THE MAINE INGREDIENT

May 19, 2010

Anne Mahle: Spring crops up with a bounty of its own

Spring is a time when many of us are dreaming of those big beautiful tomatoes we are hoping will arrive in mid- to late August. But while you are dreaming of the future, don't forget the present.

click image to enlarge

Growing many of these vegetables requires just a little planning and direct seeding in the springtime garden.

Elizabeth Poisson photo

There's still plenty of bounty to be had early in the season with asparagus, spinach, pea shoots, lettuce, kale, chard, bok choy, baby greens, rhubarb and maybe little snippings from those herbs you seeded indoors.

Don't forget the flowers – pansies, the hearty spring standby for window boxes and container gardens, are edible and beautiful in salads or as a garnish.

Growing many of these vegetables just requires a little planning and direct seeding in the garden. Make sure that the bed you choose has been fed with a generous helping of compost to keep your plants healthy and disease- and insect-free.

Root crops such as carrots, beets, radishes and parsnips are perfect for direct seeding in the springtime garden. They are easy to grow, tolerate cool weather and give you two vegetables to harvest for one seed – the greens when they are young and the root vegetables when they are mature. When sowing the root vegetable crops, I tend to plant them fairly close together and then thin them out. This is the best way to harvest greens (and the baby vegetables) without disturbing the vitality of the vegetables that will mature to full size.

Other perfect springtime crops for direct sowing are peas and greens such as spinach, bok choy, chard and the myriad lettuce varieties available. The tender baby leaves are all wonderful in salads, or you can try pea shoots for a beautiful addition. Of these, lettuce, bok choy and the heartier kales and brassicas such as broccoli raab and broccoli will take well to planting indoors and then transplanting later into the garden.

I usually seed lettuce once a week starting indoors and then later directly into the garden to stagger the days to maturity. Sowing lettuce every one or two weeks throughout the summer ensures I've got a lettuce crop all summer long and into the fall. Otherwise, we end up with a huge crop of lettuce at the end of June, which we couldn't possibly eat, and nothing but bolted heads a few weeks later.

However involved you decide your garden will be this year, delight in the simple and satisfying feeling that comes from harvesting at least part of your dinner from what you grew with your own hands.

 

CLEANING GREENS – In any of these recipes, thorough cleaning is essential to remove any trace of grit. Cut your greens to the desired size and soak in a large bowl of cold water for at least 5 minutes, distributing the greens throughout the water a few times. Transfer the greens from the bowl to a strainer with your hands, not by pouring. If the remaining water is very gritty, rinse the bowl and repeat the process until the water comes fairly clean.

 

ASPARAGUS

• Steamed – with just a little salt, pepper and lemon – my favorite! Use as a side dish for an entree or a vegetable for a dip.

• Leftovers, whether grilled, steamed or roasted, are wonderful in the next day's baby greens salad with a little pungent cheese and toasted nuts such as pine nuts or pecans.

• In a bag – a friend brought this method to me, and the asparagus was terrific. Toss the asparagus with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and fresh black pepper. Add lemon slices and sprigs of thyme or rosemary. Place all in a large paper bag and curl the top closed. Place on a baking sheet and cook for 20 minutes in a 375-degree oven or until the asparagus is tender but not mushy and still bright green.

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