I am going to go over the very first things you can stick in your garden each spring. These things all love the cool rainy weather and can handle early spring frosts. In a warmer year, you might be able to put seedlings of these in your garden by the first week of march.
The biggest thing I factor into my early spring garden is pests and how to avoid them.
First though, a caveat. Everyone's garden is different and every year is different. To some extent you have to just experiment to see what things you are able to grow in your own garden.
Just because I get horrible nasty aphids on my Kale, does not mean you will. I have LOTS of pests in my neighborhood & in my garden. Way more than I ever had in Seattle. So take all my advice with a grain of salt. If you love something, give it a try,and don't be discouraged if it doesn't work for you the first time. There are so many tricks that can overcome problems in your garden.
Spring planting - beat the offenders (eat it before they do)
Slugs, aphids, white fly, cabbage worm, carrot rust fly and beetle root maggots are my worst offenders. Right now, there are virtually no pests in my garden except slugs, because of the cold weather. In a month or so all the little buggers will get much more active and start to find my veggies.
I try to plant my pest vulnerable plants as early as possible so that I can harvest them early before pests get the upper hand and I am forced to toss them in the compost heap. The nice thing is that by the time pests get all crazy, it is time to plant your summer crops - tomatoes, basil, zucchini - so it is never too sad to get rid of the spring green goodies.
In general, pests do not bother strong flavored veggies as much as sweet tender ones. That is why herbs, arugula, mustard, garlic & onions are easier to grow. Everything on the following lists can be planted now (mid to late march) - either by starts or by seeds. Seeds are a bit riskier - if we get a stretch of cold rainy weather with no sunny days, they might not sprout, but you are pretty safe by April.
I am happy to report that my Mizuna sprouted last week, first seeds of the season!
Most of the things on these lists can take some light frost & cold nights. Our official "last day of frost" isn't until the beginning of May, but all these plants should do fine regardless.
Easiest (no pests, high yield)
Snap Peas (or any peas)
Mizuna (salad green)
Medium (not too hard to grow, might get worms in them)
Pesty (but still worth planting!)
Other salad greens like radicchio, amaranth, corn salad (mache), etc.
Almost not worth bothering
Broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower (Along with Kale, they all belong to the "brassica" family and have the same pest problems - aphids, white fly, cabbage worms)
Things I have never grown
and TONS of other things
* These are a bit more difficult because they go to seed quickly and you have to replant them every 3-4 weeks to have a continuous yield
If you want the highest chance of success, start with herbs & snap peas.
These are the fat juicy ones where you eat the whole thing, pod & all. It is hard to get really good snap peas at the grocery stores, so they are top of my veggie garden list for being easy & worth the work.
My snap peas usually produce peas from about June - mid July and then they get a virus and die. Which is fine. When the plants turn yellow, just pull them out to make room for something new.
It is also nice to plant snap peas a couple different times in the spring to spread the harvest out longer. So if you are buying starts, plant one pot now, then plant another one in late April or so. With any luck you'll get a couple extra weeks of harvest.
Herbs are one of the easiest things to grow pest free, are expensive at the grocery stores and add amazing depth to anything you make. I secretly think eating lots of them makes me super healthy. I am convinced they will be the new "blueberries" (superfoods) of the future. I love herbs so much, I will do an entire post soon, devoted just to them.
For now, the best early spring ones to stick in your veggie beds:
This is easy to grow from seed, or just buy a start of it. You really just need one clump of 2-3 plants, whenever I use seed, I get way too many plants and have to pull most of the babies out and toss them in my salads.
Parsley I planted in late summer in Seattle often survived all winter and I could eat it from fall until summer when it went to seed. If you plant it in spring, it will go to seed in the summer. I prefer the taste and texture of flat Italian leaf parsley.
Cilantro & Arugula
Both of these are generally pest free, but need to be planted about every 3-4 weeks if you want to be able to keep eating them for an extended time. Both of them only stay tasty for a few weeks before they go to seed. (cilantro is tasty while flowering, but dies back once seed is made. Arugula is horrible when it grows up to flower) Definitely buy seeds for both of these.
I highly recommend seeding this in, it is so easy and delicious. Less peppery than Arugula, but with a more assertive flavor than sweet lettuce.
I would buy a pot of seeded onion starts or perhaps sets. I grew them once from seed too and that worked pretty well. You can harvest them young for green onions, or let them grow all summer and bulb.
Super duper easy, except that you have to hang it to dry if you want it to store all winter. Never get pests except for the occasional earwig hiding amongst the cloves. However, I do not recommend planting it now unless you are trying to grow "green garlic" (like green onions). It really needs to get in the ground by January.
Also, don't bother planting starts of garlic. And entire head at the farmers market (a good place to find varieties that grow well in your area) will cost a buck or so and will yield 6-10 garlic heads next year. (one head per clove)
I suggest finding a couple interesting varieties at the farmers market, then in October, plant all the biggest cloves. They will grow all winter and you harvest them in aprox. July. Garlic probably needs its own separate tutorial actually, but it is very foolproof once you get the hang of it.
RISKY ROOT VEGGIES
I put all the root vegetables in the medium category because they often get wormy. If you catch the worms (they are teeny and leave an obvious dark path through the veggie) early enough, you can just cut off the portions with the worm holes and eat the rest.
I'm not going to go through each root vegetable, but a few tips
- Eat root veggies small - the longer they are in the ground the wormier they will get. Baby carrots are delicious!
- Radishes are one of the fastest growing veggies around, good for avoiding worms and fun for kids to get quick gratification from planting seeds
- I don't get nearly as many worms in my potatoes (compared to carrots), but I know some people have problems with it.
- I've never actually grown beets, I'm just guessing they are a lot like carrots.
PESTY BUT WORTH IT
All the sweet salad greens
Two tips for getting the best harvest from your salad greens
1. Plant early, eat them young
2. Go on bug/slug patrol
You can start eating lettuce leaves when they are only a couple inches long. Harvest 1-2 leaves per plant and it should keep producing more leaves until it gets super hot & dry. I like to space my lettuces apart so they can actually grow to head size eventually (love the tender inner leaves), but some people just plant them densely and cut them to the ground when they are only 3 inches high for "baby salad mix". That works too and they should regrow 2-3 times using this method.
The best prevention I have found for pests is picking them off (slugs) or picking off infected leaves. As soon as I spot a leaf with aphids or white fly, I pick it off and throw it away. You can also spray the aphids off with a stream of water sometimes. The key is spotting the buggers before they proliferate to plague proportions. Once aphids get the upper hand, it is worth it to just pull the plant out so they don't spread to other plants.
This time of year you will see artichoke starts at the nursery. They are easy to grow, but take up a lot of room. Luckily, they look pretty cool as an ornamental plant and being related to the wild thistle, they don't require the same pampering as many other veggies.
Artichokes need a 3 ft sq space at least and will eventually get 6 feet tall then they are flowering. The part you eat is actually a flower bud, but if it gets buggy, as mine sometimes do, you can just let it go to flower and it is gorgeous.
Each plant will produce for 3-5 years, so pick a permanent spot in your yard for them.