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Sunday, July 12, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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In the Garden: Mind your peas and onions, and other tips for starting cool-season crops

Peas are a cool-season crop that is delicious and very easy to grow. (Susan Mulvihill/For The Spokesman-Review)
Peas are a cool-season crop that is delicious and very easy to grow. (Susan Mulvihill/For The Spokesman-Review)

It won’t be long before we can plant cool-season vegetable crops. These include peas, lettuce, onions, carrots, parsnips, beets, Swiss chard, spinach and kale.

You’ll often see instructions on seed packets that say “plant in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked,” but what does that mean?

It refers to planting in soil that isn’t sopping wet. Fortunately, there’s an easy test to determine if your soil is dry enough. Grab a handful of it and squeeze it together. If you just created a mud pie, it’s definitely too wet. Conversely, if it forms a ball that easily crumbles apart, you are good to go.

With the exception of peas and onions, I typically sow seeds for all of the others directly in the garden between the middle and end of April – although our season might be a bit delayed this year.

In order to get the best possible pea germination, I start my seeds indoors about 10 days ahead of time and transplant them into the garden when they’re a few inches tall. I always provide some type of support for the vines to grow on, whether the seed packet says it’s needed or not. Years ago, I tried going without the support for a shorter variety of pea, only to have them all fall together in a heap; you can imagine how difficult it was to harvest those peas.

Onions can be planted from seeds, sets (small bulbs) or plant starts. While all of these can be planted in the same timeframe, I prefer to grow my onions from plant starts. No matter what you start with, it’s important to choose the right type for this region.

Did you know there are short-day, intermediate-day and long-day types of onions? This is based on the amount of daylight hours a region receives during the summer months. And since the Spokane area luxuriates in delightfully long days each summer, long-day varieties are what we should be growing.

Examples include Ailsa Craig, Copra, Highlander, Red River, Red Zeppelin, Redwing, Ringmaster, Sterling, Walla Walla Sweet, and Yellow Spanish.

When it comes to growing lettuce, I’ve noticed birds think their leaves are delicious. No matter what time of year it is, they will defoliate a lettuce patch in no time at all. To prevent this from happening, I place hoops over our lettuce bed and lay a sheet of bird netting on top. The birds might not appreciate this, but I’m happy to get a lettuce crop.

While cabbage family crops – such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower – are considered cool-season vegetables, they do best when planted at the end of April or in early May. I start them indoors ahead of time and transplant them outdoors later. Garden centers also sell seedlings.

Members of the cabbage family as well as beet family crops (beets, spinach, Swiss chard) are the most prone to insect problems. Because of this, I always cover the plants with floating row cover for the entire season to keep those pesky insects away. It works great because none of these crops requires pollination. Look for this lightweight fabric at garden centers and online.

Since Mother Nature can be temperamental this time of year, it’s always a good idea to keep a close eye on the weather forecast. If temperatures are forecasted to dip below 40 degrees, we should all be prepared to cover our plantings.

Susan Mulvihill is co-author, with Pat Munts, of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook.” Contact her at Watch this week’s “Everyone Can Grow A Garden” video on

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