It's time to start planting the garden, if you haven't already. There are lots of cold, hardy plants that can be planted right now. Let's talk about a few. Peas, lettuce, onions and the cabbage family can withstand this fickle spring weather. Prepare your garden plot. Fertile, deep, well-drained soil is best for most garden crops. If you have heavy clay soil, try loosening it by adding generous amounts of humus each year. (Humus is organic matter that has gone through the composting process and is in an advanced stage of decay.) Over time you'll develop the dark, rich, easy-to-work soil gardeners crave, but don't be impatient. Soil structure is slow to change.
The cabbage family is a group of closely related vegetables that include cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale, collards, broccoli and kohlrabi. Being extremely frost tolerant, they are valuable for extending the gardening season into the fall and starting the growing season in the spring. Cabbage as we know it developed from leafy, non-heading forms growing wild in Europe. It wasn't until the early 1500s that hard-headed types were recorded. Try planting two or more varieties of cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage with differing maturity dates to extend your harvest from a week or so to more than a month.
As a group, the cabbage family ranks high in nutritional value, with some members now being touted as cancer cures. These vegetables can be used fresh or cooked. Cauliflower is suitable for freezing, canning or pickling. Broccoli and brussels sprouts are also excellent for freezing. Cabbage, when kept cool and moist, will store for several weeks after harvest and can be preserved as sauerkraut.
These crops will grow in a wide range of soils and develop rapidly. For best quality, make sure adequate soil moisture is provided throughout their growing season. Light irrigation should start at transplanting or seeding and the amount of water gradually increased as the plants grow and the weather warms up until about one to one-and-a-half inches of water is applied weekly.
The garden pea is another lover of cold temps. It's a legume, one of those amazing plants that have the ability to fix its own nitrogen using special structures on the roots called nodules. For this reason, legumes are not fertilized with nitrogen; only phosphorus and potassium are needed. The pea came from Middle Asia, the Near East and Ethiopia. Peas like cool weather. The low growing varieties can be grown without staking and are therefore the easiest to handle. The tall, twining types will need a support of chicken wire or a trellis of some sort.
Garden peas differ in taste from edible-pod sugar peas or snow peas. While garden peas are allowed to mature in the pod, sugar peas are harvested when very young before the peas start to form so that the pod can be eaten. If you miss this stage of development, the peas can be shelled and eaten but the pods will be too tough.
For the greatest yield on garden peas, repeated pickings (taking only the plump lower pods from the plant) is best. Shell and rinse garden peas in cool water as soon as possible after picking and refrigerate for later use. Peas grown in the garden taste a million times better than the ones you remember as kid coming from tin cans.
Onion and its pungent relatives have been highly regarded as the king of vegetables since antiquity. It's said that without onions, there would be no gastronomic art. Onions were fed to the pyramid builders and the conquering armies of Alexander the Great. Emperor Nero munched leeks so often to clear his throat that he earned the nickname "Leek Throat." Gen. Grant thought so highly of onions as a staple ration for his troops that he wrote in a dispatch to the war department: "I will not move my armies without onions."
The nature of the onion is to grow tops in cool weather and form bulbs in warm weather. The timing of the bulb formation is actually controlled by both temperature and day length. Most varieties grown in the north require 14 to 16 hours of daylight. Onions are heavy feeders that need plenty of fertility. Work humus and fertilizer into the soil before planting. A 5 to 10 to 10 or similar fertilizer will do; follow label instructions carefully as to amount to use. With onions, a constant supply of moisture is essential. It is especially important during bulb enlargement. Onions intended for storage are harvested when the tops yellow and fall over. Green onions can be picked at any time.
Leaf lettuce is native to both the Mediterranean and the Near East. More than 2,500 years ago, it was cultivated in the royal gardens of Persian kings. Head lettuce began appearing in the 15th century. Few people realize that lettuce seeds were among the items carried by Columbus to the New World and were supposedly one of the first plants sown by American colonists.
It's said that the mark of a successful veggie gardener, is the ability to harvest all his or her own salad makings: tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, snow peas, broccoli and at least three kinds of lettuce. Lettuce needs cool weather. When the days get longer and the nights warmer, the plant is encouraged to flower-a stage called bolting, which is not desirable. You can extend the harvest of your lettuce by planting it in partial shade to reduce the risk of bolting.
Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho extension office in Ada County. Send gardening questions and comments to Suzann, c/o Boise Weekly or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.