When your goal is to produce food from your garden as fast as possible you want to select vegetable plants that have a very quick turn around. When we are discussing fast growing vegetables we need to look at the days to maturity. Days to maturity means the approximate days from germination until harvest. Notice two important words here: from germination.
Always plan on adding the germination time to this equation to have a more accurate number. Keep in mind that days to maturity is only a guideline and garden or growing conditions can effect that number significantly.
Now that we have out parameters framed let’s look at the plants that have the fastest days to maturity dates.
Fast Growing Vegetable Garden Plants
I’ve tried to put the general days to harvest on the types of vegetables below. Different varieties of the same plant can alter the days to harvest so check your seed packets for the days to harvest that matches your seeds.
Frost Tolerant and Fast Growing Vegetables
Radishes – 30 Days
Radishes have one of the fastest rates of maturity at around 30 days. You can plant radishes about every 10 to 14 days to have successive harvests. Radishes are grown for the root so having soil that is loose for root growth is ideal. If you have heavy clay soil add compost to it to try and loosen it up.
That being said many farmers use radishes as a cover crop to help prepare the soil. They will plant the radishes in a bed and allow the roots to push through the soil. As the radishes grow it loosens the ground then the crop can be killed off with a tarp or tilled. The decaying organic matter from the radishes can nourish the soil and improve it for subsequent crops.
When the summer garden is done you may want to try planting a fall crop of radishes and try the cover crop technique to prep the spring garden.
Lettuce – 45 Days*
Lettuce has a days to maturity of about 30 days also but can be harvested much earlier or used as micro greens. Lettuce can be grown easily in pots, raised beds, hydroponically, and several other ways. Lettuce is one of those crops that you can cut and come again so one plant can provide a few cuttings worth of produce if you leave the roots in place. You can get 2 to 3 total harvests from a single plant of lettuce.
Lettuce comes in many varieties and we tend to plant the Romaine or loose leaf varieties mostly. Iceburg and head lettuce can be tasty but doesn’t have the cut and come again ability the loose leaf lettuces have. Some varieties of lettuce are highly ornamental with colors ranging from green to dark purple.
For smaller heads try a lettuce like ‘Tom Thumb’ which forms loose heads in serving size portions. One head of ‘Tom Thumb’ will make a large individual sized portion of salad. See below of an image of a young ‘Tom Thumb’.
Kale – 40 to 60 Days*
Kale is a good selection for it’s nutrition as it has high values in many areas (see the below links for USDA values). It has a days to maturity of about 40 days. Kale has been popular in recent years but I think you either really like it or you don’t like it at all. Kale makes a good vegetable for smoothies to add nutrients without calories.
Spinach – 45 days
Spinach is not a favorite at our home so I don’t grow it as much as lettuce or kale but it is another nutrient rich food you can grow for a quick harvest. No it’s not going to give you super strength like Popeye but it is rich in lots of vitamins and nutrients and low in carbs and calories.
Spinach grows fast, has high nutritional value, and can be eaten at any stage after germination. Spinach can be grown for microgreens, baby greens, or full grown leaves.
Here are some Fast Growing Seed Selections from Botanical Interests Seed Co.(aff.) They have a TON of delicious varieties that I like. Costata Romanesco is one of my favorite zucchinis and Rouge D’Hiver is a great purple colored lettuce. Give them a try.
Sow spinach seedlings with just a little covering of soil. A dusting is enough. Keep watered regularly until established. Germination should begin in 7-10 days in ideal conditions. Spinach will transplant well so starting indoors and transplanting outside is a good option.
Beets 50 Days
Beets can be eaten for the root and the foliage. Just don’t take too much of the leaf if you are harvesting leaves as you want to “leave” enough to regenerate roots and more foliage. Beets are high in iron and very tasty when roasted or pickled.
Snap Peas – 55 days
Snap peas are a delicious legume that offers lots of protein and a lot of nutritional value. They also taste great raw! (Try some snap peas and hummus or ranch dressing and you will agree). Our kids love snap peas and we NEVER have enough!
Presoaking snap peas will help with germination but isn’t necessary.
Turnips – 45+ Days
Turnips will grow in the cool season where you can harvest greens then when it is warm you can harvest the root. They can grow in the spring or be started in the summer for a fall harvest.
Fast Growing Summer Vegetables
Summer Squash and Zucchini – 50+ days
Summer squash and zucchini are easy to start from seed in the garden and get a fast harvest. They will flower in 3-4 weeks and begin producing soon after that. I will often prestart my seeds in biodegradable pots a couple weeks before the last frost date but also plant from seed directly in the garden.
Squash and zucchini plants may run into some issues from pests and disease. Squash vine borers and squash bugs are common in the southeastern US and I deal with them every summer. Use successive planting to make sure you have consistent harvests but also use organic techniques like row covers to offset borer damage.
Bush Beans – 50+
Bush beans are a summer legume and unlike pole beans produce beans all at once then can be replaced. Pole beans are vining and indeterminate and will produce a beans constantly but will have a lower yield at one time. I recommend planting a mix of both if you have space. Otherwise do bush beans with successive planting (see more on the successive planting method below.)
Cucumber – 55+ days
Cucumbers grow fast and are best picked when smaller for better flavor. I plant our cucumbers from seed directly in the garden after the weather is safe from frost. If you want to save money on cucumbers buy seeds rather than transplants. The seeds will catch up to the transplants very quickly.
Okra – 50+ days
Okra can be a very beautiful plant in the garden. Once it is ready to harvest keep picking it as often as possible to maintain a steady supply. Okra can be started indoors before the frost date and transplanted outside after danger of frost.
* These vegetables may be harvested earlier as baby or microgreens.
3 Planting Strategies to Try
You will notice that the fast growing summer vegetable list is much shorter than the frost tolerant cool season vegetables. There are many more vegetables to grow in the summer but they tend to take longer, 75 to 90 days or more. Tomatoes, peppers, and melons all take longer periods from start to finish to get a harvest. Here are three planting strategies that will help insure a constant flow of produce from the garden.
With succession planting you start a new crop within a 10 to 14 day period so that every couple weeks the new crop is ready to become the main crop. Succession planting is the most important technique of the three in this post as it will maintain a steady production schedule as long as you keep up with it. When the earliest plantings are done that space can then be used for your warmer season crops or be replanted with cool season vegetables if you still have some cooler days ahead.
To plan a successful successive crop think about how much you would want to harvest for your uses over two week periods. Over plant your crop a little and plan on planting that amount every 10 to 14 days. You may need to amend your soil with compost between crops in order to replenish the soil.
Interplanting crops is where different crops are planted together that may be reasonable companion plants. It’s one aspect of “companion planting” and for maximizing your product is a great technique to use.
Interplanting works well because different plants use different nutrients. Vegetables grown for their roots will need potassium and phosphorus more so than nitrogen while leafy greens will prefer the nitrogen. A balanced approach using organic fertilizers and compost is the best approach for general home vegetable garden production.
Planting in Pots
If growing space is a concern planting your vegetables in pots is a great method. Planting in pots can also be used to help extend the season of short season crops that may bolt when the heat comes. You can move pots into shady areas or cooler spots to offset bloom formation.
Bolting is when plants begin to flower and go to seed. It often turns the foliage more bitter and less palatable. However if you want to collect seed you will want to let a few plants bolt so you may gather the seed.
Many vegetables and herbs can be grown in pots quite successfully. The key here (as in all other areas) is to make sure the soil is rich and replenished after heavy use. As always I highly recommend natural compost as an amendment.
The disadvantage with growing in pots is that it they may dry out quickly. There are self watering kits you can purchase or DIY to make watering simpler. You can also install irrigation like drip lines to help maintain moisture in the pots.
Patience is always required of a gardener but sometimes its nice to have some fast growing crops for your garden. Think of the time to harvest as a general guideline and use it in relative correlation with other longer season plantings to determine what you plant and when.
Don’t forget to read my post on Starting a Spring Vegetable Garden. It should have lots of useful information to help you with your vegetable garden this year.