Quarantined? Here are 9 fast-growing foods you can sow in containers in early spring

“Do you really need more seeds?” they said.

“You’re a crazy plant lady,” they said.

Proud crazy plant lady here, and yes, as we roll into the sneezing, coughing, roaring 2020s, we do need to sow more seeds! We might be home for a while and, naturally, several friends have grown curious about what’s going on in my windowsill. I believed I could save the world with plants, though I never thought a State of Emergency would be declared so early in the growing season.

This is an interesting thyme. I mean, time. During this Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve learned which Pennsylvania businesses are “life sustaining.” Fortunately, farmers made the cut and their doors are open for locals wanting to avoid crowded grocery stores.

But most garden centers remain closed.

Garden nurseries keep us plant-lovers going. They not only sustain, but also birth new life. I await the day they open their doors, revealing the first pansies, daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths of the season. Among the blooms, I’d buy onion bulbs every March and herbs to harbor indoors until mid-May. Of course, that was in the time before. This is 2020.

With mature plants in hand, we could be growing more of our own food, faster.

The good news is: We can still count on Spring. The Vernal Equinox dawned early on Friday. Mother Nature knows we need her – our Zone’s Last Spring Frost Dates are coming in late April, well before Mother’s Day. Let’s meet her with open arms.

Gardening is not canceled. Start planning and growing your garden from the indoors out. All you need are seeds, soil, and sun. You can sow from home.

Lettuce begin. Here are 9 fast-growing foods you can sow in containers in early spring.

Lentil sprouts

This is my “Haft-Sort-Of Table” for Norouz 2020.

Soak lentils in water overnight. The next morning, drain and rinse them and leave them in a jar to sprout. Remember, seeds germinate underground, so the jar should be set in a shady location away from direct sunlight. Every couple hours, give them a rinse. You’ll start to see little shoots grow within a day or two! Eat them as they are or plant them in a pot like I did above. This is definitely the fastest, most satisfying first experience for a novice gardener.

Why sprout lentils?

1) Lentils are the traditional centerpiece of the Haft-Seen Table for the Persian New Year. Each of the seven items is pronounced with the letter “س” (seen), including these “sabzi” greens. This holiday is called “Norouz” which translates to “New Day” in Farsi. As our planet is changing and challenging us to think on a global scale, let’s celebrate renewal.

2) Sprouting lentils and any other legumes makes them easier to digest and increases their vitamin B and C content. Sprinkle them on your meals for a little added fresh crunch. (I know there is no substitute for potato chips, but I’m just doing my best here.)

3) Fun fact: Lentils are used as a base for some soft cat food. Honey loves them too.

Microgreens

On my windowsill, I’m also germinating alfalfa and broccoli microgreens. Vegetable varieties like these will be ready to harvest in less than 2 weeks. Herb microgreens take closer to 25 days.

Soak 6-8 hours in 4 parts warm water (not hot) and 1 part seed. Rinse and drain. Spread evenly in a mason jar and, like the lentils, shade them from direct sunlight. If you have a particularly warm, shady spot in the house that gets up to 75 degrees, the seeds will germinate much faster there. Drain 2-3 times per day.

Note: Seeds are living! Give them breathing room. I secured a piece of wax cloth on top of the jar and poked holes in the top with a fork. This way, the seeds can get proper air circulation and it will prevent seeds from falling out each time you rinse. (An even better tool for this: pantyhose.)

In 3-4 days you’ll start to see them sprout. Sprinkle them on your meals for some extra nutrition.

Buy the same ones I’m growing here.

Spinach

Spinach loves spring. Sow seeds indoors and transplant about 4 weeks before the last spring frost date (which is normally closer to May 15th but this year it is April 30th in Bethlehem!). Careful not to disturb the roots as you remove the seedlings from their first homes. Spinach prefers cool temperatures and full sun, but tolerates part shade. Actually planting it in a somewhat shady spot will extend the growing period before the hot temperatures make the plant “bolt” (make flowers/more seeds) in summer.

You know that “Baby Spinach” that comes in plastic bins at the store? That could be growing in your yard or on your windowsill by late April, early May. The seed packets for most varieties claim the leaves will mature in 25 days, but like any leafy plant, you can pick it sooner.

To grow spinach on your windowsill like I will for a while, find a variety that is known for doing well indoors such as Catalina. Sow the seed in a container that is at least 6 inches deep and place in a spot where temperatures do not exceed 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Water often.

Buy here and elsewhere.

Kale

Kale is not my favorite to eat, but it is one of my favorites to grow. This hardy green grows in big, bountiful patches from just a sprinkle of seeds, and it thrives (and tastes better) in the cold.

Sow seeds ¼ to ½ inch deep into well-drained soil. In two weeks, seedlings will appear. Thin the seedlings (and eat them!) so that the remaining seedlings are spaced 8 to 12 inches apart. Water often.

Kale is typically planted 3-5 weeks before last frost, but with the weather being pretty warm in our zone, I’d say go for it as soon as those seeds arrive in the mail. Harvest the largest leaves outdoors and baby kale indoors.

Buy here or elsewhere. Check that it’s not labeled “ornamental.” Ornamental varieties are not meant as food.

Arugula and loose leaf lettuce

Arugula grows like a weed. Sow even a single seed now and you’ll have non-stop salad throughout summer. Transplant seedlings 2-3 weeks before last frost or sow directly into the ground. Like spinach and kale, arugula and other lettuce varieties appreciate full sun but will do well in partial shade too.

If you want to grow and harvest arugula indoors, you’re in luck. Most houseplants crave the southern sun, but arugula will do just fine in a north-facing window (like mine!). Sow in a small pot and the leaves will stay small; in a larger pot the leaves will grow bigger. The plant can reach up to 2 feet and eventually produce flowers like the white, edible ones pictured above from my former garden.

The photo on the top right shows the loose leaf lettuces I grew in my very first garden. Depending on the variety, lettuces mature in about 50 days but I find the younger leaves to be more tender. Pinch the heads to harvest and watch more grow quickly. In the gardening world, this is known as “cut and come again.”

Buy my favorite loose leaf lettuce mix here.

Radishes

While the greens above can be grown in different conditions indoors and out, I recommend growing root vegetables only outdoors. Root vegetables should only be sown directly into the ground or the pot where they will mature.

For radishes, prepare a wide, shallow window box (at least 6 inches deep) with potting mix. Place in full sun. Sow seeds ¼ to ½ inch deep and 1 inch apart 4-6 weeks before last frost. As seedlings emerge, thin so they are 2 inches apart. Water regularly. Keep the roots moderately moist.

Cherry Belle and Easter Egg varieties will be ready to harvest in just 30 days. If you don’t have a very sunny location, that’s okay; radishes will still grow slowly in part shade.

Buy a multi-color Easter Egg mix here.

Baby carrots

Like radishes, carrots are a root vegetable. Sow directly in the soil. Even if you don’t have a big garden, you can have shorter “baby” carrots. Choose a pot that is 6-15 inches deep depending on the variety of carrot. Nantes grow 6-7 inches long, while Chantenay grow only up to 5 inches and can be grown in poorer soils.

Sow seeds ¼ to ½ inch deep and 1 inch apart 2-3 weeks before last frost. When seedlings have grown 2 inches tall, it’s time to thin them. Instead of uprooting, cut them carefully with a pair of scissors. Carrots have delicate roots.

As you do for the radishes, keep the roots moderately moist in a full sun to part sun location. Check with your finger that your soil is not soaked but not completely dry. Throughout summer and fall, sow carrots every two or three weeks to keep them coming. Harvest yields every 30-50 days.

English peas, snow peas, and sugar snap peas

Every Saint Patrick’s Day, many gardeners mark their calendars for Snow Pea Day.

When snow peas and regular garden peas breed, they make sugar snap peas. Plant both varieties outdoors on trellisses. Snow peas thrive in full sun, while sugar snap peas only need 4-5 hours of sunlight a day.

If you have a balcony, the vines could grow around the railing (I’m looking at you, Mary the music therapist.) Sugar snap peas do well in containers and the “Oregon Sugar Pod” snow pea variety does too.

Farmer Bethany Towne grows peas a plenty. She is looking for volunteers to help her at the NCC East 40 Community Garden. Reach out to her on Instagram @east40farm. Learn to garden and take home fresh food. Maybe I’ll join you …

Expect peas in 8-12 weeks. Explore quick-growing varieties here.

String beans?

This is my new experiment! Rumor has it string beans will grow in a window that gets 6-8 hours of sunlight per day, in a pot that is at least 8 inches deep. I’ve been growing Royal Burgundy abundantly for several years outdoors. We shall see how they do in my window. If you want to try this, find a bush bean variety. Pole varieties are how Jack and the Beanstalk got started; their vines will travel to your neighbor’s house and back, and actually that would be pretty cool too …

Grow your own and buy local!

So all those foods are born for spring. Amid the quiet of our quaint Pennsylvanian towns, you can still flourish from your window, balcony, or yard. Buy some soil wherever you can find it (here’s a good potting mix on Amazon) and get creative with containers. You can plant in anything with drainage. Plastic pots, put a hole in them. Buckets, put a hole in them. Baby pools, put a hole in them. Egg cartons, paper towel rolls, that cracked pot you made in preschool, any container that is 3+ inches deep has promise.

If you want to keep your garden growing into the fall, check out my seed sowing guide. And if you want a proper mini-greenhouse of your own, I recommend Park Seed’s Bio Dome.

Meanwhile, support your local farm stands. The farmer Liz at Crooked Row Farms and Papa Thad at Jett’s Produce are open for business, and so are many others. Here is a list of Lehigh Valley farm stands that are open.

And just now, Gary Warren of Lehigh Valley Kombucha knocked on my door and delivered a bottle of sweet watermelon.

I know the virus is spreading like fire, but let’s trust nature’s wisdom. Native Americans believe fire is medicine. Every year, many tribes start controlled fires to modify the landscape, nourish the soil, and ultimately sustain their culture and economy. In unprecedented times like this when we feel powerless, we may feel like the flowers being burned. But we are the soil. We can cultivate a fresh foundation from the comfort of home. It’s a New Day.

Wishing you all a safe, healthy, abundant season. I’m here if you have any questions. Click here to receive this free guide from my new persona The Quarantined Gardener: “The Secret to Growing These 3 Superfoods in Your Window.”

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