March 24, 2020


When I look at our storeroom in the cellar (cork-lined and full of canned goods that my mother who would have been 100 this year) I am reminded about all of the hard work and purposeful growing that happened around here in the 1940's.  Will we need to do that again? I think not, but a productive vegetable garden this year (and maybe next year) might be a good idea to relieve the food pressures in our country and for our own health. With a cellar still full of potatoes and winter squash, I feel a little more secure.

Our grandparents had their Victory Gardens, our parents may have had their Oil Crisis Gardens in the 70's. and us? Well. Clearly, we do want to limit how often we go to the market, and while any excuse to eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese or Spam for a while, the time will come when we start craving something fresh and even though that green Romaine lettuce at the weekly market trip may look appealing, I don't know about you, but it's not like Romaine has a good track record for carrying diseases lately! Good news is that now in most northern climates, one can start a garden and grow your own.

Historically preserving food raised at home or picked at local farms wasn't unusual at all. It served a real purpose. I'm pretty sure that this woman wasn't accused of hoarding or even became upset when her local market ran short of strawberries or frozen peas. Her larder is well stocked. 

I live in Zone 5b in central Massachusetts, and while our frost-free date is closer towards the end of May, I know that there are many cold-tolerant crops can be started now like lettuce, mesclun mixes and some root crops (but not broccoli or cabbage, more on that later). Here are some crops I am planting now, and others that are in the wings waiting for the weather to comply. Most of you know your local climates better and can adjust planting schedules to meet your own needs.

Spring is regional, but aside from deep winter, something can be started no matter where you live and garden. In the Southern Hemisphere you could be planting fall crops and in mild-winter climates, winter crops. If you live in an apartment or don't have land, a fire escape or wide, bright window sill can let you grow mesclun, greens or some green onions, a rooftop terrace and you have lots of opportunities. A deck or a balcony too can hold pots - especially nice for miniature vegetables or a few tomato plants and herbs.

For the purpose of this post though, I am focusing on back yard gardens, whether it be a new one that you are digging up and planting in a few weeks or an expansion of an existing one. I think it's safe to assume that most of us are re-evaluating what we are growing over the next year, so I wanted to share some of my thoughts on what you might think about growing, and why.

It seems every generation that faced a challenge had it's version of a victory garden, it's now time for us to define what our generation will do.


1. Choose the most productive crops given your square footage. 
Make every square foot earn its way. This means crops like spinach or peas that you shell may not make the most sense if you have only a few raised beds. Instead plant crops that you can pick quickly, and provide enough food for at least a few meals, and think about space over the long-term. For example, an 8-10 bed of spinach is wasteful when it comes to space use. It will produce as much spinach as that found in a $5.00 box found at a store (if it is harvested as baby spinach).

WWII Victory Gardens were large wth 30 - 60 foot long rows - the intention was to fill the storeroom with food that could save money and feed the family. While every war-time generation had their version of what a Victory garden was, today's world is different and while we may not need to live completely off of our gardens, in times like these we may need it to serve a greater purpose than just providing us with fresh heirloom tomatoes and cut flowers.

However, if it is planted with the old-fashioned larger growing spinach that we rarely see in stores anymore - the 'Bloomsdale' types (those with crinkled leaves and crunchy stems) space will go a bit further, but again, know that one raise bed may only produce two or three meals (one meal, at our house). Think of spinach as a 100 sq foot crop (10' x 10') or a 30-foot long row. Let it mature, be sure to lime the soil well when you sow it, and yes, you can sow it now. Some crops are fun to grow when a weekly trip to the supermarket is the norm, but this year, thing is different and it might make more sense to focus on crops that are worth growing that fill the fridge, the storeroom or ones plate and not just a fun project. As such, artichokes are out for me for 6 buds per bed isn't worth space.

Elevated beds, or even raised beds allow one to plant crops out in a grid. Often called Square Foot Gardening or French Intensive Method, it works well as it allows one to maximize space and harvest. Lettuce like these growing in a cedar raised bed means that 12 heads can fit into a space no larger than a laundry basket.

Using space wisely isn't a bad practice right now. When these cabbage plants mature the swiss chard has been harvested. Rows of cabbage were planted along with all of the lettuce and cabbage as it could be harvested in 28 days.

2. Plan like you would shop - Crop Succession is key as in interplanting. No one needs 12 heads of lettuce at one time so conserve how much seed you sow, and save some for later with those crops that mature quickly. SA dozen or sow lettuce seeds of a few varieties also will give you a variety to choose from. Be sure to order seed now of a number of varieties for those quick-maturing crops like lettuce, white and purple-top turnips, cilantro and kohlrabi that you can sow now, and then sow again every few weeks to ensure a constant supply into early summer.

Baby lettuce and cabbage grown together with little stress on this grid matrix planting. The lettuce gets pulled out every day providing salad greens in the kitchen and not interfering with this cabbage which is a fast-growing early type. Late cabbage or storage cabbage goes in later, in late June.

3. Plant smart - This is the time to rely less on myths and more on facts. Make every square inch valuable because you are growing food to live on so skip the marigolds and companion plantings (it's proven not to work anyway) and grow crops that maximize space and harvest. Use the space between cabbage for productive crops that mature before other crops do -- like dill, radishes, or onion sets and cilantro. This past weekend I planted rows of snap peas that are 36 inches apart, but between those, I plant three rows - one with cilantro, another wth Swiss Chard that I will harvest as baby chard, and the other with spinach which I to will harvest early.

White Tokyo turnips are a quick crop for both very early spring, or even better in late summer for harvest in October and November in our garden. 

4. Order seeds now for the whole summer. and autumn. Many seed companies are overloaded right now. I can't order from Baker Creek until 4:00 PM Monday because their website has been down for 4 days. So plan and order now. I am also avoiding many so-called heirloom varieties opting for newer strains or f1 hybrids. Right now, it's all about vigor and disease resistance. This is generalizing, but for crops that are notoriously susceptible to diseases like tomatoes and cabbage, I am taking no chances because I need reliable crops. I love Romana Costata summer squash but it is a space hog and produces just a few squashes at a time. Instead, I am planting a new hybrid probably from Johnny's Seeds. I need to be overloaded.

Obviously, support your local nursery or garden centers, but who knows what our situation will look like a month from now? It's easy (and frankly, better) to start your own brassica seedlings at home, outdoors in full sun but in cells or individual pots. Sow later than you think you should (biggest amateur mistake s to think of these as 'cool weather' crop. They aren't. Cabbage and all relatives germinate best at 85° and grow best if set out after the first spring flight of the Cabbage Root Maggot Fly which for us is around May 1. Full sun outdoors also ensures stocky plants.

5. Start lots of Summer Crops in Pots Outside - Science has proven that the best light for all seedlings is the direct sun, and any seedling that you start under lights indoors will be inferior to those you start out on a deck or porch in direct sun. Even tomatoes sown the first week of June outdoors will outperform those you started in April under lights. This is especially true with brassicas. First, you can get stronger, healthier seedlings of cabbage, broccoli and brussels sprouts if you start them the first week of June in cells set out on your deck or terrace, but also you can avoid the worst effects of the Cabbage Root Maggot Fly, which has it's largest flight (hatch) usually in late April - late May, depending where you live). Just keep an eye out for cabbage butterfly larvae.

Many crops can and should be started in reusable pots on your deck or outside anywhere in late May or June. Germination is quicker than in soil, and you can keep an eye on their progress. Just be sure to sow one or two seeds per pot and to not disturb the root ball when transplanting. Try this with melon, cucumbers and squashes. I great way to get a few weeks jump on lima beans and pole beans too.

Early cabbage is very useful, and perhaps the most flavorful of all cabbage - what's interesting about it is that early cabbage is rarely found at supermarkets and most people haven't even tasted it before. It's one of the best veggies for early crops. COne headed varieties are classic like 'Caraflex' which is quick maturing, super sweet and as crispy as iceberg lettuce. Try it raw or in stirfries. It's also a space saver and is out of the garden by the Fourth of July so you can plant beans or summer squash.

Kale is always better as a late summer and fall crop, but in these troubled times early sowing in pots then set outdoors will give you a smaller yet welcome harvest by June. Buy enough seed for late summer sowing too.

Peas are great but only grow them if you have the room to plant 30-60 foot lon rows of them. Otherwise, they can be a waste of space and effort. Buy seed by the pound like our grandparents did, and remember that you have to shell and process all of those pods! I always forget that!

7. Green Peas - We all love the flavor of garden-fresh peas, but only grow them if you have the room to plant lots and lots of them. I mean - the peas that you shell, not snap peas or snow peas - those two are worth growing. Three 30 foot rows may only get you three buckets of peas that you will have to then shell, often not worth the effort and space, (if it's supposed to keep you out of the frozen food aisle at the supermarket). Save peas as a luxury item for non-viral years. Instead, plant more productive crops like edible-podded peas (snap peas or snow peas) which sown now, will produce in June and are very productive.

That said, if you have the room (and the labor -i.e.: kids) then do plant long rows of shelling peas!

If you have the room, do plant long rows of peas now - in late March, for there is nothing like the flavor of fresh peas. Just note that the crop is easy to grow but harvesting and shelling can take it's toll if you are growing enough to both feed a family and to freeze. As kids we used to dread pea harvest day for it meant back-breaking work picking for a day and an entire night of shelling peas - only to get one half of a bucket bowl full of shelled peas (or 7 bags from the freezer section).

This is not the time to casually play with growing food. It is a great time to teach children about good planning, agriculture and our food systems. A dozen pea plants are useless if you are planning to live off of your garden. Grow smart. Gardening isn't a craft project, it's science and food. Sow seriously and sow smart. So smart.

Snap or snow peas or any edible-podded pea provides more band for the buck than shell peas. Older varieties can grow very tall though so note the overall height first to make sure you have the room or supports. The foliage on these peas (the entire new shoot) is deliciously stir-fried - so much so that most of the peas we grow in our garden are harvested at 10 inches tall for spring greens.

8. Pea Greens - Peas also are good for pea greens, which may be the first crop you can pick in three or four weeks if you sow now. Snow peas seem to produce the largest leaves. So in thick bands (8" wide) and as long as you want. Cut when greens produce open leaves and are about 6-10" high. Stir-fried in oil with garlic, or a few tablespoons of chicken stock with a 1/4 tsp of corn or tapioca starch, and you could have a quick and delicious fresh green that tastes just like green peas. It's a favorite around here. Just be sure not to order pea varieties touted as good for tendrils. Those are rather useless, in my opinion.

True cold-weather crops like Broad Bean or Fava Beans can be started under lights, or like these that I started in my greenhouse. They too can be sown directly in the ground and are a great project for kids as the seeds are large, and like many kids, being a part of how they grow will make it more likely that they will eat them too.

9. Broad Beans or Fava Beans are surprisingly productive if you have the room. Again, if you have raised beds, perhaps skip them, but if you have a more conventional veg garden, like a 30' by 12-foot plot, broad beans planted out in a few rows will mature by June and each pod produces a handful of large beans that once cooked, rival that of green sweet peas. Last year, four short 8 foot rows gave us enough bean to both eat two or three times fresh, and 8 bags to freeze.

Broad beans or fava beans are less known in America but pod for pod they produce more edible bits that English peas.

Mesclun or baby lettuce can be raised most anywhere, even on a deck or a fire escape in window boxes. These I sowed in rows in an old wooden flat which does sit in the greenhouse but can be moved outdoors on days when temps are above freezing. A quick crop, one can harvest most mesclun mixes in just 30-40 days.

10. Grow Mesclun Everywhere - Order larger packets of all greens to make a jar of your own mesclun mix. This will save money and allow you to sow successive crops every week and a half. I mix myself using larger packets of many lettuces, mustards, cress and arugula that I keep in a jar. The larger packets you purchase of individual seed, the greater the cost savings. Buy seed in bulk.

If you live in an appt order various brassicas (broccoli, red cabbage, cress, kohlrabi and arugula( which you can mix all together in a jar) and then start a square foot or two in a seed tray or even on a plate of et paper towels for microgreens. This mix along with a mesclun mix like above can also be sown in window boxes, or in any recyclable container that you can put out on a ledge. It's still cold out but I am starting mesclun mix in all of my pots out on the deck that I have topped-off with a few inches of fresh potting soil.

11. Early Beans are Purple and more cold tolerant - t's true, purple string beans are more cold tollerant than yellow or green. Plant a tower or three in a few weeks, depending on where you live. Start early in 6 packs or three seeds in a 4 inch pot indoors to get a jump.

Beets are productive both for the roots and for their greens.

12. Plant Onion sets - Forget about what I said before because we arent growing onion sets for onions, we are growing them for their greens. It's true, sets are  useless for onions, but great for quick green onions. The same goes for those sprouting onions in your onion basket on the counter - I never encourage this in normal years, but if you want greens in a few weeks, plant them.  Mom was rght about these.

13. But....Sow Green Onion Seed NOW  for the best green onions ever. (It will just take time ), but do it. I have found that green onion seed is one of the most economical crops to grow - especially if you are like me and buy green onions every week at the supermarket. They make sense to grow because one sowing in early spring will produce all summer. Plus, the quality is superior to any green onions one will find at a supermarket. Crispier, better varieties and more flavorful. The downside is that it is a slow grower - still, sow it now. Sow green onions in rich soil (it cant have enough nitrogen! I use composted manure but don't be afraid to use the blue, water-soluble fertilizer as right now - we are all desperate and need food of the highest quality.).

Potatoes are a long-season crop that can and should be sown now. They make good use of space, but can also be planted in places perhaps where you don't garden - like along a fence or even in a garbage can (Google it!). Potatoes are one of the most productive crops and aside for having plenty of uses, are good to store,  not to mention that they taste so much better straight from the garden like tomatoes do. You can even sneak a few out early if you are lucky!

14 Don't forget about Long-Season Dependable Crops - Outdoors, in your raised beds try sowing crops that can stay in the ground a bit longer such as onion sets, cabbage, kale, and mustard greens won't need to be sown as often. If you have mesclun mixes sown, try using a trowel to select out a few mustard plants and plant them in a row or grid elsewhere so that they can grow larger. Mixes that are cress and arugula-heavy or sown too thickly will bloom faster, but mustards (both frilly and large red or green-leaved varieties) can be transplanted elsewhere and will grow into large, productive plants in a few more weeks.

Winter storage squashes are one of the most productive crops any of us can grow. If it wasnt for storage squashes, many in the north wouldnt have survived the winter. This Blue Hubbard can produce dozens of dishes, roasted squash, soups and in pies.

Aside from herbs, for those of you who have rhubarb, isn't it amazing how once we don't have (or trust) fresh fruit from the store, how welcome fresh rhubarb suddenly is? I'm not exactly comfortable buying strawberries or blueberries right now, unless I am cooking them (one sneeze!). But rhubarb from my garden in late April is so welcome! I now know how early Americans felt when they would get this first 'fruit' out of the garden.

15. Fruit? If you arent that trustful about fresh strawberries or apples at the market, remind yourself about an old favorite - Rhubarb. In crisps and pies, rhubarb is just going to seem so amazing in a few weeks! I can't wait, and now I can understand why it was so valued by northern gardeners a century or more ago when their storage fruit like mealy apples were running short. In a time before air travel and even trains, rhubarb did indeed bring us the first fruit of the season. I get it now.
Can you taste it?

My own parsley seedlings are at the perfect size for late March. Parsley must be set out at a small size if you dont want it to bolt. It must also never be exposed to cold or near freezing temperatures if it is any larger than this, or it too will bolt - the key reason why so many parsley plants that we find at garden centers that sat out with the pansies eventually bolt by July.

16. Plant Herbs that you buy fresh every week -  Think about herbs that provide health benefits like parsley and add fresh flavors to dishes like dill and cilantro. Remember that parsley seed or very, tiny plants of parsley will be your best choice as larger plants (with more than 4 pairs of leaves) will bolt by early summer. Parsley will bloom too early if plants are exposed to cold weather (above 45 deg) as it will think that it has passed through a winter. This exposure won't hard true seedlings if they are young enough, but most commercial sources of plants sell parsley that was started in autumn or winter. Also, never buy cilantro plants, you can grow a crop quickly in three weeks from seed.

As for cilantro that is growing in a pot at the nursery it just going to bloom and go to seed in a few weeks, and isn't worth the price if you are going to use it in a few weeks. So cilantro now (it prefers cool weather and will go to seed and get too soapy if the weather turns hot). Also, sow it every 2 weeks in 30" bands, or in pots set out on your deck. It's like a mesclun mix - an in-and-out crop that can be ready to harvest within a month.

Basil can wait, as it truly needs warmth (here in Zone 5 I sow seed indoors in Mid April, and plant out in early June. If you are in California or the south, go for it!



Pea greens
Broad Beans
Spring Turnips
Mustard Greens
Swiss Chard
Snap Peas and Snow Peas
Onion Sets

CROPS FOR Late Spring/ Early Summer

Purple String Beans
Early Cabbage
Tuscan Kale
Mustard Greens

Long Season Warm-Weather Crops to Mature later and are highly productive (storage too)

Potatoes (Plant now!) Do not lime soil, as they prefer acidic soil. Plant as many as you can.
Root Crops like Carrots and Parsnips sow now
Late root crops like Rutabaga, sow later in July for late fall storage.
Winter Squashes - any and all, from acorn to Blue Hubbard and perhaps the most economical - the Butternut types. Believe me, you will want to stock up on storage squash next fall and winter if they don't find a cure until next spring. Our great grandparents knew about the value of storage squash and potatoes. It may be time to rediscover their immense value.

Summer Standbys to ORDER SEED FOR NOW (To Freeze, eat fresh, pickle or preserve)

String Beans
Peppers and Chili's
Summer Squash

Productive herbs
Longer-season (plant once)
Rosemary plants or cuttings

Sow bi-weekly

Sow Monthly
Dill for greens
Dill for seedheads (for pickles)

ORDER SEED NOW FOR  AUTUMN CROPS that are Productive (in late July/early-mid August)

Napa Cabbage
All turnips
All Asian radishes like Daikon


  1. My #1 rule is grow things I like to eat. It's easy to forget in the excitement of the seed catalogue and reading about some new wonder vegetable but most years I plant too many things that in retrospect I would never like much and it's a waste of effort and space.

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  3. Excellent post Matt. It's funny. I wrote about almost the same thing on my blog yesterday, but I made it about a summer garden because that's what folks in Oklahoma would need to be thinking about now. My lettuce are growing a mile a minute because we had a few days of really cool weather. My sweet podded pea and snow peas are going gangbusters along with the radishes. I forgot to grow onions Oops! I don't know why. I just did. Probably too late now. I also ordered a peach subscription from a farm in Georgia that ships them. Late freezes mean no Oklahoma peaches. I think food security is on everyone's mind right now. Hugs from Oklahoma.~~Dee

  4. These are great tips for beginners -- I'm glad you're among the folks setting out realistic and detailed directions for new vegetable gardeners who might otherwise drown in a sea of pinterest nonsense.

    One thing, though -- while I know some of their varieties are very hard to find elsewhere, I hope you won't order from Baker Creek in the future. Unfortunately, they have a history of promoting the Bundy family and other "land rights" terrorists in the West.

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