If you’re growing a vegetable garden, and are interested in becoming as self-sufficient as you’re able to regardless of whether you live in the country or the city, you’ll want to get as much out of your garden as you possibly can. But here in beautiful Michigan, you may be “blessed” with six months or more of frosty temps, depending on where you live.
If you’re lucky enough to have a greenhouse or high-tunnel, or even a few cold frames, you can extend your growing season, but if the growing season is short to begin with, you’ll really want to make the most of it.
Typically, if we want to start a vegetable garden quickly, we go to the nursery and buy starts. Or, if you already have the lights and space indoors, you can start your own plants from seed.
But what if you don’t have the time/equipment/space for indoor seed starting? In that case, quick-growing veggies that you can sow directly into your garden are your best bet. Here is a list of tried-and-true varieties and where to find them, most of which I’ve grown right here in my zone 4 Michigan garden, or which have been grown successfully by other cold climate gardeners. You’ll notice I don’t have things like tomatoes or peppers in this list. This is simply because in most cases tomatoes are better started indoors so they fruit as quickly as possible in your garden. The same is true of other heat-loving favorites like peppers and eggplant. These are better grown from starts, but if you can’t get some starts, don’t fret — there are plenty of other tasty veggies you can sow directly into your garden!
In compiling this list, I tried to focus on three things: tried and true by northern gardeners, a harvest in 2 months or less, and varieties that are available widely (so not exclusive to one company or seed catalog.) I hope you find it helpful!
Quick-Growing Veggies to Plant in Your Garden
Beans – Bush beans are your best option here. They produce sooner than pole beans do, but something to keep in mind is that they’re basically determinate plants, meaning they give you a crop pretty much all at once and then they’re done. I like to sow bush beans every two weeks, so once they start producing I have an almost continual harvest of them until our first frost. Here are some of my favorite quick-growing bush bean varieties:
- Provider – 50 days
- Early Bush Italian – 50 days
- Mascotte – 50 days
- Masai – 47 days
- Rocdor – 52 days
- Strike – 45 days
- Bountiful – 46 days
- Golden Butter Wax – 50 days
- Blue Lake 274 – 53 days
Beets – Beets are a good 2-for-1 veggie to grow; you can get both tasty greens to cook or add to salads, plus the roots themselves. Beets tend to do much better in cooler weather, so you’ll want to plant them in spring after your last frost date, or in late summer for a fall harvest. Good short-season beet varieties include:
- Babybeat – 40 days
- Boltardy – 46 days
- Crosby Egyptian – 45 days
- Detroit White – 55 days
- Bull’s Blood – 50 days
- Early Wonder Tall Top – 50 days
- Boro – 50 days
- Subeto – 45 days
Broccoli Raab/Rapini – Broccoli raab is an early season veggie that produces both tasty greens and small, broccoli-like florets. The greens are best eaten sauteed in olive oil or butter, and the florets can be eaten the same way, or raw.
- Hon Tsai Flowering Broccoli – 37 days
- Spring Raab Broccoli Raab – 42 days
Carrots – Most carrots take around 70 days to grow to full-size. The varieties listed here tend to provide smallish, tender carrots in less than two months. Sow carrot seed every week or two provide a continual harvest throughout the season.
- Caracas – 57 days
- Yaya – 55 days
- Mokum – 54 days
- Napoli – 55 days
Chard – Chard, also called Swiss Chard, provides both dark leafy greens and delicious stalks that can be sauteed, added to soups, or baked into casseroles. You can harvest the leaves as baby greens and eat them in salads, or let them grow larger if you plan to cook them. As an added bonus, chard is one of the few greens that handles summer heat well; it will also handle frost reasonably well, giving you a long harvest. If you simply harvest the outer stalks, it will keep producing reliably until it finally freezes. The days listed below are for full-sized leaves. Baby chard can be harvested in about a month after sowing.
- Fordhook Giant – 50 days
- Silverado – 55 days
- Bright Lights – 55 days
Cucumbers – If you have a few healthy cucumber plants, they will provide you with more than enough sweet, crispy cucumbers for salads, pickles, and snacking. Whether you have plenty of room or can only devote a patio pot to growing cucumbers, there is a fast-growing variety that will work for you.
- Garden Sweet Burpless – 55 days
- Straight Eight – 58 days
- Bush Champion – 55 days
- Salad Bush Hybrid – 57 days
- Spacemaster – 56 days
Greens (Miscellaneous) – If you’re trying to grow an edible garden quickly, from seed, and get a TON of nutrition out of it, you can’t go wrong with greens. Most will give you a harvest in about four weeks, and there are so many to choose from! Try arugula, mizuna, mache, tat soi, pak choi, mustard greens, chicory, cress, sorrel, or claytonia. You can also often find mixes of these greens, and these are quick, easy ways to get a variety of tasty greens into your garden.
Kale in another green, like chard, that you can plant in your garden, and it will often just keep going straight through your first hard fall frost, and beyond. I’m actually harvesting kale that overwintered in my northern Michigan garden, with no protection, and it is tasty and perfect. You can harvest the baby kale leaves to eat raw in salads or on sandwiches about three weeks after sowing, but full-size kale leaves take a little longer. The nice thing is, you don’t have to choose. You can have a plant or two that you just continually pick baby leaves from, and another plant or two that you let grow to full-size leaves, giving you a longer harvesting window! Here are some of my favorite kale varieties:
- Red Russian – 50 days full leaf, 21 days baby leaf
- Lacinato – 60 days full leaf, 30 days baby leaf
- Darkibor – 50 days full leaf (curly kale, not great for raw eating)
- Dwarf Green Curled – 50 days full leaf (curly kale, not great for raw eating)
- Prizm – 50 days full leaf, 30 days baby leaf
Lettuce – Lettuce is quick, easy, and if you grow the right types, you can get an almost continual harvest from them. The only trick is, growing lettuce in the summer even in mild areas can be tricky; the plant is quick to bolt, and once it bolts the lettuce becomes bitter and just not at all as delicious as it should be. One way to get around summer bolting is to plant your lettuce in an area that gets partial shade. It won’t grow as quickly, but it will be much slower to bolt. If you can give it morning sun and afternoon shade, that would be ideal. And be sure to keep the soil moist, which will cause less stress for your lettuce plants even during summer heat.
Head lettuces are not really your friend if you’re trying to grow food quickly. Iceberg lettuce, for example, takes almost three months, and you harvest it once and it’s done. You’ll want to look for leaf lettuces, which you can start harvesting in about three weeks as baby leaves for salads, and which will allow you to make several subsequent harvests. Just cut the leaves off a couple inches above the soil line and they’ll resprout, giving you another salad in a few weeks. If you make regular sowings of lettuce, sowing a row or block or container every week or two, you’ll keep yourself in salads for most of the season. Here are some terrific lettuces to look for. (The numbers cited are for full-sized leaves; you can harvest at about three weeks for baby-leaf salads.)
- Salad Bowl – 45 days
- Black-Seeded Simpson – 45 days
- Red Sails – 45 days
- Lolla Rosa – 45 days
- Saladbowl – 50 days
- Red Saladbowl – 55 days
- Red Oak Leaf – 60 days
You can also just look for mesclun mixes. These are combinations of leaf lettuce seeds, usually containing several of the above varieties, plus many others for added color and flavor. As with the above varieties, you can usually harvest your first salad in three to four weeks, though you can let them go a little longer if you want larger leaves.
Onions – Your best option for quick-growing onions you can direct sow in your garden are green onions, or scallions, which will produce nice large stalks about 60 days after sowing, or which you can slowly snip away at as you need them, allowing the greens to keep growing. Bulb onions take a long time and have to be started indoors. If you can buy onion sets online or from a nursery, that will give you a head start. But for quick and easy, scallions are the way to go.
- Parade – 60 days
- Guardsman – 50 days
- Red Baron – 60 days
- White Lisbon – 60 days
Peas – Sweet, tender peas from the garden are a delight, and they’re very easy to grow up a fence or small trellis. Here in Michigan, we plant peas as soon as the ground can be worked in spring. This is because they have a much harder time in warm weather, so you want them to start growing and producing pods while the temps are still nice and cool to get the most out of your planting. For a quick, easy crop, you’ll want to focus on snap peas or snow peas. These are the peas with edible pods (no shelling here!) which you can eat raw or quickly sauteed. You can grow shelling peas in about the same amount of time, and if you love peas, it’s definitely worth it, but the amount of work to shell them as well as the sheer number of plants you need to grow to harvest a good amount of peas make them a little less practical for our quick and easy garden.
- Sugar Ann – 52 days
- Super Sugar Snap – 61 days
- Avalanche – 60 days
- Oregon Giant – 60 days
- Sugar Snap – 58 days
If you want to harvest something quickly, grow radishes! And don’t think you’re only limited to eating them raw with dip (which is the only way I seemed to eat them most of my life — though that’s delightful as well!) You can eat them sliced into salads or onto sandwiches, grated into salads or slaws, pickled, or even halved and roasted in the oven and served as a side dish. The spicy greens are also edible and can be eaten sauteed or added to soups. I’ve also seen recipes for radish green pesto, which I want to try this year. Radishes are easy to grow, but definitely prefer cool weather, so your best bet is to grow them as a spring or fall veggie. Here are some radish varieties that I have absolutely loved:
- Cherry Belle – 22 days
- Rover – 21 days
- Easter Egg – 30 days (multicolored radish mix – very fun to grow!)
- Sora – 23 days
- French Breakfast – 26 days
- White Icicle – 27 days
- Pearl – 25 days
- Pink Beauty – 27 days
We’ve all heard the joke about neighbors being the unsuspecting… sometimes unwilling, recipients of a gardener’s overabundance of zucchini and summer squash. Summer squashes give you a LOT of bang for your gardening buck, and a plant or two will likely keep your family (depending on family size, of course) in squash until your first fall frost. If you’re trying to eat as much as you can from your garden, don’t be so quick to give those extra zucchini away. You can shred them and then freeze them in a plastic bag to add to zucchini breads or fritters in the winter. Or slice and freeze them to throw into soups or to sautee as a side dish long after the garden has gone to sleep for the winter. You can make zucchini pickles as well. Or make a batch of zucchini bread and freeze that for a day when you’re craving something sweet. Can you tell I’m a fan of summer squash? Here are a few of my quick-growing favorites:
- Green Machine – 45 days
- Yellow Crookneck – 50 days
- Costata Romanesco – 54 days
- Gold Star – 50 days
- Early Prolific Straightneck – 50 days
- Fordhook – 57 days
- Black Beauty – 50 days
Spinach – Rich in iron, calcium, and fiber, spinach is delicious eaten raw as baby leaves or cooked at any stage of its growth. Spinach definitely prefers cool weather and, like lettuce, will bolt when the temperatures get too high. Spinach also freezes well, so if you end up growing an overabundance of it, give it a quick blanch in boiling water, and then freeze it to use later in the season. Here are the varieties I grow almost every year here in my zone 4 garden:
- Bloomsdale Long Standing – 40 days
- Space – 40 days
- Kookaburra – 26 days
- Corvair – 40 days
- Matador – 43 days
- Winter Bloomsdale – 45 days
Turnips – Like radishes and beets, turnips are a multi-harvest veggie to grow in your garden. The roots are edible (some can be eaten raw as snacks or added to salads, while others are delicious roasted) as are the greens. We’ve only really focused on growing turnips in the last couple of years or so, but now I can’t imagine my garden without them!
- Tokyo Market – 35 days
- Hakurei – 35 days
- Purple Top White Globe – 55 days
- Tokyo Cross – 35 days
Tips for Direct Sowing
Direct sowing seeds directly into your garden beds is fairly straightforward, but you’ll have the most success if you keep a few tips in mind:
- Plant at the right time. Your seed packet will tell you when the optimum time is for planting. Sometimes it will be before your last frost date, sometimes it will be after your last frost date, and sometimes it will be when nighttime lows are above a certain threshold.
- Start with a well-prepared garden bed. This can be an area you’ve dug up in your yard, a raised bed, or even a container (I’ll have more about veggies suited for container growing in my next post!) The area should be free of weeds, grass, rocks, and other debris, and should be as level as you can make it. The soil should be fluffy, and shouldn’t be walked on if you can at all help it. If you’re not sure how fertile your soil is, you can either send your soil out to have it tested via the Michigan State Extension service, or, if you just want to get growing, add a few inches of compost or composted manure and gently mix it into the top inch or two of soil. Whether you have to buy bagged or bulk or if you’ve made your own, any compost is good compost, and will give your veggies the nice, healthy growing medium they need.
- Pay attention to planting depths. On the back of your seed packet, it will tell you exactly how deep to plant the seeds for best germination. Some larger seeds will need to be buried a half an inch to one inch deep, and smaller seeds will need 1/4 inch or less. Some, you will barely cover. If you bury too deeply, the seed might not germinate at all, and if you don’t bury deeply enough, the seeds will dry out, get eaten by birds, or (in some cases) won’t have the darkness they need for germination.
- Water well, but gently. Once your seeds are planted, you’ll want to be careful with watering until they’ve established some roots. If you give them a strong blast with your hose, you’re likely to wash them away or knock them out of the nice neat rows or blocks you sowed them in. A gentle misting from a hose-end sprayer, or watering from a watering can that has a watering rosette on the end (one of those ends with holes to disperse the water) is recommended at this stage. You’ll want to keep the seeds evenly moist, and don’t let the area dry out.