Impatient gardeners with itchy green thumbs are always looking for the earliest plants to add a zip of color to window boxes, urns, deck planters and door-side pots. Happily, there’s a cold-weather plant that can easily be started with a sprinkle of seed and a light turn of the soil as soon as temperatures reach about 45 degrees, which is often mid-to-late March here.

Not to worry. This plant will stand up to a light frost and delivers a bonus: You can eat it.

I started experimenting with leaf lettuce a few years ago on a grey March day when a pot full of bright, ruffled greens caught my eye on either side of a neighbor’s front porch. Curls and ribbons of electric green, dark reds and purples overflowed pots usually devoted to seasonal annuals, fulfilling spring’s promise of color — and a steady supply of salad.

Lettuce varieties fall into four groups: crisphead, butterhead, leaf and romaine. Go for the leaf lettuce as an early planter because it’s the easiest to grow and matures quickly. Unlike other lettuce types, leaf lettuce has an open growth and does not form a head. The seedlings tolerate a light frost and thrive between 45 and 65 degrees.

Watch the temps, and as soon as the container soil can be worked, sprinkle several pinches of seeds in a pot and scuff up the soil a bit, covering with a quarter to a half-inch of dirt. Loose, fertile, sandy loam soils are ideal and perfect for container gardens. Spring rains usually take care of the rest, and soon you’ll be harvesting salad fixins’ by removing the outermost leaves so the center leaves can continue to grow. Two or more plantings at 10- and 14-day intervals will keep you in the green for awhile.

Not being a picky lettuce eater, I choose leaf lettuce by the colors I’d like to see crowning my pots. Some leaf varieties recommended include: Salad Bowl, Grand Rapids, Black Seeded Simpson (earliest to harvest), Oakleaf, Green Ice, Prizehead, Red Sails, Lollo Rosso, Ruby and Red Fire.

Persnickety gardeners may want to thin seedings for optimum coverage, but I’ve found that leaf lettuce thrives on neglect and delivers a quick shot of spring color and salads until the soil is warm enough for summer’s annuals to take over. Then, just pull out the lettuce by its shallow roots and replace with flowers.


DIG IN

On your mark, set plant.

It may be a little too early to till, but it’s never too early to plan your garden for the season. Here are several good bets and new plants to pencil in:

Perennial of the Year: Call it by whatever name you like – wild indigo, false indigo or plains false indigo – but call Baptisia Australis the 2010 Plant of the Year chosen by the Perennial Plant Association. It’s picked by members for its success in a range of climates, low maintenance, pest and disease resistance, availability, cross-seasonal appeal and ease of propagation. The 3-to-4 feet high (and wide) purple bloomer produces violet-blue, lupine-like flowers atop flower stems extending well above the foliage of bluish-green leaves. Spring flowers last three to four weeks and give way to charcoal black pods that floral designers consider to be ornamental. The common name, blue false indigo, refers to the flower’s use by early Americans as a dye. It’s recommended planted in bunches at the back of borders and is popular in cottage gardens, native plant gardens, and native prairies and meadows.

Light: Full sun
Soil:
Well-drained; it’s drought tolerant
Hardiness:
Zones 3 to 9
More Information:
www.perennialplant.org


Sun Hosta: Many a hosta-lover has fried the shade-loving plant, ignoring its intolerance of an overdose of direct sunlight. But that’s all changing with GroLink’s SunHosta. The producer, propagator and broker has come up with a medium-sized variegated hosta that’s best in full sun and hot, humid conditions. It likes the sun so much that its full white variegation will show only in full sun. A strong drought tolerance makes it attractive for landscapes as well.

Light: Full to partial sun
Soil:
Moist
Hardiness:
Zones 4 to 10
More Information:
www.grolink.com


Light: Full sun
Spacing
: 8 to 12 inches
Hardiness:
30 degrees
More Information:
www.provenwinners.com


Native blooms: It just makes good garden sense to grow plants native to your area. You won’t have to work so hard watering, fertilizing, battling pests, etc., because the plants are generally acclimated to the conditions. If you don’t know where to start with these easy-growers here are some suggestions from www.ourohio.org:

Bloodroot: A perennial that grows 10 inches high with flowers produced from March to May, with 8 to 12 delicate white petals and yellow center. Leaves grow quickly after flowering and last until late summer. It can grow in full sun, but is more often found in semi-shaded, light-wooded areas.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit: One to two large, glossy leaves, divided into three leaflets, rise on their own stems 1-3 feet high. The blossom occurs on a separate stalk at the same height as the leaves. It is a large, cylindrical, hooded flower, green in color with brown stripes.

Cardinal flower: The bright red bloom, shown here, on the 1-to-6-foot tall plant attracts ruby-throated hummingbirds. The blooms appear along the upright stems growing in damp-to-wet areas, full sun to shade.