Even though the last frost is still several weeks away, Hallie Reikowsky has already started gardening.
"I'm harvesting black beans out of my living room window!" Reikowsky said with a laugh.
Reikowsky, the garden and education manager at the Bellevue-based Hunger Coalition, said she tucked some dried beans into a houseplant on a whim last year. Now, those spontaneous seedlings are producing.
Outdoors, preparations are being made for spring planting. Reikowsky said she and Hunger Coalition volunteers have been prepping beds and planting "starts," or seedlings such as peas, carrots, kale and spinach while looking forward to planting beets next week.
"We're getting a jumpstart on our season," Riekowsky said, adding that she bases her planting times on soil temperatures. Peas go in when the soil reaches 40 degrees; kale and lettuce can be planted when temperatures hover around 45 degrees.
Jason Kindred, general manager of Moss Garden Center in Ketchum, said greens are often one of the first things that can go in, along with root vegetables such as radishes and carrots. However, he said, he'd wait until the beginning of May, when temperatures are slightly warmer and there's less risk of losing plants to frost.
Reikowsky said she's running a risk, of course, but it's worth it because of the nature of the Hunger Coalition's garden, which produced 1,200 pounds of food for needy families last year.
"It's worth the potential to have food much earlier," she said. "By getting things in early, you teach people that they can be eating fresh, delicious food from their backyard really early."
Both Kindred and Reikowsky said they'd wait to plant peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes, which are less resistant to frost.
"It's really not safe to put the tender stuff out before June 1," Kindred said. "Even then, you're running the risk of having to cover them or bring them inside."
But at least one place in the valley is already growing delicate tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers that others will need to wait weeks for: the greenhouse at the Sage School in Hailey.
The school is working with Dan Freeman of Shooting Star Farms, who has started the fragile plants in his own greenhouse. They will soon be transferred to the school's facility, located in the old Hailey Nursery building.
Harry Weekes, the head of Sage School, said the school's greenhouse gives it a much broader range of growing possibility.
"We can have things growing all through the winter," he said. "We could start things really early and get a jump on the season, or go really late. It gives us a lot of flexibility."
Weekes said this growing season will be more or less experimental for the school.
"We'll try everything, just to see what likes it here, what thrives," he said.
The school is also growing basil in an aquaponic system, where fish (tilapia or guppies, in this case) and plants live together in large tanks, each thriving off the other.
"What you do is use the excess food and fish waste as food for the plants," Weekes said. "It creates this closed-loop system where you're feeding the fish and the fish are feeding the plants."
Of course, not all gardeners have the luxury of using the 2,400-square-foot greenhouse that the Sage School has access to and must resort to other methods, as Reikowsky's living room experiments demonstrate. This can be problematic for growers who must contend with what Kindred calls a "super-short" growing season.
"From last frost to first frost is three months," he said, and some contend it's even less, more like 60 days.
Reikowsky said the valley weather can be "tricky," and often requires creative solutions to make an early-start garden successful.
"The common mistake is to jump the gun and put the tender things in early," she said. "If people lose things from their gardens, they tend to get very discouraged."
Gardeners who are determined to start early can take steps to reduce disappointment. Kindred said one option is a frost cloth—breathable fabric that can be used to cover delicate seedlings until better weather.
Kindred cautions against attempting to use a standard tarp like those used for summer camping.
"If you use a non-breathable material, condensation will build up on the inside," he said. "That could freeze and damage the plants."
If gardeners can't find a frost cloth, Kindred said, old sheets could work as well.
Gardeners looking for early-season tomatoes can try planting them in containers that can be moved indoors if the night turns chilly. Kindred said tomatophiles can try putting the containers against a heat-absorbing south-facing wall.
"[The wall] will radiate the heat at night, helping the tomatoes stay warm," he said.
Reikowsky said she believes the Hunger Coalition's garden was so successful last year because of its location on the south side of the Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey on the site of the old jail, surrounded by asphalt and brick buildings. All that material radiates heat at night, while the buildings block the wind.
"It's been just a brilliant site," she said. "It's just the luck of the draw."
Why do valley gardeners deal with all of the challenges? For Reikowsky and Weekes, the answer is education.
"Growing plants and growing food is something students need to be part of," Weekes said.
He said working in the school's greenhouse offers a staggering range of educational opportunities. Students learn the economics of trying to produce vegetables and fish for a profit and the biology of growing things, and the greenhouse's solar thermal heating system provides the chance to teach thermodynamics.
Reikowsky said the Hope Garden helps to teach language as native English and Spanish-speakers come together to work in the garden and learn vocabulary words that focus on the day's activities.
She said gardening skills and nutrition form the focus of the garden's educational side, which is partly what directs her crop choices.
Kale and chard are not exactly the most common vegetables on many dinner plates, and Reikowsky said one of her main goals is get her clients to branch out.
"A lot of people are a little gun-shy about using them, but they're so nutritious," she said. "I'm trying to focus this year on educating our clientele [about] how to put them to use for your body."
At the end of the day, the garden is about bringing affordable, healthy produce to families, Reikowsky said. In fact, that's why the garden doesn't grow potatoes.
"Rather than use our space for something that is already so affordable, we thought we ought to focus on things that are more costly," she said. "Have you seen the price of peppers at the supermarket?"
Fresh peppers may be months in the future, but soon Reikowsky's clients—as well as other valley gardeners—won't need to worry about the supermarket prices of some key vegetables. Kindred said radishes are generally the first to be ready, followed by lettuce, arugula, beets and carrots.
"If you start in May, you should be able to start harvesting lettuces and carrots and radishes in early June," he said.
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com