germinating seeds, like carrots and parsnips. This marks the row and keeps the soil loose for when the second crop emerges.
Rutabagas – are another long-season root crop. They are planted in the spring and plump up during the cool, short days of fall. Unlike parsnips and turnips, they don’t usually survive in cold winter soil. But if you are gardening in a warm climate, you’ll have better luck planting in the fall and growing them through winter. Although we often see melon sized rutabagas in the grocery store, they are more sweet and crunchy when harvested at 3 – 4 in. diameters.
These old favorites pose a unique challenge as seedlings. They look remarkably like twigs, so it is all too easy to reach down and pull them out of the ground. Even though I was warned of this before I first grew them, I plucked a few anyway and thought, “Wow, they really do look like twigs!” Trust me; mark the row well.
Squashes – can be direct sown, whether winter or summer varieties. They are fairly fast growers so wait until both the soil and air have warmed. Holding out until after Memorial Day is hard to do, but you not only will get a faster growing plant, you will have thwarted some of the early season insect pests, like squash borers and bugs.
Turnips – only require a month or two to grow to harvest size. They get pithy if allowed to grow too large so succession planting every few weeks makes good sense. Like parsnips, a late planting of turnips can be left in the ground over the winter and harvested as needed. They go dormant in winter and will not continue growing and become tough. ‘Golden Ball’ turnips are small and tender, wonderful for eating fresh or grilling whole.
I’ve mentioned succession planting quite a bit here because it is the best way to have a continual harvest, rather than a one-time glut of produce. It’s easy enough; just poke into the ground or scatter a few more seeds while you are in the garden harvesting dinner. Just be sure you purchase enough seeds in the spring to take you through the season. Those racks of seed packets tend to disappear as garden centers make room for holiday displays!
Until next week, I’ll see you at the garden center.