We’re in the green, lush, part of spring, where every plant in sight grows quickly (including the weeds), and putting things in the ground yields quick, child-pleasing results. It’s a great time to get started on a vegetable garden. There are starts for sale at garden centers and farmers market and plant sales, including the Tilth Alliance Edible Plant Sale on May 1-3 (now online, with pickup at Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands).
Grow from: starts
Tips: Water it well. When harvesting, pick it in the morning (it tastes better).
Lettuce is one of the easiest crops you can find. It grows quickly. It doesn’t take too much space. It can thrive in a not-so-sunny spot. Mind you, there are things that can go wrong. Slugs and snails have a huge appetite for the stuff, and if it gets too hot and dry it can quickly go to seed without giving you any salad at all. The best way to avoid problems is to look at the “days to harvest” number on the label and plant stuff with as short a lag to harvest time as you can.
I generally plant green loose-leaf lettuces. Not red ones, because one of my children doesn’t like the taste of them. (According to Cooks Illustrated, red loose-leaf lettuce has an “earthier” flavor than the green stuff.)
Grow from: seed
Tips: Remove rocks and sticks from the soil they grow in. Thin them so they have room to grow.
The idea that a crunchy orange carrot can be pulled from the dirt is a revelation for kids. It takes some extra preparation to make the soil ready for carrots (if there’s a pebble in the dirt, the carrot will grow around it, making it a funny shape that is awkward to peel and eat), and you need to thin the seedlings well and keep weeds well out of the way, but the results are fun.
Grow from: seed or start
Tip: Water a lot.
OK, so it’s not so much a vegetable as it is a grow-your-own bird feeder, but a sunflower is a happy addition to your vegetable patch. It’s very satisfying for your kid to witness a plant that started as two tiny green leaves sticking out of the dirt become something that towers over everybody.
Do not plant tomatoes
There is no food more delicious to me than a sun-warmed tomato picked straight from the vine. Tomatoes are the main reason I garden. And store and sale shelves are now filling up with fragrant little tomato plants. My advice to you: leave them there.
Unless you have a greenhouse, a cold frame, or an appetite for watching the outdoor thermometer and rigging up warming apparatuses every time it dips too low, do not plant tomatoes yet. The cold may damage the plants. Wait until nighttime temperatures are consistently 50 degrees or warmer. Hang in there; it should only take another two or three weeks.
Other plants that would do better if you wait until after the last cold nights: peppers, eggplant, squash, cucumbers and beans. More on them later.