McCREARY: Plant seeds for spring harvest

Climate change or not, late February still signals gardeners to prep for planting. Amid all the hubbub over starting tomato, cucumber, and zucchini seeds, let's not forget that we still have at least 3 months left for cool-season crops.

There's no rush for seeding summer vegetables unless you live in a very warm microclimate where nighttime temperatures consistently stay above 50 degrees in early May. If not, you'll have better success by waiting another month to start summer's seeds.

While it's still winter, you can set out transplants or plant seeds for many healthful and delicious vegetables.

Now thru May, plant kale seeds for cutting young leaves until hot weather sets in. Baby leaf spinach will be ready in about 7 weeks; yellow beets, 8 weeks; sugar snap peas, 9 weeks.

For reliably tasty and top-performing heritage and hybrid varieties, check Reneesgarden.com or look for Renee's Garden packets locally on seed racks at nearly every nursery and garden center.

This year, Renee Shepherd is introducing Little Jade, a dense Napa cabbage with upright heads of narrow leaves good for dips, slaws and stir-fry. It will be ready in about 8 weeks after planting in March and April.

Mild or tangy

With so many easy-to-grow options, don't overlook onions. Mild to intensely flavored varieties are stocked now at nurseries as transplants.

Our latitude puts us as intermediate between long- and short-day varieties, so nurseries tend to offer only types that perform best here. Those of us who love sweet, white Walla Wallas, though, stretch a bit and are usually successful in growing this long-day, wonderfully delicious onion.

Leeks require more patience than onions because of the long months it takes them to bulk up, but they're easy to start now from seed and willing to wait in the ground if we're not ready for them in the kitchen when they are.

If you're impatient and want faster results, plant radishes. They're ready in only 3 to 4 weeks.

Cool and crisp

Growing a garden almost always demands careful cultivation and frequent attention to plants, far more than throwing a handful of seeds on the ground and then coming back in a few weeks to harvest food.

But this time of year, when rains keep the ground evenly moist, you can break the rules with lettuce and other greens by scattering seeds on prepared ground, then coming back in a few weeks and cutting leaves for a salad.

It may not be the ideal way to garden, but if you're time-challenged and still want fresh salads for weeks on end, you can take the easy route.

Renee's Garden seeds are just one option, but these lettuces are reliably tasty. In just a little over a month, you can start eating from the Farmer's Market Blend, a cut-&-come-again mix of cool and crisp greens and reds of various shapes and textures. The mesclun mix of 8 different sweet and tangy lettuces takes a bit longer.

Consider this

A good many gardeners feel like kids in a candy store as they page through catalogs or stand before a tempting seed rack. If you don't already have a favorite variety of what you'd like to grow and eat, be sure to read the description carefully. (The excellent comments on the packets are one reason I like Renee's Garden seeds so much.)

Consider, for example, that vining peas take up less space than bush varieties but that you have to provide a support that allows for easy picking.

If you do grow peas, keep in mind that shelling types take time to shell and you need a lot for a meal whereas you can eat sugar snap and snow peas right off the vine, toss them in a salad, or eat as a snack.

Looking ahead

Nearly everyone who has ever grown tomatoes has bemoaned vines that overwhelm flimsy wire supports.

As you select seed now, be sure to take into account a basic tomato growth habit.

Determinate types are shorter growing, from 3 to 5 feet, produce sooner after planting but aren't as long-lived as other types.

Indeterminate varieties are more common, take longer to produce ripe fruit, and need sturdy supports for their weighty stems that can reach over 12 feet.

Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.