By Pam Dawling
This past year increased many people’s interest in growing their own food and increasing food self-reliance. If you’re among them, maybe growing food is part of your response to COVID-19, or maybe you just want to leap into spring. Either way, you’re probably wondering what can bring the fastest results with early harvests. Here’s information on some vegetable crops that offer fast returns, and some sources for more information.
A note for newbies before reading: “Thinnings” are small plants pulled from a direct-seeded row that are removed to leave enough room for the chosen ones to grow bigger. The smallest thinnings (when you thin to an inch apart) can be used for salads of baby greens, and the larger ones (when you thin to 3 inches) can be lightly cooked or included in a salad mix.
Ready in 21 Days
See Ready in 40 Days or Less for information on baby Asian greens, most of which can be cut or pulled for salad only 21 days after sowing.
Ready in 30 to 35 Days
Baby kale, mustard greens, collards, radishes, spinach, chard, baby salad greens (lettuce mix, endives, and chicories), arugula, and winter purslane are all vegetables that grow quickly in spring. Beet greens from thinnings can be cooked and eaten like spinach.
It’s possible to sow rows of almost any type of greens and cut them with scissors for salad once they’re 3 to 4 inches tall. Grab a handful and cut about an inch above the soil. In cool weather, you can get a second cut (maybe even a third), but once it’s warm, they’ll produce tough flower stems rather than juicy leaves. Avoid growing turnips and radishes this way, as many of them have prickly leaves that are unpleasant to eat.
Ready in 40 Days or Less
Many Asian greens, such as Chinese napa cabbage; ‘Komatsuna’; ‘Maruba Santoh’; ‘Mizuna’; bok choy; ‘Senposai’; ‘Tatsoi’; ‘Tokyo Bekana’; and ‘Yukina Savoy’ are fast-growing. There’s a huge range of attractive cultivars that are better at germinating in hot weather and faster-growing than lettuce — a diversity of crops without a diversity of growing methods! Flavors vary from mild to peppery, and colors cover the spectrum: chartreuse, bright green, dark green, and purple, to name a few.
Transplant 4 to 5 weeks after spring sowing, or direct-sow. Most of these greens reach baby size in 21 days and full size in 40 days. Grow them when you normally grow kale. Asian greens sown in spring will bolt as soon as the weather heats up, so be ready to harvest a lot at once (if you planted a lot, that is).
One summer, we sowed ‘Tokyo Bekana’ at Twin Oaks Community as a lettuce substitute, and it took 20 days to grow to baby size, and 45 days to full size. We’ve also grown this at other times of year, when faced with an empty space we hadn’t planned for.
‘Mizuna’ and other frilly mustards are easy to grow, and they tolerate cold, wet soil to 25 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, they’re fairly heat-tolerant (well, warm-tolerant). Use for baby salads after only 21 days, or thin to 8 to 12 inches apart to grow to maturity in 40 days. Mild-flavored ferny leaves add loft in salad mixes and regrow vigorously after cutting.
Ready in 35 to 45 Days
Baby carrots (thinnings or the whole row), turnip greens (more thinnings!), endives, corn salad, land cress, sorrel, parsley, chervil, and some of the smaller turnip roots can be ready in 45 days or less. Read the small print on your favorite nursery’s website or catalog for help in choosing the best cultivars. Those that are ready in the fewest days are obviously more likely to give the fastest results. Also, keep the soil surface damp to keep the seedlings alive and growing quickly.
Ready in 60 Days
Beets (‘Cylindra’), dwarf snap peas (‘Sugar Ann’), broccoli, collards, kohlrabi (‘Early Vienna’), turnips, and small fast cabbages (‘Farao,’ ‘Gonzales,’ ‘Stonehead,’ ‘Fast Ball,’ ‘Golden Acre,’ ‘Savoy Express,’ or ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’) are all ready to be harvested 60 days after sowing.
Ready 50 to 60 Days After Last Frost Date
Zucchini, yellow squash, bush beans, and small cucumbers can grow quickly. Make succession plantings every few weeks throughout summer, until about two months before your first frost date. The rate of growth will speed up in summer, so later plantings will yield in less time than earlier ones.
Garlic scallions can be grown over winter, but will grow more quickly in spring, taking perhaps eight weeks. Plant scrappy little garlic cloves unsuitable for cooking in close furrows, and wait until the leaves are 7 inches tall before digging up the plant. You can prepare them like spring onions, and they can be eaten raw, but more often they’re cooked. You can also plant whole bulbs without separating the cloves. This is a good use for extra bulbs that are already sprouting in storage, and an excellent use for small spaces between other plants, especially since garlic repels some pests.
Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at Mother Earth News Fairs. She’s the author of Sustainable Market Farming, available below. Learn more about her intensive gardening techniques at Sustainable Market Farming.
More Gardening How-Tos
Want another way to grow and harvest your greens? Try “Eat-All Greens,” an idea from Carol Deppe. Carol sows patches of carefully chosen cooking greens in a small patch. When they reach 12 inches tall, she cuts off the top 9 inches for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, either for a second cut, or to return to the soil.
Learn more about this technique on my blog, Sustainable Market Farming., and search for “Virginian Eat-All Greens.” You can also explore collections of my own posts about Asian greens, cooking greens, and lettuce varieties by navigating through those categories on the site.
Plan for planting success
Make the most of the off-season by getting a step up on planning next year’s garden with our online “Garden Planning” course. This informative and enlightening course from author and Mother Earth News Fair speaker Pam Dawling includes workshops on setting your garden goals (how to plan, and which crops to grow), mapping, rotating crops, growing transplants, scheduling seedlings, interplanting, making contingency plans, and so much more! Learn more at Mother Earth News Fair
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