I have been gardening since I was five. My father encouraged me to grow beets in his vegetable garden, and I remember pulling the purple roots from the row I tended. While I despised beets back then, a seed took root deep down within me that grew into my life’s passion. For those who know me today, it comes as no surprise that the mission of Jack’s Vegetable Garden (at Maymont where I work) is to teach families how to grow their own healthy vegetables.
Spring is here, and families are eager to get outside and get growing. Moderate daytime temperatures are perfect for working the soil and planting. However, cooler nights also keep the soil temperature cool, and some seeds need warmer soil to germinate and grow. To keep young minds engaged in the garden in early spring, I recommend sowing seeds of quick-germinating plants such as radishes and leaf lettuce. Thriving in cool soil and cool temperatures, radishes germinate quickly and mature to harvest in just twenty-seven days if the small seeds are sown two inches apart in a row. Leaf lettuce is ready to harvest when the young leaves are plentiful and just barely three inches long. Small hands can deftly pinch off the young leaves while not pulling the whole plant, so the plant can continue to produce until early summer. Later in the summer, warm weather causes lettuce plants to bolt into bloom and the leaves become sappy and bitter to the taste.
Once the lone radish crop is harvested, plant bush beans in the same row. Kids are fascinated as they watch the seedlings emerge from the soil, and those changing plants continue to keep a young gardener’s attention. The quick-growing plants are soon blooming, followed by thin, small bean pods that grow longer each day. Harvest when they’re just a few inches long and still tender, before the bean fully forms within and gets tough. You can plant bean seeds up to mid-August to fill empty spaces in the garden or container.
Root crops such as beets and carrots are different. While their green tops can be thinned as they grow and enjoyed as micro greens, little ones might also enjoy poking around the soil surface and observing how the root grows wider underneath. When it’s time to harvest, everyone has fun discovering what the roots really looks like as they are pulled from the ground. For root crops, the key is to sow the seeds three inches apart and carefully thin seedlings to a single plant per spot so the roots can form properly.
In early May, it’s time to plant peppers and tomatoes in the garden. Native to warmer climates, these plants need warm soil and warm nights to thrive. Exposure to temperatures below fifty degrees will stunt their growth and cause blossoms to drop and a delay in the first crop of the season. While these plants grow quickly, it may take up to sixty days until the first fruits are harvested. Yes, botanically these are classified as fruits.
For abundant harvests, plants need nutrients and ample soil moisture. Contact your local garden center to learn where your soil can be tested and follow the instructions on the test results to ensure the soil has the proper nutrients. To reduce weeds and increase soil moisture, add a thin layer of straw or leaf mulch to your garden after you sow seeds or plant seedlings. If you’re gardening in containers, apply fertilizer according to the label because constant watering leaches away some of the soil nutrients.
The key to a successful family garden is choosing the right vegetables to grow and knowing when to plant and when to harvest. Starting with a small number of plants this spring will increase your success rate, and just maybe, a future horticulturist or plant scientist will be inspired. To learn more about what to plant and when to plant it, I recommend Virginia State University’s easy-to-follow planting calendar at agriculture.vsu.edu.