Kentucky’s relatively mild winter is like a tease to many gardeners. And fortunately, it’s not too early to start thinking about digging and planting.
Mid- to late March — when air temperatures typically hover in the 30s and 40s — is the time to sow seed for delicious salad greens: lettuces, kale, collards, arugula and spinach.
“Greens prefer cool temperatures,” said Jamie Dockery, extension agent for horticulture education at the Fayette County Cooperative Extension Service.
The gardening industry does a disservice to these cool-season crops by offering lettuce and kale plants for sale in May and June, he said.
“You’re not going to be successful growing them in warm weather. By the first of June, these things are all through,” he said.
The challenge to planting this time of year can be more with the gardener than the garden. “You’ve got to be in a gardening frame of mind, often before the weather really feels like gardening mode,” Dockery said, and it’s best to wait for a sunny couple of days to let the soil dry out enough so you can work it.
“If you work our clay work soil when it’s wet and gunky, you ruin the soil tilth and texture ’til the next growing season,” Dockery said.
“You flip the soil, and you get balls and clods of clay. They dry out and become like rocks. And the only thing that will turn that rock back into good, loose, friable soil is a whole winter’s worth of freeze and thaw that shatters it and breaks it up.”
Growing in raised beds presents less of a problem because the beds have better drainage and people usually have amended the soil so it isn’t heavy clay, he said. Dockery tries to prep some of his beds in late fall or early winter by turning the soil and covering it with mulch.
“That’s ideal, but it does require some forward thinking,” he said. “Starting about now, gardeners will be looking for that golden moment when it stops raining and you can get out there.”
Greens aren’t deep-rooted, so you don’t have to turn the ground six inches deep. “It’s just a matter of getting enough of the surface scratched up to receive the seed,” Dockery said.
Either plant in rows six inches apart, or broadcast the seed. Cover lightly with soil and tamp it down for good seed-soil contact. Water lightly. Thin as the plants begin to grow and enjoy the young plants in your salad bowl.
“You don’t need an acre to keep you in greens,” Dockery said. “If you have a three-by-three-foot plot, that’s a lot of lettuce and greens. And as you cut them, and they come back again, so you’ve got ongoing supply.”
Other growing options are large pots and half whiskey barrels. And, don’t worry, wherever spring greens are planted, they are some of the easiest things you can grow.
“It’s hard to get them wrong,” Dockery said. “The easiest of all is leaf lettuce. It’s almost a no-brainer. Arugula is out of the ground in two days. All types of kale are great for salads. As it gets a little more mature, you can cook it.
“Spinach is easier to grow in the spring than in the fall. It’s extremely winter hardy. If it gets really cold, it just grows a little slower.”
Some gardeners even push the limit and plant greens in early March, but it’s a risk, said Aaron German, a staff member at the organic farming unit at the University of Kentucky Horticulture Research Farm on Man o’ War Boulevard.
“(Some gardeners) like to take a chance,” he said. “So the plants might sometimes get zapped (by the cold temperatures). Is it going to bother you that you spent an hour of your time and two bucks for seed?”
“Look at the trade-off,” he said. “You were outside in the fresh air and working in your garden.”
The extension service is offering classes in growing several early-spring vegetables, including salad greens, potatoes, onions and leeks.
Also scheduled are two early-springvegetable gardening classes for beginners. For details on the complete list of gardening classes, go to the extension service website. Many classes have limited space. Call first to see if space is available.
Contact Beverly Fortune at email@example.com or 859-948-7846.