On Your Mark, Get Set, Grow: A Guide To Speedy Vegetables
Yes, it is true that gardening requires patience.
But face it, we live in an impatient world. And gardeners everywhere were depressed by the brutal and endless winter. (True story: The polar vortex killed my fall kale crop!)
So we are understandably eager to get sowing. And to see results by ... well, if not next Thursday, then maybe mid-May?
There are two ways to make this happen. Some garden varieties naturally have a short germinate-to-harvest cycle. Then there are the hybrids developed at universities and seed companies. They take two plants with great traits (like early arrival or cold tolerance) and forge an even hardier offspring.
For guidance on the world of speedy plot-to-table vegetables, we turned to Ryan Schmitt, a horticulturist and garden blogger in Longmont, Colo., and Weston Miller, a community and urban horticulturist for the Oregon State University Extension Service.
"Start with microgreens," suggests Schmitt. These are the tiny leaves less than 14 days old that some scientists believe pack a more nutritious punch than more mature greens. Pea shoots, sunflowers and beet greens are popular options. Sow seeds — which can be regular seeds, or designated microgreen seeds — in a sunny outdoor spot when the soil temperature is in the 50- to 65-degree range, or do it indoors in a tray with potting soil.
Sprouts should appear in three to six days. After a few more days, trim the microgreens with a scissors and consume. To give the plants "a little extra boost" after that first harvest, Miller adds a water soluble fertilizer, like fish emulsion. Then you should get two or three cuttings before the greens become too bitter or fibrous.
Arugula is another brisk green, capable of morphing from seed to salad in three weeks. To protect seedlings for this or any plant from an unexpected spring chill, Schmitt covers them with black plastic or an overturned black container from a previous nursery purchase, checking daily for signs of germination.
Mustard greens are nearly as fast as arugula; Miller suggests the Osaka purple variety, which takes 30 days to yield spicy, salad-worthy leaves.
Radishes are "super-, superfast" to grow, Schmitt adds. "Cherry Belle is about 25 days."
Sprouting broccoli wins his endorsement as well: 10 days to germinate, at which point a little head starts to grow. In about 50 to 60 days — pretty fast for broccoli — the head reaches 2 1/2 to 3 inches across. Cut it off and side shoots will emerge to form "copious side shoots" the rest of the summer.
Faster Than Normal
Sadly for gardeners chafing for a taste of homegrown tomato in the spring, the 30-day tomato does not exist. But you can shave days, even weeks, off the 70- to 90-day wait for fruit.
The appropriately named Glacier tomato is cold tolerant, Schmitt says. It'll set fruit when temperatures are only in the 60s. "But if you get a frost," he warns, "game over." If all goes well, you'll have 2- to 4-inch tomatoes in 55 days — and a steady supply late into the season.
Sun Gold tomatoes are equally fast. The bite-size, orange fruits are ready to pick 57 days after a seedling is transplanted, notes Miller, and "it just keeps kicking out the tomatoes."
To bolster your early-bird homegrown salad, try the hybrid Yaya carrot. It's "very tasty and going to mature in about 56 days," Miller says. By contrast, a typical carrot takes 75 days.
Superslow ... Or Ahead Of The Game?
Maybe the best strategy for an early spring crop is to sow a year in advance. The knobby and nutty-tasting tuber known as the Jerusalem artichoke, or sunchoke, is sold in farmers markets and some grocery stores right around now.
You can roast 'em, saute 'em, or toss 'em into rich soil warmed by eight hours of daily sunlight. It doesn't even matter if the tubers are horizontal or vertical. But location and sufficient space are important. "Put them where you want them to spread and persist," says Miller, since the plant is a perennial.
Sunflowers will grow from the tubers, eating up the starchy root in the process. In the fall the plant makes new tubers. Dig them up all winter, leaving a few behind for the next cycle.
And in spring 2015, when other gardeners are just starting out, you'll still be dining on freshly harvested Jerusalem artichokes.