It's the miracle everyone wants: You plant a seed in the soil, add a little water and
sunshine, and soon you're eating what you grew. For many vegetables in many places, that
actually requires starting the seeds indoors in winter or early spring to get a head start on a
too-short growing season and then moving the plants outdoors when the air and the soil are warm
enough. (See Seed Starting
But some vegetables really can be sown directly in garden soil and produce a flavorful addition
to the dinner table. No indoor seed-starting, no lights, no transplanting.
These are great crops for introducing children to gardening. Children are
overjoyed to see the results of their planting and watering, and a child will eat the most
amazing things if she grew them herself.
Direct-sown plants have the same basic needs as all vegetables: full sun (eight hours a day);
rich, well-drained soil into which you've dug lots of organic matter such as compost;
appropriate amounts of nutrients, from compost and, if needed, fertilizer; and water.
Follow the directions on the seed packet. In order to do that, you'll need to know your "last
frost date." This is the date when, on average, the last frost occurs in your area, and most
planting instructions revolve around it. Call your local cooperative extension office (find an
office here) or ask an experienced
gardener in your neighborhood. It's important to get advice from nearby because the last frost
date can vary quite a bit over a short distance. For example, it's May 1 in Chicago, near Lake
Michigan; just 20 or 30 miles west in the city's inland suburbs, it's about May 15.
Direct-sown vegetables will take a
week or two to sprout ("germinate"), depending on the weather, so don't despair if you don't
see any action for a while. Just keep a close watch on your garden for the first hints of
It's a good idea to direct-sow vegetables in straight rows. That way, you know that anything
that sprouts outside the row is a weed.
Leaf Lettuce. These salad greens usually
can be sown in the garden starting a week or so before the last frost date. Don't sow all the
seed at once; sow three or four batches about two weeks apart in different sections of your
lettuce plot. As the different batches get big enough to eat in sequence, you will keep salad
coming over a longer period. In southern areas of the country, lettuce is an early spring, fall
or even winter crop; it does not do well in hot weather. Crisphead or iceberg varieties of
lettuce are much more difficult to grow than leaf lettuce and best left to commercial
Carrots. Have kids sow these edible
roots about a week or two before the last frost date. They should wait six or seven weeks
before pulling one up to see whether the root is ready to eat; most varieties mature in 55 to
70 days. But don't leave carrots in the ground so long they get big and woody. Like most root
vegetables, they are most yummy when young. And like all root vegetables, carrots do best in
very well-drained soil free from rocks, which can make them crooked. Amend dense, sticky clay
with lots of compost and perhaps even some sand. You can plant a second crop of carrots in late
summer for fall harvest.
Radishes. These little roots are zippy in more ways
than one: They have a peppery taste, and they mature to eating size faster than anything--in
three to four weeks. Some people have negative associations with them, having encountered too
many too-pungent old radishes at the salad bar. But there are very mild varieties of radishes,
and they come in white, pink and pale purple as well as the familiar ruby red. You can cook
radishes as well as eating them raw in salad or as a snack. Sow in batches, starting about two
weeks before the last frost. You can replant starting in late summer for fall harvest, but
don't try to grow radishes in hot weather.
Peas like the cool weather of spring, or, in the far South, they can be grown in winter. For a
spring crop, sow in the garden about two weeks before the last frost date. Peas are a clinging
vine, so be sure to provide a trellis, a pyramid of bamboo stakes, a wire fence or some other
support for each vine to clamber on. Or else buy varieties labeled "dwarf," "compact" or
"bush"; they will produce fewer peas, but won't need support. Sugar peas and snow peas are two
kinds with edible pods. Young pea plants have sensitive roots, so avoid weeding around them
until they have a good start.
Corn needs warm soil to germinate, so don't sow it until about a week after the last frost
date. In short-season areas, look for a variety labeled "early" that will mature relatively
quickly. You need space for a block of at least 12 plants to ensure that corn flowers pollinate
each other; plan on getting one to two ears per stalk. Tradition holds that before European
settlement, Indian farmers planted the "Three Sisters": Corn seeds in a hill of soil (for good
drainage); beans planted next to the corn a few weeks later, to climb the cornstalk as it grew;
and squash between the hills, so its sprawling vines and big leaves would shade out weed seeds
(like peas, corn has delicate roots near the surface than can be damaged by weeding). Be
warned: This "Three Sisters" arrangement takes up a lot of space in a garden.