Patchwork: It's time to feast on spring's firsts
As afternoon shadows lengthen and we put away the tools from a day of gardening, I pick our first salad of the year.
Salad for six: the thinnings of arugula and tiny mustard greens, leaves of Butterhead lettuce and Winter Density Romaine, more thinnings from the row of lacinato kale, young leaves of giant winter spinach, along with a couple of lemony sorrel leaves. Miraculously, the radicchio from last fall has wintered over, so I pick some of the red and green leaves to add a surprise of bitter flavor. There are sprigs of cilantro that have self-seeded, leaves of tarragon, from happily growing perennial plants, leaves from invasive mint tendrils, green pencil-thin lines of dill, and full-grown chives. Whatever is green and edible I put into the mix, though I resist the temptation to slice in some green garlic.
In the ground: Peas, lettuces, spinach, radicchio, carrots, kale, broccoli, broccoli raab, hyssop, cilantro, dill, chamomile, mint, arugula, tarragon, oregano, beets, radishes, brussels sprouts
Under the lights, or in flats: zucchini, butternut squash, cucumbers, many varieties of tomatoes, eggplants, cutting flowers
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The air is clear and cool. There is some warmth to the last of the sun and the soil in the beds is damp and warm. No bugs yet.
What is it about the first tastes of green? Last week while the plants in my raised beds seemed to be on hold with the cool temperatures and rain, we treasured ramps — wild leeks — that someone kindly left in a plastic bag hanging on the front door. Still wet and muddy, the ramps were freshly picked from a friend’s private land.
We ate them, the bulbs lightly parboiled and the leaves shredded, in scrambled eggs from eggs we had gathered that morning. The next day we made flat bread with ramps and fiddleheads, which also came from nearby. And finally I made a pesto of ramps with some basil, nuts and oil.
I have friends who love to forage, and others who don’t approve. I don’t forage much, but I find the possibility of it exciting. Perhaps it is because I spent much of my childhood in a city, where seasonal changes bounce off pavement, sunlight flashes off glass buildings, rain water rushes out of sight into dark gutters, wind whips around steel and cement corners, snow turns dark and sooty, then slushy salty, and any bits of green are fenced in small rectangular patches. So I find the first sightings of green, and then color, affirming. And if the first edible greens of the season come from woods, that’s miraculous. Then again, perhaps those feelings are simply primal. We all need that green — deep down, I find it comforting to think that wild food still exists.
This is a strange spring. It has been full of false starts — those first eerily hot days in March, then nights of frost, then a mini cycle of dryness when it felt like we could be heading into a drought. The soil in my raised beds had rarely been so dry. Otter Creek was ominously low for April. Then, thankfully, it rained.
It has also been a spring of firsts.
Margy and I are raising meat birds this year, in addition to our turkeys and laying hens. When my phone rang at 6:30 a.m. April 20, it was not a family emergency, but the post office calling to say the Freedom Ranger chicks had arrived. Settled into a large cardboard carton in my family room, they immediately became a neighborhood attraction. A week later, three times their original size and awkwardly sprouting clumps of brown and white wing and tail feathers, the chickens migrated to Cornwall in Margy’s van. (Ever since she has been live-streaming video of them over the Internet.)
Without snow cover this winter, some perennial plants have disappeared, others were burned by frost, and still others are behaving strangely, blooming prematurely. Last year I waited ’til early June to sow my potatoes; it was too wet. This year I put them in April 21. Last year I waited till Memorial Day to plant my tomatoes; it was too wet and too cold. This year I am putting them in now and covering them at night if necessary.
This year I took a page out of Barbara’s book: John and I covered two of the raised beds with tunnels with hoops made out of electrical conduit and covered with a semi-permeable covering that lets rain in, but holds in warmth at night. Back in March, I planted lettuces, broccoli, kale, spinach, radishes, arugula, carrots, beets, mustard greens, fava beans and radicchio.
Everything is flourishing, so far.
My gardens are sprinkled, for the first time, with seedlings that self sowed: chamomile, calendula, hyssop, dill, coriander and arugula.
My first fig tree, a 25th wedding anniversary present last May, which we placed in the basement for the winter after all it’s leaves fell off, is back upstairs in the light. Tiny palms of leaves are unfurling, and figs the size of small peas are forming. All I can think is: It lives!
Every year sees its share of firsts: My gardening friends and I are checking our notes from last year. What worked? What didn’t? What should we try this year?
Under the super moon, the cycle begins afresh. Happy spring and happy re-entry into your gardens!