Early Sowings for Early Harvests

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by Pam Dawling
Small ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ cabbages can be ready to eat in 50 to 60 days.

Are you eager to leap into spring with early harvests of home-grown vegetables? You’re in luck! Lots of quick-growing crops will deliver prompt harvests if you know which varieties to plant and when to plant them. Read on to find a list of crops to try, as well as information on starting early, getting plants to grow faster, and cultivating more crops in small spaces.

Vegetable Crops for Fast Returns

Ready in 30 to 35 days are baby kale, baby mustard greens, radishes, spinach, chard, salad greens (lettuce, chicory), arugula, and winter purslane. Beet greens from thinnings can be cooked and eaten like spinach. Spinach itself is good for salads or cooking. (But be aware that the fastest-growing, biggest spinach may not last long once the weather warms up!) I’ve found that ‘Acadia’ and ‘Reflect’ spinaches have good bolt-resistance from outdoor spring sowings.

lettuce start growing in dirt

Many Asian greens are ready in 40 days or less: Bok choy, tatsoi, komatsuna, mizuna, ‘Maruba Santoh,’ ‘Senposai,’ ‘Tokyo Bekana,’ and ‘Yukina Savoy.’ Most reach baby salad size in 21 days, and full size in 40 days. Transplant 4 to 5 weeks after spring sowing, or direct-sow. Asian greens are faster-growing than lettuce, and come in a huge range of attractive varieties. They’re nutritious as well as tasty…–…their flavors vary from mild to peppery. Grow these greens whenever you would normally grow kale. But be aware that Asian greens sown in spring will bolt as soon as the weather heats up, so be ready to harvest a lot at once…–…if you planted a lot, that is! You can make kimchi with the bounty. Mizuna and other frilly mustards are particularly easy to grow, and they tolerate cold, wet soil as low as 25 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, they’re fairly heat-tolerant (well, warm-tolerant). After 21 days, use them in baby salads, or thin them to 8 to 12 inches apart. Their mild-flavored, ferny leaves add loft in salad mixes and regrow vigorously after cutting.

dark green leaf foilage

Ready in 35 to 45 days are baby carrots (thinnings, or the whole row), turnip greens (more thinnings), endive, mâche, land cress, sorrel, parsley, and chervil. Some of the smaller turnip roots can also be ready in 45 days or less.

Ready in 50 to 60 days are beets, dwarf snap peas, broccoli, collards, kohlrabi, turnips, and small cabbages (‘Farao’ or ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’).

Try “Eat-All Greens,” an idea Carol Deppe introduces in The Tao of Vegetable Gardening. Carol broadcasts greens in small patches. When they reach 12 inches tall, she cuts the top 9 inches off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower parts, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil. Carol’s 20 years of using this method of growing cooking greens quickly with little work has led her to recommend seven greens: ‘Green Wave’ mustard; ‘Shunkyo’ and ‘Saisai’ leaf radishes; ‘Groninger Blue’ collard-kale; burgundy amaranth; ‘Tokyo Bekana’ cabbage; and ‘Red Aztec’ huauzontle. I’ve tried growing her recommendations in Virginia in fall, where the climate is different from the Pacific Northwest, where Carol lives. Here, spring-planted greens only have a short season before they bolt. I sowed in mid-September, and got the first harvest 35 days after sowing. Unlike Carol, I sowed the greens in side-by-side rows and hoed between them, as we had a lot of weeds.

Fast Varieties of Lettuce and Greens

Lettuce can be harvested by the leaf much sooner than waiting for a whole head. For faster results, consider different varieties than you’ve usually grown. Some leaf lettuces only need 46 days (‘Salad Bowl,’ ‘Bronze Arrowhead,’ ‘Grand Rapids’), while romaines can take a lot longer (‘Winter Wonderland’ takes 70 days; ‘Webb’s Wonderful’ takes 72 days).

small green start grow from dirt

Also, grow the right lettuces for your conditions. Here in Virginia, lettuces that do well in early spring are often useless after the end of February. I sow four varieties each time (for the attractive harvests, and in case one variety bolts or suffers disease), including at least one red and one romaine.

As previously stated, baby lettuce mix can be ready in as little as 21 days between mid-spring and mid-fall. This direct-sown cut-and-come-again crop regrows and can be harvested more than once in cool seasons. Weed and thin to 1 inch. When it’s 3 to 4 inches tall, cut 1 inch above the soil. Gather a small handful in one hand and cut using large scissors. Immediately after harvesting, weed the just-cut area so the next cut won’t include weeds.

green sprigs growing from dirt

Growing multileaf heads takes 55 days, compared with 30 days for baby lettuce. Multileaf lettuces include ‘Salanova’ from Johnny’s Selected Seeds; ‘Eazyleaf’ from Osborne Quality Seeds or High Mowing Organic Seeds; and the cultivars ‘Tango,’ ‘Oscarde,’ and ‘Panisse.’ Transplanted 6 to 8 inches apart, they produce 40 percent more than baby leaf mixes. The full-sized plant can be harvested as a head, providing a collection of medium-sized leaves. Or, just the outer leaves can be cut, and the plant will regrow for future harvests.

bright green large lettuce growing on top row and dark purple sprigs grow on bottom row

Mustard mixes (aka “brassica salad mixes”) can be sown in close rows for harvesting as salad crops at a height of 3 to 4 inches. Many cooking greens can be used for salads, as you thin the still-small direct-sown crops. Mix what you have: Our salad-mix harvesting approach is to combine colors, textures, and crop families. I like to balance lettuces of different kinds with chenopods (spinach, baby chard, ‘Bull’s Blood’ beet leaves) and brassicas (brassica salad mix; baby tatsoi; thinnings of direct-sown brassicas; chopped young leaves of ‘Tokyo Bekana,’ ‘Maruba Santoh,’ or other Asian greens; mizuna; and other frilly mustards, such as ‘Ruby Streaks,’ ‘Golden Frills,’ and ‘Scarlet Frills’).

Provide Crop Protection for an Early Start

In Virginia, spring starts in January! Here at Twin Oaks Community, on January 17, we make our first greenhouse sowings: early cabbage, the first lettuce, and scallions. The week after that, we sow our hoop house tomatoes. Our germinator cabinet is a broken fridge warmed by an incandescent lightbulb. By the end of February, we’ve also sown peppers for our hoop house, and spinach, kale, collards, cabbage, lettuce, scallions, broccoli, and ‘Senposai’ greens for planting outdoors.

small green starts growing from flat filled with dirt

When the cabbages emerge, we make space for the flat in the greenhouse near the window. When the hoop house tomatoes germinate, they go in a plastic tent on a heating mat by the greenhouse windows. As the seedlings grow in our greenhouse, we spot them out into bigger flats, with about 2.5 inches between plants. For lettuce, we use 3-inch-deep flats, but for most crops, we use 4-inch-deep flats, so the roots have plenty of space. We use a dibble board to make evenly spaced holes in the compost in the bigger flats for the tiny seedlings. The dibble board is a piece of plywood with fat dowel pegs glued into holes, and it can form 40 holes at once in a 12-by-24-inch flat.

Starting early can mean outdoor fall planting for some crops. Garlic scallions can be grown over winter and will then come up quickly in spring. Plant scrappy little garlic cloves you don’t want to cook in close furrows, and wait until the leaves are 7 inches tall before digging up the plants and preparing them like you’d prepare onion scallions. They can be eaten raw, though they’re more often cooked. You can also plant whole bulbs without separating the cloves. This is a good use for extra bulbs that are already sprouting in storage, or for culling small bulbs you just don’t want to peel.

Lettuce transplants on flats in flat cart

Other cold-hardy crops you can plant in fall and overwinter for early spring harvests include spinach, kale, collards, and carrots.

Ways to Get Crops to Grow Faster

Sow when the conditions are right. Soil temperature is important. By starting your plants in a place with close-to-ideal temperatures, rather than direct-seeding when it’s still too chilly outside, you’ll get bigger plants sooner. You’ll also gain time to prepare the beds. And if you grow transplants, you can fit more crops into each bed throughout the season, because each crop will be occupying the bed for less time than if direct-sown.

Find warm, sheltered microclimates, such as the front of a south-facing wall. Or, make your own microclimates with row cover or low tunnels. Take advantage of plastic mulch to warm the soil. Regular black plastic mulch needs to be removed at the end of the growing season, but biodegradable mulch doesn’t. However, you’ll still see shreds of the bioplastic the following year. Consider landscape fabric with melted planting holes as a reusable alternative to throwaway or biodegradable plastic.

Get More Crops from a Small Space

Grow a vertical crop on a trellis and something short in the space below it. You can even use the same trellis twice; growing tomatoes after peas, for instance.

Relay planting is a method of interplanting rows of short crops between rows of taller ones. We’ve often sown peas down the center of a bed of overwintered spinach. As the peas grow tall, we trellis them and continue harvesting the spinach. When the spinach bolts, we pull it up. This overlap of bed use lets us get more crops from a bed in less time than if we’d sown the crops one after another. We’ve also sown peanuts down the middle of a bed of lettuce on the same date we transplanted the lettuce. We make sure to use vertical romaine lettuces rather than wide bibb or leaf lettuces. We’ve transplanted okra down the middle of a bed of early cabbage. This does involve breaking off outer leaves of the cabbage if they’re about to smother the okra.

Sow slower-maturing crops at the same time you sow fast ones, so you have food later as well as sooner! Such crops include carrots, turnips, cabbages, broccoli, collards, and kohlrabi. Plus, sow some multiple-harvest crops to save work later. Greens that are harvested by the leaf, rather than the head, offer very good value.

These planning and planting methods will have you enjoying your homegrown harvests long before the typical “harvest season” arrives. Here’s to a bountiful spring!


  • High-Yield Vegetable Gardening by Colin McCrate and Brad Halm
  • Grow a Sustainable Diet: Planning and Growing to Feed Ourselves and the Earth by Cindy Conner
  • The Urban Farmer by Curtis Stone
  • How to Decide Which Crops to Grow by Pam Dawling at www.SustainableMarketFarming.com.
  • 16 Fast Growing Vegetables That Will Give You a Harvest Quickly by Jennifer Poindexter at www.MorningChores.com.
  •  Quick-Growing Vegetable Crops by Steve Albert at www.HarvestToTable.com.
  • The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook by Andrew Mefferd

Pam Dawling has grown vegetables at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia for 28 years, feeding 100 people from 3.5 acres. She’s the author of Sustainable Market Farming and The Year-Round Hoophouse. She’s a contributing editor at Growing for Market magazine, a workshop presenter, and a weekly blogger on www.SustainableMarketFarming.com.

For All Seasons and All Climates

Growing in hoop houses — also known as “high tunnels” or “polytunnels”…–…reduces the impact of an increasingly unpredictable climate on crops, mitigates soil erosion, extends the growing season, and keeps leafy greens alive through winter. The Year-Round Hoophouse by Pam Dawling is a comprehensive guide to designing and building a hoop house and making a success of growing abundant, delicious, fresh produce all year, whatever your climate and land size. This informative reference is ideal for farmers who wish to move into protected growing, as well as beginning farmers in rural and urban spaces. It’s also an essential resource for professors and students of courses in sustainable agriculture, as well as interns and apprentices learning on the job. This title is available at www.MotherEarthNews.com/Store or by calling 800-234-3368. Item #9229.