Green Butterhead lettuce

Spring is such a tease. This latest round of remarkably warm temperatures makes it feel like winter has vanished. And if you’re like me, you have plenty of bare soil in your vegetable garden just begging to be planted.

But we still have more than a month to go before the vernal equinox, and it’s way too early to put summer crops in the ground.

Instead, you can squeeze in a few more winter edibles — provided you pick ones that are quick to mature. Think leafy greens and root vegetables, which are programmed to produce fast. With warmer weather, they’ll kick into high gear, ready for harvest moments before it’s time to shift over to summer vegetables.

As for planting larger, cool-season growers like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, it’s probably too late. They take two to three months to mature. Plus, they form their best heads during cool weather. Heat makes their heads “bolt,” or flower and turn to seed too quickly. The odds are not good, this late in the season.

Leafy Greens

Red Leaf lettuce

The variety of wintertime lettuces probably rivals the variety of summertime tomatoes, which means that there’s a bewildering number from which to choose.

I select mine based on their general type:

• Butterhead lettuces form distinct heads.
• Romaine lettuces grow upright, with thick, crisp, generally green outer leaves, and crisp, white or yellow “hearts” within.
• Loose-leaf lettuces bear a succession of leaves, so you can continue to snip around the edges for several weeks, rather than harvest the entire head at once.

Then I mix and match the many colors and textures, which range from bright green to bronzy red, and from frilly and curly to bumpy, pleated or smooth.

Since time is of the essence, consider buying transplants at local nurseries. While seed may offer more variety, seedlings can shave off a couple of weeks until harvest.

California poppies and pink snapdragons intermingle with two Green Butterhead in the foreground; two Red Leaf; one Black Seeded Simpson; two Green Leaf and one Red Leaf in the background.

Either way, I like to buy mixes. There’s nothing worse than discovering that you don’t care for a particular green when 50 of the little guys have taken over your garden.

Leafy greens have shallow roots and will do just as well in a broad container as in the ground. Work in compost or other well-aged, organic material into the top 6 inches. The soil should be smooth, fine textured, sift easily between your fingers and smell fresh.

Good drainage is key, too. You’ll be keeping the soil moist, but not puddling wet.

If you sow seeds, lightly water the area first. Then follow the packet’s instructions for either sowing the seeds in narrow rows or broadcasting them across the bed. Cover the seeds with a quarter inch of finely textured soil or compost. Sprinkle the area with water again.

Continue gently irrigating to keep the top layer of soil moist until the seeds sprout, which should take 5 to 15 days. As the seedlings gain size, let the top half inch of soil dry out between watering, provided the leaves don’t wilt.

Watch for birds. That green haze of new sprouts is a beacon, and sparrows and other ravenous birds can move in so quickly that you might not realize that your seeds ever sprouted.

If you don’t see a single seedling within two weeks, start over. But this time, suspend bird netting over the bed and secure the edges to prevent intruders from sneaking in underneath. The netting will also ward against rabbits later on.

Black Seeded Simpson lettuce

Or sow your leafy greens in flats that you can more easily protect. Then transplant the seedlings after they have developed at least two sets of true leaves. Our avian friends tend to ignore plants of a certain size. However, if rabbits are an issue, you’ll need to protect your greens at all stages of life.

Even if you skip sowing and go straight to transplanting seedlings from pony-packs or 4-inch containers, you may still have to protect your crop from birds if the plants are still quite small.

Start harvesting your baby greens when they reach 2 to 5 inches tall or spread at least 6 to 8 inches across. I use kitchen scissors to cut cleanly at the base of each leaf of the loose-leaf lettuces, and even some of the Romaines. Snipping just the outer leaves encourages the plants to continue producing fresh growth at their centers and prolongs their lives.

However, I’ll pull out a complete plant to prevent overcrowding, or if the plant appears to be fading or elongating and getting ready to bolt.

Root Vegetables

Certain root crops are quick as well.

Beets, carrots, green onions, radishes and turnips all grow fast, with the first ready in 30 to 45 days.

Because they are root crops, these edibles don’t like to be transplanted. Instead, sow the seeds directly in the garden. All root crops require phenomenally loose, fertile soil to achieve their proper shapes underground. Prepare the soil at least a few inches below however deep you expect your roots — and their tails — to grow.

Keep the soil moist. Within a week to 10 days, you should see the first leaves poking through.

Again, protect the emerging seedlings against those pesky birds. As your seedlings continue to grow, thin the rows by harvesting every third plant, then every second plant, and tossing the fresh tops in soups or salads.

Pest Patrol for Leafy Greens

More fun: a Green Leaf on the lower left; a Black Seeded Simpson on the right; two Red Leaf; two Green Butterhead; one Red Salad Bowl and two Rubane Red Romaine.

All those tender, succulent, ruffly leaves that are so pleasing to the palate also provide endless nooks and crannies for snails, slugs and earwigs to munch and hide.

Avoid using any poison bait that can harm you or your pets.

Instead, hand-pick snails and slugs, or line the perimeter of the bed with sharp gravel that will shred their soft bodies as they try to cross it. Some folks swear by setting out shallow pans of beer or rinds of squeezed oranges. I use Sluggo. It’s composed of iron phosphate granules that cause snails and slugs to stop eating, then die. Yet it’s not toxic to wildlife, pets or people.

As for earwigs, generally I just soak the greens and the earwigs crawl out.

Or you can set out used cardboard paper towel rolls in the garden. A surprising number of earwigs may obediently crawl inside the dark spaces. You can then shake out the bugs into a trash can or bucket of soapy water.

Seeds of Wisdom

Leafy greens and root crops need at least 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight a day. Keep the soil moist. With temperatures warming up, you may need to water every few days or even daily, especially until the plants have produced enough leaves to shade their own roots.

Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

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