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Yard to Table 101: Plant some cool season veggies now

Lettuce growing in a container on a patio table.
Photo: Carol Reed
I don’t know about you—but by the spring, I am hankering for my own fresh, homegrown vegetables!  That’s a summertime thing you say? As brief as spring can be in Minnesota and our region, you can still grow cool season crops with success. 

In fact, you know how warm the sun feels right now?  You can take advantage of it—even warm the soil up to get seeds and transplants off to a good start—we’ll tell you how in a just a bit.

This is Part 2 of our "Yard to Table" series of articles that will help you get growing—even if you’ve never planted seeds before!  You’ll find tips and resources here, and a place to ask your questions, too. That’s what we’re here for! 

What are cool season crops? 

When it comes to growing vegetables, these are crops that do well when the weather is still cool and spring-like, the soil is cool or sometimes will grow better when they’re partly shaded.  Many plants prefer certain soil temperatures and if conditions are right, they’ll germinate better and faster. 

Vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, peas, broccoli (gardeners in northeastern Minnesota can grow broccoli all summer long) and radishes make good cool-season crops. End of April is a good time to start most of these from seeds. 

I find broccoli, cabbage and brussel sprouts get a kickstart from transplants. If you haven’t started seeds for these—just pick up plants at your local garden center. 

But first things first…let’s talk about preparing the soil. 

Step #1: Prepare the soil for planting

If you read Part One of this article series, we told you about the importance of testing your soil.  In mid-April, there's still time to do that! 

Hopefully, you've planned where to put your garden and basically what you'd like to plant. (Again, see Part One for more info and resources.)  Converting a piece of ground from lawn, weed patch or grassland to a vegetable garden can be challenging. Read "how-to" information here.
Pots need to be cleaned before planting.
Photo: M. Grabowski, UMN Extension
If you're planting your veggie garden in containers, they should be cleaned and filled with good quality potting soil. Any container will work as long as it has drainage holes, can hold soil and won't disintegrate during the course of the growing season. 

Please note: garden soil is TOO heavy for use in a container. Potting soil is sanitized to reduce the chance of disease. Read How to Properly Clean Your Tools & Pots.

Back to gardening in your yard or a raised bed: don't prepare your soil for planting when it is too wet (soil sticks to your shoes) or too dry. Press a small amount of soil in your hand--does it crumble and break into small clumps? The moisture is just right for planting.

 Add compost for good growing!

So how about adding some compost? Here's why it's so good for your garden: 
  • Compost helps soil hold moisture and nutrients.
  • Improves drainage
  • Promotes healthy microbial activity in the soil which improves nutrient availability and uptake
  • Fosters strong, healthy plants resistant to disease and insects
  • Improves the soil structure (not too compacted, not too loose or sandy)
Want to start your own compost pile? Read more about Composting in Home Gardens here. 

Compost is available for sale typically at local nurseries and hardware stores--you can buy it in bags or if you plan to have a large garden and also need it for the rest of your home landscape, consider ordering in bulk. 

You'll want to buy enough to spread 1-3 inches of compost on the soil. 
  • For new planting areas, add 1 part compost to 2-3 parts soil and mix thoroughly.
  • For established beds, add ¼ inch – 1 inch compost per crop for vegetables.
Gently work the compost into the soil with a garden fork or gently spade it in. The goal is not to ruin the soil structure...but it's not good to leave it on top of the soil either. For example, compost supplies some nitrogen and if not worked into the soil, it will evaporate into the atmosphere. You want that nitrogen and organic matter in the soil, ready for your plants to access. 

The planting bed

Rake the planting area after working in the compost. A firm, fine bed is best, especially for planting by seed.

Mark the rows by stretching a string tightly across the area where you want a furrow or a trench. You can use the handle of a hoe or a shovel to mark out the row...but make sure it's flat and uniform so it won't cause the seedlings to emerge unevenly. 

Warming the soil with plastic covers

Some plants require warmer soils than what you might have currently. To find out about what general soil temperatures might be required, check out the individual vegetable pages with how-to-grow information. You can use something called soil-warming mulches (like black plastic). Read Extending the growing season: Start early, end later.

Step #2: Time to plant seeds!

Here's one of the most fun parts about gardening--putting those wonderful seeds into the soil that you've carefully prepared!

Follow the spacing guidelines on the seed packet, or check the Extension website to see individual vegetable pages with how-to-grow information.

Here are links to information about these cool-season crops: 
Let's take lettuce, for example. Plant the seeds 1/4-to-1/2 inch deep in rows 18 to 30 inches apart. The seeds can be planted as soon as the soil is workable. 

If you're planting in a container, scatter the seeds over the top and gently push into the soil--a pencil works well. Once they sprout, you can thin the plants so they are at least 4 inches apart. Loose leaf lettuce will take up less room than lettuce that grows on a stalk like romaine.

Read more about suitable containers, soils and more here for container growing tips.

It's worth your while to take the time to look up seed depth and spacing information and to follow it. If you plant seeds too deeply, the plant won't come up at all. If the seeds are too shallow, the plants won't produce healthy roots. If seeds are planted too close, they may be shaded out by other plants and become more prone to disease because of a lack of air circulation.

Not sure what to start with? Fast results with easy effort...

Want some fast results...with easy effort? I'd highly recommend trying your hand at growing lettuce, spinach or radishes. They are simple to sow, and you'll be eating them before you know it! Lettuce is also a great vegetable to start now--your crop will turn bitter if it gets too hot. So start now. 

Want to keep your crops going? Try a technique called succession planting--perfect for small spaces and for big hungry families!  This article will tell you how to maintain a consistent supply of produce throughout the planting more rows --(usually) every 7-21 days.


Be sure to take a good look at the Vegetable pages on our Extension website. 

And if you have any questions, just Ask Extension or go to our website: Yard and Garden and search for information. 

Next time...we'll tell you how to grow warm season crops like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and more.  Happy growing! 

Author: Gail Hudson, Yard & Garden News Editor - UMN Extension Communications


Gail Hudson has a Masters degree in Horticulture from the University of Minnesota. She is an award-winning writer and journalist. 

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