April 3, 2011 in Features

As soil dries, it’s time for cool-season crops

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Susan Mulvihill photo

Onions can be planted thickly. During spring and summer, harvest every other one as a scallion to leave room for the rest to develop large bulbs.
(Full-size photo)

It is almost time to get cool-season crops into the ground. This includes veggies like peas, onions, carrots, parsnips, spinach, Swiss chard, radishes, broccoli, lettuce and leeks.

What we’re waiting for is the soil in our gardens to be dry enough to work with. I’ve mentioned this technique before: Pick up a handful of soil and give it a squeeze. If it’s muddy and wet, it’s too soon. If the ball of soil easily breaks apart when poked with a finger, the time is right.

This is important because working with the soil when it’s too wet can destroy its structure.

This week and next, I’ll be discussing a few of the more commonly grown cool-season vegetables to get you started. Once you decide which ones you want to grow, refer to the seed packets for extra information on their culture.

While freshly harvested spinach leaves taste delicious in salads and when steamed, the plants do not like hot weather at all. They will “bolt,” which means they develop a central flower stalk, set seeds and stop growing leaves.

My favorite substitute for spinach is Swiss chard. It’s very similar to spinach but is much more tolerant of our hot summer weather.

Some of the prettiest varieties include ‘Bright Lights’ – which have red, pink or gold stalks – and ‘Rhubarb,’ with its dark green leaves and vibrant red stalks.

Plant the seeds directly into the garden at a depth of 1/2 inch and spaced six to 10 inches apart.

The main pest that bothers Swiss chard is the leaf miner. The adult is a fly that lays eggs on the leaves. The larvae is a small worm that burrows through the leaves, thus causing a lot of damage.

The easiest way to protect the plants is to cover them with a floating row cover, which is a lightweight fabric that lets in air, light and moisture but acts as a physical barrier to pests.

This fabric, which can be found online and in large garden centers, works best when supported by wire or plastic hoops and weighted down around the edges with bricks or boards.

This year, I am growing collards for the first time ever. After sampling some last fall, I discovered that they are delicious. Commonly grown in the South, the greens have a cabbage-like flavor.

I’m growing ‘Vates,’ which takes about 75 days to mature. The seeds are covered with 1/8 inch of soil. Thin the seedlings to 18 to 24 inches apart once they are 2 inches tall.

Since they are related to cabbage, aphids and small green worms might be a problem. I plan to use a floating row cover over them as well.

Many gardeners enjoy growing their own onions. They can be started from seeds, seedlings or “sets” which are small bulbs sold at garden centers.

Since it can take quite a while for onions started from seeds to mature – I started mine indoors about two months ago – I recommend purchasing either ‘Walla Walla Sweet’ seedlings or onion sets to get them going quickly.

Plant the seedlings in about two weeks, spaced three to four inches apart. Plant onion sets, with the pointed end up, one inch deep and spaced three inches apart.

When you’re harvesting some as scallions later on, pick every other one so the remaining plants have plenty of room to develop a large bulb.

My favorite onion varieties include ‘Valencia,’ ‘Cipollini,’ ‘Red Globe’ and ‘Early Yellow Globe.’

Susan Mulvihill can be reached via email at inthegarden@live.com.Visit her blog at susansinthegarden.blogspot.com for more garden tips and information.

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