Early Spring here at EEC Forest Stewardship are we’re taking a peek into the gardens to see what’s good eating in the lean times of cultivation. Indeed, right before the burst of new growth in the landscape, the last of winter’s grip challenges us to seek out what mother nature has left in the pantry. Special shout out to kale- being the most continually prolific green in our veggie patches in the coldest dark times, through even hot summer bolting- even self-seeding through the seasons to ensure continual productivity and edible leafy goodness. Our Purple Russian verity takes the cake, having sprouted from its self for going on eight years. It’s a sturdy brassica with the most tolerance for slug predation, aphid attack, and general human browsing. Hats off to kale for being the staple of our veggie garden year round.
A close runner up would be our garlic, bulb species that has a modest base in Spring, but lots of them in the ground, with fantastic flavor in the green stalks too. These wonderful perennials will reseed with ease, continuing to spread at will and with thinning, will mature into larger bulbs for a great late summer harvest of garlic heads.
While similar to the garlic, chives are shy in winter’s darkness, disappearing during the cold months, then peeking out again in early spring, like the chervil poking up in the Allium sativum. Chives are also prolific, and help deter many pest species, so I plant it around the edges of my vegetable patches. I’ve also found this herb is best preserved in the freezer, rather than drying it like many other greens. It’s easy to divide up the root ball of this plant when spreading it. I find that larger greens appear when there is ample space for growth, they can rival nodding onion bulbs in size if properly spaced. All of these Allium species produce flowers for pollinator species too, though we usually pinch off the scapes from our garlic to encourage bulb growth in mid-summer. One other species of Allium we’re happy to be propagating in our vegetable patch is Allium cernuum. This wild onion- called “nodding” onion because of it’s unique flower, is a native of Western Washington, and we’re hoping to transplant them into our forest and surrounding edge spaces as it establishes.
Camassia quamash or common camas, is an important eating bulb across the west coast, but many of the once abundant camas fields were demolished when colonial farmers took futile bottom land for pasture and crop production after First Nation’s Peoples were forcibly removed from the landscape. In rural wilderness, you can still find camas fields of purple in early summer, but to find them in Western Washington now, you’d best start planting them in your garden to support re-propagation. One of the most challenging aspects of propagating this native species, is the memory of other native species who are craving this once prolific plant- I’m talking about a lot of insects, which seem to find and enthusiastically devour the supple green shoots of this flowering food before it has a chance to eek out any flowers or seed pods. I’ve tackled slugs with beer traps, but the few camas bulbs I’ve established continue to barely scrape by, and we’re not seeing any successful propagation (as of yet). I’d put this species into a growing plan without expectation of any edible crop, sticking to long term recovery in the landscape as a goal.
A more familiar garden green we’re continuing to cultivate here at EEC year around is Chard. If left in a cold frame overwinter, you’ll continue to have good harvests through the dark cold months, but keep after the plants in late spring or you’ll have bolting to contend with. I’ve started saving seed and planting out new rounds every season to ensure they don’t all bolt before harvest. My other stellar late winter to early spring favorite in the garden is spinach. We have an amazing verity of self-seeding goodness which has continued to spread happily around our vegetable beds through the years and always comes up in the hardest part of winter when we really need fresh greens. It’s pictured below huddled in with the chard, and you might not recognize it as a spinach if you did not know what to look for. The leaves are narrower, and you harvest the whole plant to really enjoy a good serving. This hardy green will leaf out through late May, then bolt when things get hot, but by then, your other veggies will be established and thriving, allowing the spinach to seed out for future fall and winter crops. I love this prolific salad smasher, and appreciate it’s independent growing. I’ve had good success in saving the dry seed from this spinach as well, and hope to spread it into other planted beds as a good cover crop and edible feast.
A less obvious over winter vegetable which is starting to establish in our gardens is collard greens. They were hopping through the winter into early spring and are the first to flower out- even with heavy frost on the ground. I must admit that our general culinary habits have not fully folded these greens into our weekly roundup of salad and stir fry menu, but after watching this plant evolve through the cold season, I’m hoping to save seed for next fall. Note that the cold weather varieties will eventually bolt (flower), often before you’ve got your first crop of typical warm loving salad greens. The best counter to this seasonal shift is planting a rotation of seed through the cool months so that you’ve always got young plants starting. I’m happy to see flowers out before April- it gives our pollinators a great starting food source when they awaken from winter slumber. These flowers make the leafy greens taste bitter, but in time, the flower will become seed for our plantings next fall. I could try for another round of collards now, but other more tasty spring varieties are coming online with the warmer weather, and our greenhouse will soon supply us with tender lettuces we’re all craving by winter’s end.