While many standard garden vegetables can not be planted outside or started from seed until the soil is fully warmed and the threat of frost is past, a variety of other cool season spring crops can be started right now, giving you a jump start on the gardening season and putting food on your plate long before the summer vegetables come in.
Depending on your local weather patterns and climate, cool season vegetables can be planted either directly in the soil with no cover, directly in the soil underneath a row cover or low tunnel, or in pots and trays in a sunny window or porch.
Planting under row covers or a low tunnel will not only help to warm the soil quicker, but will also protect seedlings from frosts (although a hard freeze, or a long stretch of really cold weather may still be able to kill plants under row covers).
Planting in pots and trays that can be moved outside into the sun on warm days, and brought inside at night, is one surefire way to beat the frost (as long as you remember to bring them inside), and can be a great way to start an early spring garden long before the soil outside is ready to plant. Container gardening is also a good way to start growing some of your own food on windowsills, balconies, or decks, even if you don't have an outside garden plot.
Here in southwestern New Mexico, the weather has been so mild this winter that I have been able to not only plant under row covers in February, but have also been direct seeding spring vegetables in soil with no cover (which is still risky, considering the last frost date is still about a month away). Because I started so early, I've got baby lettuce greens ready to harvest, spinach that will be ready pretty soon, and lots of radishes and baby chard and kale coming up, all of which we look forward to after a winter of eating vegetables that travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to get to our table.
These spring vegetables, all of which can be easily planted from seed, are all great choices for an early garden, and are usually foolproof enough to grow so that even the most beginning gardeners can reap a good harvest.
1. SpinachFresh baby spinach, which is one of my favorite greens to eat, is also fairly quick to sprout and grow in a spring garden, and can be remarkably frost-resistant, especially when grown under cover. There are a lot of varieties of spinach, most of which can be categorized by being either savoy and semi-savoy (which tend to have crinkled or curly crisp leaves), or smooth-leaf (with flatter leaves and a softer texture), and I recommend growing several varieties to see which ones work best for your soil and location, as well as which ones you prefer the taste of. For early spring greens, I like to grow them close together and harvest the leaves when they're still small, which can be as short as three weeks from planting, depending on the variety and the weather. Spinach is also a great plant for the fall garden, as it can be covered with mulch and will often overwinter that way for early spring harvest.
2. ChardThis beet relative is another excellent spring vegetable that is easy to grow from seed, and can be eaten fresh or cooked (or tossed into a smoothie for a drinkable salad). I plant my chard closer than the seed packet instructions recommend, and then harvest the crowded ones as baby greens when I thin the beds. Chard comes in a variety of colors and sizes and textures, although most of the color tends to be in the thick stems, with the leaves being mostly green. Growing some red and white and yellow chard along with the traditional green chard can add some color to spring salads while also livening up the look of the garden. Some varieties of chard can be harvested as baby greens in about 25 days, with the leaves taking about twice that long to get to full size.
3. LettuceWhile lettuce can be grown into the full sized heads that most of us are used to from the grocery store, I've found that growing it just for baby greens is not only quicker and easier, but will provide a near-constant supply of salad greens from spring until well into summer. I like to use mixed lettuce seed (sometimes called mesclun mix), and instead of sowing the seeds farther apart, as is recommended for head lettuce, I sow them very close together in each row, which will yield a solid row of lettuce leaves that is easy to harvest, and which can be cut repeatedly throughout the season. Lettuce comes in a number of colors and leaf shapes, not just the standard green romaine, red and green leaf lettuce, and butterhead varieties, so growing mixed baby greens gives you a wide variety of textures and colors for salads. Baby greens can be harvested in a couple of weeks, and by planting successions of seeds every week or two, you can have a constant supply of greens for the kitchen.
4. RadishesRadishes are one of the fastest vegetables you can grow, aside from the various greens, as many varieties are ready to be harvested in as little as three weeks. Radishes are great for interplanting with lettuce or other spring greens, and can help to naturally thin those crops as the radishes get harvested. Many of us are only familiar with the round red or pink and white radishes often sold in grocery stores, but they come in a lot of different colors, shapes, and sizes, and can be spicy or sweet, depending on the variety. Radishes are a great crop for kids to help grow, as the seeds are large enough for small children to help plant, and because they're quick to mature and easy to pull from the ground, can be perfect for impatient gardeners as well.
5. KaleKale, while quite possibly being the veggie people most love to hate, is another excellent spring vegetable that is easy to grow from seed, and because it can be harvested as a baby green and as full-sized leaves, can provide a lot of food from a little effort. Whether you like to eat it raw as part of your salad or in your smoothies, or you prefer it steamed or stir-fried in a main dish, kale can be a great green addition to any diet. Kale can be dense and crinkly, such as "dinosaur" kale, or flatter and more ruffle-y, such as the red Russian varieties, and is often sweeter as a baby green in the spring, and then again late in fall after the first frost. I've been able to harvest baby kale leaves in as little as three weeks, with full-sized leaves maturing in anywhere from 40 to 60 days, depending on the variety.
6. PeasSnow peas, and other pod peas, are another great spring vegetable that kids tend to love. The seeds are big enough for children to plant, and I haven't met a kid yet who didn't love to go searching in the garden for peas to harvest and eat right there. Shelling peas and snap peas tend to take a bit longer, but they're also a big hit with kids, many of whom will scarf them down fresh from the pod and yet never eat a cooked pea (and to be honest, I don't care for cooked peas either). Peas take anywhere from 50 to 65 days to mature, depending on the variety, and can grow either as vines or as 'bushes', so they lend themselves equally well to both trellising and growing in regular garden beds. For best germination rates, pea seeds should be soaked in water overnight before planting them.
What other easy spring vegetables do you grow and recommend, especially for beginning gardeners?