Born Again Vegetables

by Tim Matson

Three  vegetable  gardens,  a  patch  of  herbs,  a  spreading  orchard,  a bed  of  blueberries,  and  a  field  of  raspberries  and  blackberries––when people first see this place, the question is bound to be asked: “Isn’t it a lot of work?”

The answer is yes. There are days in the thick of the growing season  when  he  carrots  need  thinning  and  the  potato  bugs  need zapping  and  everything  aches  for  a  water.  That’s  when  visions  of white  blankets  of  murderous  frost  dance  in  my  head.  Or  at  least that’s  how  I  used  to  feel,  before  I  discovered  some  shortcut crops that help trim garden overtime. Now instead of growing everything under  the  sun,  I  relax  a  little.  While  the  neighbors  are  out  raising plastic cloches in the spring mud, Ellen and I dig into a fresh salad. Friends are likely to be planting in the middle of a gale while we’re adding  greens  to  an  omelette.  Where  the  food  comes  from  is  just outside our kitchen door.

About  ten  days  after  the  snow  disappears,  roughly  May  Day here in the North, the first crop is up. Dandelions. Pity the folk who consider  the  “Lion’s  Tooth”  a  nuisance  weed.  After  the  marathon Vermont  winter,  a  feast  of  fresh  dandelion  greens  is  survival medicine. We eat the greens fresh in salads or cooked with a slice of homegrown  bacon.  Raw,  the  taste  is  sharp,  refreshing,  almost  like quinine.  Cooked,  it’s milder.  In  a  half-cup  of  cooked  dandelion greens  we’re  getting  three  times  the  Vitamin  C  and  20  times  the Vitamin A in an equivalent helping of cooked carrots, for instance. Not bad for a weed.

A portion of our dandelion crop comes up wild in the garden, and  I  yank  the  plants  by  the  root,  weeding  and  harvesting  in  one motion. The boiled root tastes a bit like an artichoke heart, but it’s a nuisance  to  peel.  The  roasted  root  can  be  powdered  to  brew  an ersatz  coffee,  but  we  leave  that  alone  and  are  content  with  the greens.  Elsewhere,  most  of  the  dandelion  crops  grow  scattered about two-acre clearing around the house. I leave these roots intact so we can have greens again next year.

The harvest opens in the sunniest spots and moves down into the cool shady hollows as spring ripens. It’s important to track the young dandelions and to harvest before the flowers emerge and the greens grow too bitter. Our dandelion season extends to the end of May, when our clearing lights up like a galaxy of suns. I celebrate the end of harvest by gathering a pail of golden flowers and brewing a gallon of dandelion wine.

On the heels of the early dandelions comes spinach––and we haven’t  yet  touched  a  spade  since  last  fall.  The  trick  is  to  plant  a row  or  two  late  in  the  preceding  summer.  In  this  region  (zone  4) I’ve  found  that  mid-August  is  about  right.  The  idea  is  to  start  the crop about a month before the first frost. Come autumn, the spinach will  die  back  and  then  sprout  reborn  in  spring.  It’s  important  to choose a rich soil location with ample early spring sun. I don’t plant in the middle of the garden or it fouls up springtime tilling. Spinach winters  over  best  if  the  roots  lie  insulated  under  snow.  To  help guarantee its comeback, I mulch the spinach under six inches of hay and peel it back in the spring.

Meanwhile, in the herb garden, Ellen is clipping chives to add an  oniony  zip  to  the  dandelion  and  spinach  salad  that’s  forming. This hardy perennial is easy to start from seed or root division and it likes the full sun. For best eating, the green tops should be snipped before  developing  purple  flowers.  If  you  crave  extra  spice,  add garlic chives to the patch.

Our born-again spring crops are not limited to salad greens. A 20-foot  row  of  parsnips  planted  last  May  turns  into  20  pounds  of sweet roots this spring. Kin to the carrot and celery, the parsnip is a vegetable  born  for  the  North.  The  roots  contain  about  18  percent carbohydrate,  in  starch,  during  the  summer.  While  we  are  out skiing, the starch changes into sugar. In spring the ground thaws and the parsnips lie in storage, waiting to be uprooted and baked or put into soup.

I’ve learned to harvest the parsnip before spring advances too far along;  otherwise,  the  roots  spend  energy  making  seed, and  the plant tastes like balsa wood. I start off pulling as many as we need for the moment, right out of the ground. Once I see the green tops sprout  more  than  an  inch,  I  harvest  the  whole  crop  and  pack  it  in peat moss down in the root cellar, which is cooler than the garden soil. The only problem with parsnips is that they are too sweet. By the end of May we are likely to have a surplus and no takers among our neighbors.  That’s when the roots make one last transformation. They  contain  enough  natural  sugar  to  produce  a  fine  dry wine, without the addition of extra sweetener.

Parsley  is  another  crop  that  winters-over  well  in  the  North. Like many early spring plants, it yields rich amounts of vitamin A, B, and C. I’ve found that this biennial comes back strongest when planted  in  mid-summer.  Late  planting  seems  to  ensure  vigorous second  year  growth  as  well  as  longer  picking  season  before  the plants go to seed. Spring rebirth is enhanced by a layer of insulating mulch applied in autumn, and parsley should be given a place of its own where it won’t interfere with tilling.

In addition to the dandelions and the spring come-back crops, I’ve  come  to  savor  couple  of  mid-season  wild  edibles:  lamb’s quarters  and  milkweed.  Known  also  as pigweed or wild amaranth, lamb’s quarters pack heavy charges of vitamins. We mix the greens in salads or cook them like spinach. They grow almost exclusively
in  the  garden.  Instead  of  weeding  them  out  entirely,  I  allow  the plants to stand wherever they don’t crowd other crops. I’m careful to permit a bunch to go to seed so we can welcome them back again next year. Milkweed lovers boast that everything about the plants is edible:  shoots,  flowers,  and  pods.  I’ve  tried  them  all  and  it’s  the flowers  that  I  favor,  just  before  they  pop  open.  I  boil  the  flowers briefly,  drain  off  the  first  water,  add  fresh  water,  and  boil  again. Changing the water flushes away the slightly bitter taste. I know the milkweed  is  ready  when  the  purple  flowers  turn  green  in  the  pot. With a little butter melted on top, this is a dish to stay home for.

Asparagus   and   rhubarb   are  the   classic   perennials.   Once established, they’ll return each spring as sure as Canada geese. And it you are lucky enough to discover a patch of fiddlehead ferns, keep it quiet. Few springtime treasures are so sought after or as tasty. I could add more labor-saving crops to the list, and gardening books  and  wild-food  guides  are  stuffed  with  them.  But  there’s  no sense in overdoing––the idea is to make less work for yourself, not more.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the book A Country Planet: Smart Ways to Rural Success and Survival by Tim Matson. The book is now out of print. However, watch our blog for several more reprints of Tim’s great articles from this book!

Tim is also the author of three books offered at Lehmans.com: Earth Ponds A to Z, Earth Ponds Sourcebook and The Book of Non-Electric Lighting.

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