Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES -- Harsh weather can be a major hurdle in New Mexico's spring vegetable gardens. But, cool-season crops like radishes, lettuce and peas can overcome the elements to produce tasty salads.
Radishes don't tolerate hot weather, so they are planted in the early spring and mature while it's still cool, said George Dickerson, horticulture specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. "Hot weather causes radishes to become pithy and pungent. Stressing the plants for water will cause similar problems."
Radish roots vary in size, color, shape and texture. The most popular are the round 'Cherry Belle' types, which are relatively mild and mature quickly, he said. White "icicle" types are usually more pungent and take longer to mature. Plant radish seeds in the garden 1 inch apart and one-half inch deep in rows 12 to 18 inches apart.
Most salad greens also are cool-season crops that should be planted before the weather gets too warm. "Greens are among the most nutritious of all vegetables," Dickerson said.
Four major types of lettuce are grown in New Mexico: iceberg, leaf, butterhead and romaine. Crisphead or iceberg lettuce forms heads of large, heavy, tightly folded leaves. It is a common commercial lettuce found in most grocery stores.
"Leaf lettuce is the most popular home-grown type and the easiest to grow," he said. Maturing in about 45 days, leaf lettuce is higher in vitamin A than iceberg lettuce.
Butterhead lettuce forms a loose head of crumpled leaves with a soft, buttery texture. "It's one of the tastiest lettuces," Dickerson said.
Romaine or cos lettuce develops elongated heads of long leaves with thick midribs. The outer leaves are coarse and dark green, while inner leaves are lighter green with a finer texture. "Romaine has a crisp, sweet flavor that adds crunch to salads," he said.
Plant lettuce seeds early in the season, as soon as the soil can be worked. The seeds will germinate at soil temperatures as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Space seeds in rows 12 to 18 inches apart and less than one-eighth inch deep. Keep the soil moist until seedlings emerge.
Spinach is another green that can be cooked or used in salads. "It's characterized by a compact rosette of leaves that may be crinkled or smooth," Dickerson said. "Crinkled varieties are often called 'savoyed."
Like radishes and lettuce, spinach is grown mostly in the spring and will bolt, or flower, when the weather turns warmer. "Bolting is a common response to increased day lengths and temperatures," he said. "Some varieties like 'Tyee' will resist bolting longer and provide a longer harvest period."
Sow spinach seeds one-half inch deep in rows 12 to 18 inches apart. Thin plants as they emerge to 2 to 6 inches apart. The seedlings can be used in salads. Harvest whole plants when mature or pinch off individual mature leaves as needed. The leaves will turn bitter when the plants bolt.
"Peas are one of the more difficult crops to grow in the spring garden," Dickerson said. "However, growing them in hot weather reduces their sweetness and quality."
Select varieties that mature early. Plant peas in rows 12 to 18 inches apart, 1 inch deep and 1 inch apart. "Dwarf and vining types can be trained to trellises for easy picking and for good air circulation to prevent powdery mildew," he said.
Three types of peas are common in New Mexico gardens. Shelling or English types should be harvested, usually beginning at the bottom of the plant, when pods become plump. Pick pods often so the plants will remain productive. Don't allow the pods to over-mature or the enclosed peas will lose their sweetness.
"Stir-fry types often are called sugar or snow peas and have edible pods," Dickerson said. Harvest pods before the peas inside begin to swell.
Snap peas have pods that become more thick and fleshy. Harvest early before they lose their sweetness and become fibrous. "The entire pod is eaten and can be used raw in salads or cooked like green beans," he said.
© 2013 New Mexico State University Board of Regents
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