Early spring garden planting is not limited to only warm climates. Many gardeners can take advantage of early spring plantings to extend their growing season and reduce the amount of time their garden is empty. Here are some ideas on how to extend your gardening season by getting a jump start on the spring season.
Cover Crops Can Extend a Garden Season
Soil bared to the elements will quickly lose its value for gardening. In fact, more nutrition is lost to the elements than to crops in most agricultural soils. Before the advent of cheap, chemical fertilizers, most farmers would have something growing or covering their soil all year round.
Many gardeners are of the impression that once winter comes, their soil is to be left bare until everything thaws in the spring and is ready for planting again. This is a bad idea and leads to deficient soil and lower yields over time. You can protect your soil with cover crops.
Winter cover crops should always be planted or the soil should be protected with heavy mulch to let it breathe while keeping the rain and snow directly off of the soil itself. Additionally, you can extend your growing season not only into the late fall and early winter, but also start planting much earlier than you might have thought possible. It’s all in your choice of plants.
Popular Spring Garden Vegetables
Most of the cold tolerant vegetables that can be planted in the fall can also be planted in early spring. When the last of the consistent freezing storms have gone, which will vary depending on your geographic location, you can plant cold hardy vegetables in your spring garden. For area specific crops, check with your local extension agency to see which varieties will grow best in your garden.
Most underground tubers and root vegetables like carrots, beets, garlic, onions, turnips and rutabagas can all be planted in the early spring. In fact, turnips and rutabagas can often grow through the winter in areas where deep cold is not long term. Other cold hardy spring plantings can include kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, many varieties of lettuce, parsnips, peas, etc.
Of all of these spring plantings, some are better than others for early spring or late fall planting. Parsnips, for instance, sweeten during the frost, so they are better for fall. Rhubarb is actually dormant during the warm months and requires 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to break this dormancy, so it is a better fall planting as well. Kale, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, and many others are great early spring plantings.
Using Cold Frames, Low Tunnels, and Hoop Houses
To extend the season even further, you can often protect plants for an additional 2 to 3 weeks in fall to extend their harvest. Spring can also be hastened for many plants by using tools to warm the plants and the soil around them. Cold frames, low tunnels and hoop houses are good examples of these tools that are popular gardening methods.
Cold frames can be used for both extending the fall and hastening the spring. Try closing the frame in the early spring (late February or early March) and letting the soil inside warm up with the sun. This will make the soil easier to work sooner. It will also protect the plant during bad weather and from all but the harshest of frosts. Even tomatoes can often be started early in a cold frame.
Low tunnels can be used to similarly lengthen the fall season and to hasten the spring. Use the tunnels to protect young seedlings from spring weather changes and to harden sprouts you’ve begun indoors. Low tunnels are popular over raised beds. Kits can be found at gardening supply stores, or you can build your own low tunnels. Low tunnels, as well as hoop houses, can reduce the amount of plant diseases by eliminating rainwater splashing soil borne diseases onto the plant and reduce the amount of fungal plant diseases since plants will be watered at the soil.
Hoop houses can be used in the same way and, while more time intensive and expensive, can be used on a larger variety of plants even those that aren’t otherwise cold tolerant. Often hoop houses are used for more extensive gardens, almost used as a temporary greenhouse. With hoop houses it’s easy to adjust the sides to raise or lower depending on the climate.
Want to learn more about spring garden plants?
Check out these resources for more information:
Guide to Spring Planted, Cool-Season Vegetables from University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture
Spring Planting Guide for Vegetable Crops from Texas AgriLife Extension Service