At last! After a long winter wait, it’s finally time to get outside, crumble some soil in our fingers, and dig in. Yes, it’s finally time to plant our vegetable gardens—or at least the first crops. While we need to wait a bit longer for frost-tender plants, there are many cool season vegetables that can handle cold nights and a bit of frost. Here are some crops that you can transplant or direct seed into the garden right now.
There are three types of peas, and this is a great time to plant all of them. They prefer cool weather, and need to mature before the heat of summer stunts their growth. Select varieties that mature quickly. Most grow on dwarf vines, two to three feet tall. They will need some support—try some chicken wire or netting stretched along a fence or between two posts.
Harvest traditional shelling peas when the pods are plump. Enjoy the sweet, fresh peas right in the garden or lightly steam them. Snow peas are the flat, edible pod varieties associated with Asian food. Pick them before the seeds inside develop, and remove their strings before cooking. Sugar Snap peas, a cross between shelling peas and snow peas, were introduced in 1979. They have round edible pods with fully developed peas inside. Newer snap pea varieties have shorter vines, greater disease resistance, and mature faster than the original.
Onions are another vegetable that withstands freezing temperatures. For fast green onions, plant sets (tiny bulbs) and harvest when there is enough top growth to use. Those you don’t pull for scallions will produce full-sized bulbs later in the season. You can also buy onions in bundles of started plants; it’s too late in the season to start them from seed.
Lettuce seedlings should be set out now, as this crop prefers cool, damp spring weather. Loose-leaf and romaine varieties grow quickly. Pick just the outer leaves, or cut the whole top off at soil level, but let the plant continue to grow. You’ll get several harvests without replanting. Discard the plant when it becomes bitter or starts elongating into a flower stalk. Crisp and butterhead lettuces take a bit longer, but are worth the wait. Plant them close together; you can eat the thinnings while you wait for the remaining heads to mature.
Carrots and parsley are two related crops that do well in areas with sandy soil. Make sure to till deeply enough for their long tap roots. Direct seeding is required to grow straight carrots, and the tiny seeds take up to three weeks to germinate. Keeping them damp during that time may require vigilance.
Cabbage, broccoli, kale and kohlrabi are also related varieties that do well in El Paso County. You can purchase transplants, grow your own indoors under lights or sow seeds directly into the garden. While these crops can handle some frost, don’t plant them too early. Three or more days below 40 degrees will cause young plants to stop growing and go directly to premature flowering. These vegetables can also be planted in mid-summer for harvest after the first frosts of fall.
Planting cool season crops now extends your harvest, avoids many insect pests, and puts fresh vegetables on the table that much sooner.