Cool-season crops a good retort to a stubborn winter

Erin Schanen

It took a late March snowstorm to make me realize that I’m already late on some of my vegetable crops.

Driven inside by another branch-breaking snowfall, I shuffled through my seed stash and came across a collection of Salanova lettuce seeds and sowed a tray of six different varieties. These small heading lettuces do best for me from small transplants, but I’d completely forgotten about starting some inside, something I could have done two or more weeks ago.

It’s hard for me to wrap my brain around starting vegetables when my raised beds are still blocks of ice, but savvy gardeners don’t get distracted by bad weather. Instead they find ways to extend the harvest regardless of what Mother Nature may throw at us.

Take, for example, the beautiful spinach that is currently growing at a plot at the Washington County Community Garden. Gardener Vicky Hopp shared a photo of it last week and will probably be eating a tasty spinach salad in just a matter of weeks.

That spinach was sown last August, and Hopp reported that she started harvesting leaves from the outside of plants in early October. In mid-November, she watered the spinach one last time and covered it with lightweight frost cloth, securing the edges with bricks.

When she checked on it last week, it had started to put on new growth. Hopp said she’ll keep the cover on until mid-April.

Spinach loves cool weather, and if you wait until you’re planting many other vegetables it will probably be too warm for it by harvest time, so Hopp’s method is not only a way to maximize garden space, it’s also likely to be more successful than other methods.

Employing row covers, mini hoop houses or cold frames are all excellent ways to outsmart Wisconsin weather and be a bit smug about harvesting vegetables when your gardening friends are just planting them, but there are other solutions as well.

Ozaukee Master Gardeners President Mary Reilly-Kliss has a simple method for growing a looseleaf lettuce called Merlot. Dark burgundy leaves make this lettuce beautiful in the garden and in salads, and Reilly-Kliss reports it is delicious as well.

Rather than futz with starting seeds inside or direct sowing, she allows her Merlot lettuce to blossom into a haze of tiny yellow flowers. Allowing lettuce to flower, or bolt, in gardening parlance, will typically make the leaves bitter, but all those flowers produce seeds that can be collected or be left to self sow. According to Reilly-Kliss, Merlot is particularly adept at the latter, and she simply transplants seedlings that will start to emerge around her garden where she wants them in mid-April.

I’m making mental notes on both of these strategies so I can employ them at the end of this summer and by 2024 revel in my early-season gardening prowess.

Don’t let the snow lull you into sleeping on cool-season crops. You just might need to get a little creative when growing them.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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