Ready for spring? Just take a look outside: Mud. Gray skies. The bedraggled remnants of winter. Don’t worry about it. Spring will be here soon, and the full-throttle summer of tomatoes, zucchini, green beans and cantaloupes will be on you before you can say “Burpee.”
Now is the time to start working on that. But there are things you can plant immediately that will get you eating fresh food long before the tomatoes turn red.
Actually, you could have started long before now. David Blackley, manager of Renfrow’s Hardware in Matthews, teaches classes in all-year gardening and maximizing yield.
“You should eat something every day out of your yard,” he says. “Don’t think of your garden as a summertime place to get a squash. You get a pretty day in January, by God, get out there and do something.”
If you want to plant things that will have the most kitchen use in the shortest amount of time, his suggestions are things that add lots of flavor.
“Everybody should plant onions and scallions,” he says. “They mature rapidly and they have so many uses. You can use the tops, you can use the bulb.”
Certainly plant lettuces -- they do better in spring in this part of the world, before the longer days of summer make them go to seed. But a bowl of lettuce isn’t all it takes for a salad.
“A nice radish is a nice addition to a meal, and you can have a radish in 35 to 50 days, really quick. “And then your regular ol’ mustard greens. They’re good and they’re fast-growing and they hold your palate until summer.”
All sorts of leafy stuff is a good early start. Like lettuce, most leafy greens like cooler temperatures, and it’s faster for a plant to develop leaves than something like an edible root. And you can pick a few leaves every day, which can keep things like spinach, beet greens and lettuce producing instead of going to seed.
“Definitely plant arugula, mizuna and lettuce,” says Kim Shaw of Small City Farms. Even though Shaw is a farmer who sells at the Charlotte Regional Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings, she understands home gardening.
She and partner Rohan Gibbs started their business in 2007 by filling the yard of their home in Stonehaven with raised beds. When they outgrew that -- literally -- they bought a three-acre farm in west Charlotte.
For her own planting, sugar snap peas are an early winner -- and a top-seller at her produce stand. “People go crazy for them. And lettuce mixes. People are so over that collard/kale, long-cooking nonsense. They’re like, ‘ooooh -- lettuce.’ They come out of hibernating and they’re totally up for salads.”
As an experienced farmer, she has a warning for spring-crazy home gardeners, though: Handle those seed catalogs with care.
“The cool thing about spring is, it’s like a wave of amnesia crashes over me. You forget what a pain everything was. You’re sitting there with a seed catalog thinking, ‘I can grow this, I can grow this, oh wow, I can grow this.’ And you completely forget the cucumber beetles from last year.”
That shouldn’t stop you from planting, of course. Just think about the things that will yield the most food. Blackley’s marching orders for March?
“Everybody should be required to grow Swiss chard in this country. It yields more food than anything else you can grow.”
Gardening classes David Blackley teaches food-gardening classes every other week in the spring. Classes usually are from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. every other Thursday at Renfrow’s Hardware, 188 N. Trade St., Matthews. Cost is $25 and class size is limited to 25 people. Call the store, 704-847-4088, for details.
Recipes Mizuna Salad With Dried Cranberries, Pecans and Goat Cheese From Kim Shaw of Small City Farm. Mizuna is a dagger-shaped green with a spicy flavor. If you don’t have it, substitute arugula. You'll need about half the dressing for a nice-size bag of greens. You can cut the amounts in half, or refrigerate the rest and rewarm it for another night. Tip: You can toast the pecans in a dry skillet, remove them and then use the skillet to make the finished dressing.
1 1/4 dried cranberries 1/2 cup tawny port 5 ounces pancetta or thick-sliced bacon, diced 2 shallots, minced 1 clove garlic, minced 1/3 cup olive oil 1/4 cup red wine vinegar 2 teaspoons sugar 1 (5.5-ounce) log of fresh goat cheese, crumbled (I used about 1/4 cup Bosky Acres fresh goat cheese) 1/2 pound mizuna and/or arugula or other crispy greens 1/2 cup pecans, toasted Combine cranberries and port in a small pan. Bring to a simmer, remove from heat and let stand about 15 minutes, until the cranberries swell and soften a bit.
Saute the pancetta or bacon in a large, heavy skillet over medium-low heat until crisp on the outside, about 8 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside on a paper towel.
Add the shallot and garlic to the bacon fat in the skillet and cook about 2 minutes, just until onion starts to soften a little. Add the oil, vinegar and sugar and cook briefly, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the port and cranberries and season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat. (Can be made in advance. Rewarm before finishing the salad.)
Combine the salad greens and pecans. Rewarm dressing slightly if needed. Add just enough dressing and cranberries to the greens to moisten and toss well. Top with crumbled goat cheese.
Swiss Chard With Olives From “Power Foods,” by the editors of Whole Living magazine (Potter, 2010). 2 small bunches Swiss chard (1 1/4 pounds, trimmed, washed and drained 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil 1 small yellow onion, sliced 1/4 inch thick 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced 1 jalapeno chile, finely chopped (ribs and seeds removed for less heat if desired) 1/3 cup coarsely chopped, pitted brine-cured olives, such as Kalamata (about 16) 1/2 cup water Separate chard leaves and stems. Coarsely chop leaves; cut stems into 1-inch pieces. Heat the oil over medium heat in a large skillet or Dutch oven. Add the onion, garlic and jalapeno; cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent, about 6 minutes.
Add chard stems, olives and the water. Cover and cook 3 minutes. Stir in chard leaves; cover and continue cooking until stems and leaves are tender, about 4 minutes longer. Serve immediately.