It may be officially spring, but here in the heart of ski country, we woke to six inches of fluffy white powder and my heart has begun to ache for bees, for the sweat of the summer sun and, undoubtedly, for something green. I itch for the view from our plot in the community garden, and while that plot is still four-feet deep in snow from a winter that won’t recede until June, it’s this time of year that I dig out the worn and cracked terra cotta pots from our crawl space, immerse my fingers in organic soil and begin sowing the seeds that will feed us throughout the spring and summer.
When you live at 9,000 feet, your choice of vegetables is strictly limited, and with the cold of winter still napping at my doorstep, I rely on growing cool-weather crops in containers on the porch – bringing them inside in the evening and returning them to the fresh air in the morning. Growing is efficient, easy and, most importantly, affordable. There’s a revolution buzzing in backyard gardens across the country – make sure you take part, even if that means you only have time to coax a few leaves from that tiny pot of thyme on your kitchen counter.
But, if you’re like me and you can’t wait to get your hands in the dirt, here’s seven tried-and-true springtime crops to get you started. They do great in containers on your patio and are quick to grow from seed to harvest. Indeed, our rainbow chard, kale and strawberries are already growing like crazy and we’ll be planting carrots, radishes, peas and turnips next.
Quick-to-harvest Spring Crops for Container Gardens
Here’s five easy-to-grow springtime crops for containers that can be harvested in under two and one-half months. If you haven’t already purchased your seeds for the coming growing season, you can pick them up online (see sources).
Why You’ll Love It: Rainbow chard is vibrantly colorful, making it an excellent green to serve to small children who may be otherwise put off by monotone leafy vegetables. Its flavor is sweet with faintly bitter and metallic undertones. Even if you forget and leave your container outside during a frost, chard will withstand it and still retain its beautiful deep green leaves and lovely vibrant stems. You can see my chard starts in the photo above, they’re just about ready to transfer to the pot.
How to Grow It: Grow from seed (see sources) and sow chard about 1/2-inch to 1-inch deep and maintain a temperature of about 55 degrees for germination. Alternatively, buy live plants (see sources). It’ll do well even in partial shade.
Container Gardening: Thin chard to two plants to one 1-gallon container.
Seed to Harvest: 10 days (germination), 50 to 60 days (harvest)
How to Serve It: Serve chard sauteed with garlic or try lacto-fermented chard stems from Affairs of Living. Serve thinnings or young-harvested chard in salads.
Why You’ll Love It: At our farmers market, the carrots are always the first vegetables to disappear under the weight of carrot-hungry shoppers. Growing your own is, fortunately, easy and many varieties are well-suited to containers. Chantenay carrots, with their sweet flavor, broad shoulders and blunt tip, grow only about five inches long making them particularly well-suited to containers.
How to Grow It: Grow from seed (see sources) and sow carrots about 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch deep. They’ll grow at room temperature – 60 to 80 degrees, and do well partial shade to full sun.
Container Gardening: Thin carrots to about three plants per 1-gallon container, but make sure that your container is at least 8-inches deep.
Seed to Harvest: 10 days (germination), 60 to 65 days (harvest)
How to Serve It: Serve carrots braised, steamed and seasoned with butter or in maple-glazed root vegetables.
French Breakfast Radish
Why You’ll Love It: Radishes grow very quickly and are ready for harvest in just three weeks’ time. Their flavor is bright or, as my 5-year old explains: sparkly. French breakfast radishes are typically milder and a lot bigger than the small round radishes you purchase at the grocery store (which also tend toward dryness by comparison).
How to Grow It: Grow from seed (see sources) and sow radishes about 1/2-inch deep and grow at about 70 degrees or so. Partial shade is okay.
Container Gardening: Thin radishes to about three to four plants in a 1-gallon container.
Seed to Harvest: 3 to 5 days (germination), 20 to 30 days (harvest)
How to Serve It: Serve radishes in salads, on sourdough bread with butter, goat cheese and chives, brine-pickled or try them sauteed in butter with parsley.
Why You’ll Love It: Any variety of lettuce should grow well in containers, but concept lettuce is particularly well-suited to container gardening. It is compact, flavorful and is quick to harvest.
How to Grow It: Grow from seed (see sources). Temperatures of about 60 to 70 degrees are ideal.
Container Gardening: Thin lettuce to two plants per one 1-gallon container.
Seed to Harvest: 28 days (for baby lettuce), 50 days (for large heads)
How to Serve It: Serve lettuce as a base for salads, or try lettuce soup.
Tom Thumb Peas
Why You’ll Love It: There is nothing quite like fresh from the garden English peas. I love the process of shelling them with my son, blanching them in water only briefly enough to release their sweetness. Tom Thumb peas grow well in very small containers and are quick to mature and can even withstand the occasional frost. Tom Thumb peas usually only grow about 8-inches high, making them a great decorative plant for patios.
How to Grow It: Grow from seed (see sources) and sow chard about 1/2-inch to 1-inch deep. Grow in full sun.
Container Gardening: Grow one to two plants per wide 1-gallon container or use a strawberry planter or hanging basket.
Seed to Harvest: 7 to 14 days (germination), 50 to 55 days (harvest)
How to Serve It: Serve peas fresh with mint and butter or yogurt. Try serving them with carrots in new-style peas and carrots, and don’t forget to keep the tendrils: pea tendrils are excellent steamed.
Why You’ll Love It: Who doesn’t love strawberries? They’re beautifully sweet and offer a lovely color. They’re easy to pick, and excellent still warm from the sunshine. Alpine strawberries are painfully tiny, and in that tiny speck of a berry, they concentrate the flavor of an entire pint of other varieties.
How to Grow It: Grow from strawberry crowns (see sources) and plant crowns so soil just barely covers the roots.
Container Gardening: Grow one plant in about a gallon of soil. Cover with netting to keep the birds from your berries.
Seed to Harvest: Strawberry crowns should begin producing immediately and will produce daughter plants within about four to six weeks.
How to Serve It: Serve strawberries on their own, with fresh raw cream or try strawberry-mint sorbet.