Columns, In the Garden

Early Season Treats from the Garden and the Woods

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Ramps are easy to grow and a real spring treat.

by Henry Homeyer

CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – Even if you planted your peas and spinach in April, you will not be eating them anytime soon. Despite days of full sun and occasional days of high temperatures, spring in New England is often cold and rainy, too. Our vegetable gardens putter along, but few things are ready to eat until June or later. But there are vegetables you can be eating now, however, if you plan right.

I eat parsnips as soon as the snow melts and the ground thaws. How? I overwinter parsnips in the ground, which sweetens them up and makes them even tastier. I plant parsnip seeds in June – they need warm soils to germinate.  Even then, they take two to three weeks to come up out of the ground.

Parsnip seeds only are good for one year, so buy new seeds each year. Plant the seeds an inch apart and half an inch deep. A key to success is to thin your parsnips so they are not crowded. Thin them in July when the greens are four to six inches tall They need three to four inches of space between plants if you want good-sized parsnips. If you mulch the plants well with ground-up autumn leaves or straw, your work is done until harvest time the following spring.

Parsnips are an old fashioned vegetable, but prepared properly they are delicious. I peel and chop parsnips into half-inch thick slices, and steam them until slightly soft. Then I cook them briefly in a frying pan with butter. At the last moment I add maple syrup and cook at low heat until it caramelizes. Yum! Don’t have any this year? You can buy parsnips at your farmers market or even the grocery store.

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Fiddlehead stems are good to eat, too.

A little-known perennial green is sorrel. Once established, it produces a plethora of light green, lemon-flavored leaves, year after year. The French make soup with it, perhaps because the greens themselves pretty much melt and disappear if you sauté them. So for years I just added them raw to salads.

Then I got Deborah Madison’s wonderful cook book, “Vegetable Literacy.” She uses sorrel with peas and leeks to make a soup. But I don’t really follow recipes, and found that yes, indeed, sorrel goes well with peas. But I found I can boil frozen peas, then at the last minute add chopped sorrel. Just boil it for another minute, drain, add butter and enjoy!

Another early perennial vegetable, asparagus, is also coming in to season. If you like asparagus, and I can’t imagine anyone not liking it steamed and slathered in butter, you should grow it. It is mostly sold as crowns (roots), not seeds, for starting a patch, but seeds are available if you want to start an acre of asparagus.

Don’t crowd your asparagus. The roots are sold in bundles of 25, which is fine for a family of two. Plant them 18 inches apart and six inches deep. Buy any of the Jersey hybrids, they are all male and won’t start new plants that will crowd out your established plants. When planting, add lots of compost and some organic fertilizer. They like full sun, and plenty of moisture, but will grow with as little as four to six hours of sunshine if that is all you can offer.

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Parsnips will grow in soil suitable for carrots and are an early spring treat.

To keep on getting good asparagus every year, keep it well weeded and top dress it with organic fertilizer every year after you finish picking. Mulch is good for keeping weeds down. And don’t over-pick your asparagus: three weeks is the season for a well-established patch. Don’t pick any in year one or two. The plants need to store lots of energy for next spring’s production, so they need to grow fronds all summer for that.

Fiddleheads are a great spring treat. They are the new shoots of the Ostrich Fern, a big shade-loving fern that is common in New England. All ferns come up as fiddleheads, but only the Ostrich fern is tasty. There is an easy way to identify them: they are the only ones that have a groove up the inside of the stem, just like celery.

I sauté fiddleheads in butter in a cast iron frying pan. First I brown some slivered almonds in olive oil, then add the fiddleheads and some chopped garlic or the bulbs of ramps (more on them below). I pick not only the curled part of the fiddlehead, but also the first 6 inches of stem. But I only take one or two fiddleheads from each plant to allow it to develop well.

Ramps, also called wild leeks, are easy to grow if you have an open wooded area with maple, ash or beech. They are commonly sold now at farmers markets. Both the bulb and the leaves are edible, so cut off the bulbs and plant them. Next year they will please you by showing up in early spring. If you plant 25 to 50 bulbs each year for 3 years or more, you will develop a nice patch. Once established they will spread by seed and root.

My favorite way of eating ramps is to clean them and rub off the gelatinous covering of the bulb, and then chop the entire plant for cooking. I fry them in a cast iron pan until the leaves wilt, then make scrambled eggs. They can also be added to anything that require garlic or onion as they are the same family.

We will have to wait until July or August to get our tomatoes, even those like “Early Girl” and “Fourth of July” that are quick to produce. But if you start some perennials in your garden, you can be enjoying taste treats even now, in May: I am.

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