by Tim Matson
ThreeÂ vegetableÂ gardens,Â aÂ patchÂ ofÂ herbs,Â aÂ spreadingÂ orchard,Â a bedÂ ofÂ blueberries,Â andÂ aÂ fieldÂ ofÂ raspberriesÂ andÂ blackberriesâ€“â€“when people first see this place, the question is bound to be asked: â€œIsnâ€™t it a lot of work?â€
The answer is yes. There are days in the thick of the growing seasonÂ whenÂ heÂ carrotsÂ needÂ thinningÂ andÂ theÂ potatoÂ bugsÂ need zappingÂ andÂ everythingÂ achesÂ forÂ aÂ water.Â Thatâ€™sÂ whenÂ visionsÂ of whiteÂ blanketsÂ ofÂ murderousÂ frostÂ danceÂ inÂ myÂ head.Â OrÂ atÂ least thatâ€™sÂ howÂ IÂ usedÂ toÂ feel,Â beforeÂ IÂ discoveredÂ someÂ shortcut crops that help trim garden overtime. Now instead of growing everything underÂ theÂ sun,Â IÂ relaxÂ aÂ little.Â WhileÂ theÂ neighborsÂ areÂ outÂ 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 weâ€™re addingÂ greensÂ toÂ anÂ omelette.Â WhereÂ theÂ foodÂ comesÂ fromÂ isÂ just outside our kitchen door.
AboutÂ tenÂ daysÂ afterÂ theÂ snowÂ disappears,Â roughlyÂ MayÂ Day here in the North, the first crop is up. Dandelions. Pity the folk who considerÂ theÂ â€œLionâ€™sÂ Toothâ€Â aÂ nuisanceÂ weed.Â AfterÂ theÂ marathon VermontÂ winter,Â aÂ feastÂ ofÂ freshÂ dandelionÂ greensÂ isÂ survival medicine. We eat the greens fresh in salads or cooked with a slice of homegrownÂ bacon.Â Raw,Â theÂ tasteÂ isÂ sharp,Â refreshing,Â almostÂ like quinine.Â Cooked,Â itâ€™s milder.Â InÂ aÂ half-cupÂ ofÂ cookedÂ dandelion greensÂ weâ€™reÂ gettingÂ threeÂ timesÂ theÂ VitaminÂ CÂ andÂ 20Â timesÂ 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, andÂ IÂ yankÂ theÂ plantsÂ byÂ theÂ root,Â weedingÂ andÂ harvestingÂ inÂ one motion. The boiled root tastes a bit like an artichoke heart, but itâ€™s a nuisanceÂ toÂ peel.Â TheÂ roastedÂ rootÂ canÂ beÂ powderedÂ toÂ brewÂ an ersatzÂ coffee,Â butÂ weÂ leaveÂ thatÂ aloneÂ andÂ areÂ contentÂ withÂ the greens.Â Elsewhere,Â mostÂ ofÂ theÂ dandelionÂ cropsÂ growÂ 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. Itâ€™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 spinachâ€“â€“and we havenâ€™tÂ yetÂ touchedÂ aÂ spadeÂ sinceÂ lastÂ fall.Â TheÂ trickÂ isÂ toÂ plantÂ a rowÂ orÂ twoÂ lateÂ inÂ theÂ precedingÂ summer.Â InÂ thisÂ regionÂ (zoneÂ 4) Iâ€™veÂ foundÂ thatÂ mid-AugustÂ isÂ aboutÂ right.Â TheÂ ideaÂ isÂ toÂ startÂ the crop about a month before the first frost. Come autumn, the spinach willÂ dieÂ backÂ andÂ thenÂ sproutÂ rebornÂ inÂ spring.Â Itâ€™sÂ importantÂ to choose a rich soil location with ample early spring sun. I donâ€™t plant in the middle of the garden or it fouls up springtime tilling. Spinach wintersÂ overÂ bestÂ ifÂ theÂ rootsÂ lieÂ insulatedÂ underÂ snow.Â ToÂ 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 anÂ onionyÂ zipÂ toÂ theÂ dandelionÂ andÂ spinachÂ saladÂ thatâ€™sÂ 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 beforeÂ developingÂ purpleÂ flowers.Â IfÂ youÂ craveÂ extraÂ spice,Â add garlic chives to the patch.
Our born-again spring crops are not limited to salad greens. A 20-footÂ rowÂ ofÂ parsnipsÂ plantedÂ lastÂ MayÂ turnsÂ intoÂ 20Â poundsÂ of sweet roots this spring. Kin to the carrot and celery, the parsnip is a vegetableÂ bornÂ forÂ theÂ North.Â TheÂ rootsÂ containÂ aboutÂ 18Â percent carbohydrate,Â inÂ starch,Â duringÂ theÂ summer.Â WhileÂ weÂ areÂ 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.
Iâ€™ve learned to harvest the parsnip before spring advances too far along;Â otherwise,Â theÂ rootsÂ spendÂ energyÂ makingÂ seed, andÂ 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 sproutÂ moreÂ thanÂ anÂ inch,Â IÂ harvestÂ theÂ wholeÂ cropÂ andÂ packÂ itÂ 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.Â Thatâ€™s when the roots make one last transformation. TheyÂ containÂ enoughÂ naturalÂ sugarÂ toÂ produceÂ aÂ fineÂ dry wine, without the addition of extra sweetener.
ParsleyÂ isÂ anotherÂ cropÂ thatÂ winters-overÂ wellÂ inÂ theÂ North. Like many early spring plants, it yields rich amounts of vitamin A, B, and C. Iâ€™ve found that this biennial comes back strongest when plantedÂ inÂ mid-summer.Â LateÂ plantingÂ seemsÂ toÂ ensureÂ vigorous secondÂ yearÂ growthÂ asÂ wellÂ asÂ longerÂ pickingÂ seasonÂ beforeÂ 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 wonâ€™t interfere with tilling.
In addition to the dandelions and the spring come-back crops, Iâ€™veÂ comeÂ toÂ savorÂ coupleÂ ofÂ mid-seasonÂ wildÂ edibles:Â lambâ€™s quartersÂ andÂ milkweed.Â KnownÂ alsoÂ as pigweed or wild amaranth, lambâ€™s quarters pack heavy charges of vitamins. We mix the greens in salads or cook them like spinach. They grow almost exclusively
inÂ theÂ garden.Â InsteadÂ ofÂ weedingÂ themÂ outÂ entirely,Â IÂ allowÂ the plants to stand wherever they donâ€™t crowd other crops. Iâ€™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:Â shoots,Â flowers,Â andÂ pods.Â Iâ€™veÂ triedÂ themÂ allÂ andÂ itâ€™sÂ the flowersÂ thatÂ IÂ favor,Â justÂ beforeÂ theyÂ popÂ open.Â IÂ boilÂ theÂ flowers briefly,Â drainÂ offÂ theÂ firstÂ water,Â addÂ freshÂ water,Â andÂ boilÂ again. Changing the water flushes away the slightly bitter taste. I know the milkweedÂ isÂ readyÂ whenÂ theÂ purpleÂ flowersÂ turnÂ greenÂ inÂ theÂ pot. With a little butter melted on top, this is a dish to stay home for.
AsparagusÂ Â andÂ Â rhubarbÂ Â areÂ theÂ Â classicÂ Â perennials.Â Â Once established, theyâ€™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 booksÂ andÂ wild-foodÂ guidesÂ areÂ stuffedÂ withÂ them.Â ButÂ thereâ€™sÂ no sense in overdoingâ€“â€“the idea is to make less work for yourself, not more.
Editorâ€™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 Timâ€™s great articles from this book!