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A Lemony Life

Dreaming of Lemons

I have always wanted a row of lemon trees in my yard. You know the look; fruit trees planted in massive pots along a pathway, or better yet along the edge of a garden that is overflowing with lavender, basil, and San Marzano tomatoes. As I walk down the aisles of this imaginary garden, my feet crush the tiny purple blossoms of creeping thyme, releasing its intoxicating scent into the air. 

I even have gone so far in this wishful wonderland of having purchased a massive (and I mean massive) tiled terra cotta planter that would house my first lemon tree. Of course living up in the hinterland, the bliss of smelling blossoms on my way to pick basil has obviously not materialized. My funky and sizable pot has instead held red twig dogwood and curly willow branches. I guess in the north country, this is the best I can hope for with a lemon tree pot, and I must rely on the local grocer to obtain my harvest.

Fruit of Spring

The fresh cheerfulness of lemons signal for me the onset of spring. The dance between spring and lemons is as natural as that of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They were meant to dance with each other. Spring days are crisp, and a slight breeze rustles through the branches. The cool refreshing taste of lemons mirrors the weather outside, delightfully zippy. Whether creating a sweet or tart dish, this fruit can nourish and bring joy. I have in my hands something that will be used to create delicious beauty.  

Whatever the reason, it’s at this time of year that I want to move away from rich, dark, heavy braises and into using early spring greens, vegetables such as spring sweet peas, and newly harvested baby bok choy. These create a bed for grilled lean meats. I top everything with a lemony crumble, and I marinate or drizzle with abandon a dressing that includes lemon juice as a key ingredient.

Left: Chicken with lemon, mushrooms, dried plums, and green olives. Right: Grilled salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, Italian parsley, salt, and pepper 

Lemon Feasts

Forget the tradition of ham for Easter dinner. At our house, our custom is lemon for Easter. This year it appeared in many forms. Appetizers included garlicky crostini topped with a lemony Tzatziki sauce. We tossed shreds of Napa cabbage with a ginger lemon Szechuan pepper dressing to serve as a base for marinated and grilled flank steak. Then just so dessert wouldn’t feel excluded, we served little ramekins of lemon pudding cake topped with macerated strawberries and dollops of whipped cream. Did all of this meet my need for all things lemon? 

Left: Lemon pudding cake, Right: Lemon cake with a lemon glaze

Nope. Just as spring marches on, so does my need for more lemony quests. French lemon custard, caramelized onion, Ricotta, and lemon galette, risotto al limone, and Greek egg lemon soup are among my favorites. I love lemony chicken with green olives over cheesy polenta or grilled lemon slices scattered on charred slabs of salmon. For dessert, lemon gelato or curd, lemon blueberry muffins, and lemon olive oil almond cake come to mind. From hors d’oeuvres to desserts with beverages in between, I fill my menus as well as my life with this fruit.

Left: Caramelized onion, Ricotta, and lemon galette, Right: Grilling the salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper

A Savory Twist

Let’s talk a little about the use of lemon in savory dishes such as in risotto al limone or Greece’s egg lemon soup. It seems counterintuitive to add such a bright flavoring to an otherwise rich, toothsome dish. Take risotto, for example. A typical risotto is creamy with the predominant flavor being that of salty Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. When you add lemon, it’s almost like the dish changes lanes on a freeway. The lemon zest and juice transform it into something very refreshing.

Above: Risotto al limone

A similar thing happens with egg lemon soup, otherwise known as Avgolemono in Greece. This would have a fairly typical “cream of chicken soup” flavor if not for the addition of lemon to the pot. As with the risotto, the addition of lemon elevates this soup from commonplace to splendid. Such is the beauty of the lemon.

Above: French lemon cream custards with candied lemon zest

A New Lemon Drink

The most recent lemony addition to my beverage repertoire is switchel.  My current favorite variety is lemon ginger. Switchels are a beverage with a rich history. They are a beverage based on vinegar, most commonly apple cider vinegar. Switchel was to our early colonists what soda pop is to us today. Basically, it was ubiquitous. It was (and still is) seen as both refreshing and healthy.

Apple cider vinegar was available in the northeastern states and thus became the tang in the recipe, which consisted of water, cider, a sweetener like molasses, honey, or maple syrup, and a flavoring like ginger and/or lemon. Switchel, also known as Haymaker’s Punch because of its refreshing nature, became the refreshment for those working long hours out in the hot sun. However, it was not only consumed by ordinary folk but was always available on the floors of our early Congress, reportedly with a liberal flavoring of Jamacian Rum. This, shall we say, fortified switchel, probably “flavored” a few of our country’s famous and formative oratories.

Left: Switchel, Right top: Salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper, Right bottom: A lemony spring spread

Spring Awakening

Tender green buds unfold on the trees. Plants poke their first leaves up through the cool earth. Nature is waking up, opening its eyes, and soon will show its full, adorned glory. Meanwhile, my sweet pea seeds have been tucked into the earth along the fenceline. Tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings are moving into adolescence under the grow-lights in my basement. The vegetable seed packets have been arranged and rearranged as I impatiently wait to plant them in the garden.  

Above: Risotto al limone

Warmer days are on the horizon. Evenings spent outdoors with dear friends will be here soon.  At the moment, though, I’m trying to decide, do I make marmalade or preserved lemons with the extras taking up space in my fridge? Such is the sweet conundrum of a lemon-filled spring. 

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Garden Planning to Soothe the Soul

Spring Planting

Seed catalogs litter my couch. I keep pouring over the pages of flowers and vegetables. I have garden tabs open across the top of my computer screen, and I have been driving through town, stopping by garden shops. Amid all this planning, the plants are pulling me in, whispering, “I am beautiful. I am delicious. Buy me. Plant me.”

Planting time is approaching. The days are longer and warmer. We have been cooped up, self-isolating, and our reaction to this seclusion is to get outside. In the face of sickness, we have an inner voice inspiring us to self-improve and do what we can within ourselves to combat the enemy that is consuming our world.

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We have this urge to grow plants for eating. We want to surround ourselves with beauty, living greenery, and flowers. The desire to eat healthy foods enthralls us. We are exercising more than ever. It seems more important than ever that we plant our gardens. For our soundness of mind, we need to sink our hands in the dirt and bury seeds that soon will produce vegetal plenty.

Finding Garden Plants

Now, where to go to procure these seeds and plants? As local businesses are struggling, it seems more important now than ever to support them. I choose to buy my garden supplies from those I value and rely on during normal gardening seasons. I carefully tuck away the catalogs, turn off the computer, and buy from the shops in my community.

Whether it’s calling on the phone, ordering by computer, or, mask in hand, actually visiting these shops, seeds and plants will come home with me. The plants that fill my garden this year and the flowers that will spill out of my planters will mean more than ever.

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Planning the Garden

First, I start with a plan. What should I plant first? Second? In a few weeks? My garden map is sketched, pencil on graph paper. I need to place the nightshade plants in a new spot this year. Maybe where the basil was last year.

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I tend to go a little crazy on tomato plants. My resolution for 2020 is to control myself and carefully choose my favorite varieties. A few heirlooms, some Romas for pasta sauce, a couple sweet cherries, a couple dependable heavy producers, and most importantly, some new interesting colors and shapes. These are going to take too much room. I erase and rearrange the vegetables on my map, trying to squeeze in my indulgences. So many indulgences, so little space… There are simply too many have-to-have tomatoes.

Planning a Timeline

The cool weather vegetables need to go into the ground. Kale, arugula, sweet peas, radishes, lettuces, onions, leeks, carrots, beets, radicchio, Swiss chard.

My attention now turns to planning what I will plant in late May. It is important to purchase them now, as these unusual varieties tend to sell out. Plants include tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and cold-sensitive herbs and flowers. After bringing them home, they can harden in my yard for a while before they get planted.

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Lastly are the vegetables that cannot get planted until the ground is very warm: beans, cucumbers, and squash. I buy the seeds but will hold off planting until early June.

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With my plan forming, I can already smell the intoxicating scents of the garden. Tall dill that I allow to self seed everywhere (My small contribution to the black swallowtail butterfly). The delicate white cilantro flowers. Marigolds and nasturtium. The distinctive aroma of a just pruned tomato plant. Green fingertips. The yellow finches flitting from coleus to coleus, eating their seeds. This planning process elicits a visceral reaction. This garden is already worming its way into my soul.

The Hope of Spring

While on a walk, I hear the robins chirp as they busily go about building their nests. The squirrels race from tree to tree, busy with who knows what. The buds on the magnolia trees are just appearing, ivory cashmere petals emerging from pale green, velvety calyx.

The cool spring air. I breathe in deeply. Thankful. The soft new grass seems so green. Rhubarb and strawberry leaves push up through the soft, damp earth. The roses and clematis don’t realize there’s a deadly virus afoot. The plum and cherry trees are blithely budding. Nature is seemingly unaware of our current crisis.

This new birth is calming and reassuring. Heading to the garden, trowel and seed packets in hand, I settle in to dig, plant, and water, waiting for the future, waiting for new life to emerge.

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The Rise of Spring

Awakening Creation

Spring. Warm, sunny days. Cool rains. The green of the budding trees is almost electric, and emerging plants are the same. Their lime color is cheerful yet soothing. I am daily transfixed by the new strawberries poking their leaves up through the caramel mulch. Lily of the valley are slowly uncoiling their leaves. Soon the intoxicating perfume of their flowers will greet me each day.

The garlic cloves I buried in a corner bed last fall have long been up and stretching toward the sky. I cannot stop thinking about the garlic scape pesto I will be creating from the curly scapes that will swirl up from each plant. As I look across my other garden beds, I see the tiny evidence of early spring peas, lettuces, and pak choi.

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Garlic shoots

Spring Preparation

The time has not yet arrived for planting my summer seeds and plants. In this part of the country, we wait for the soil temperatures to warm up. What I am doing now is collecting. My stack of vegetable seed packets increases by the day. A wide array of pepper and tomato plants are hardening in my yard and garage. Flowers and plants with interesting foliage await being planted into ceramic pots.

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Collecting plants

Gardens with multi-season plantings bring life to the spring season when we have been without outside color for months. Some of my favorites are the early bulbs such as the subtly-hued Lenten rose, stubby crocuses that almost look like they are laughing at late winter as they push themselves up through the frosty remnants of winter, muscari with its clusters of tiny indigo grape-like flowers standing at attention up and down the stem, and fritillaria whose upside down tulip-shaped flowers look like miniature plum checkerboards. These are of course in addition to the many varieties and shades of daffodils and tulips.

The First Market

Just as I welcome the visual freshness of spring, so I also eagerly anticipate the clean crispness of spring fruits and vegetables. The weekly summer tradition of going to the farmers market began this weekend. Like walking through a seasonal portal, the opening of the farmers market is, for me, the start of my summer gardening season. Catching up with the farmers, scouting their new offerings, listening to the bluegrass band, buying something here, tasting something there. The aroma of coffee beans grinding or pizza baking in a wood-fired oven. It all comes together to lift my spirits. It is saying, “hello spring,” “hello warm sunshine,” “hello cool rich earth!” “Are you ready to welcome and nurture what I’m planting this year?”

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Farmers market bounty

Cooking for Spring

Of course, I brought home some culinary gems; trumpet mushrooms, Japanese spinach, and bok choy. These formed the components of our evening meal. So upon returning from the farmers market, I had to create in the kitchen. The ingredients called for simple dishes. We needed to hear the crunch of the bok choy and feel the bite of the emerald Japanese spinach. I decided to do an Asian interpretation by tossing in some pistachios and drizzling the greens with a mixture of peanut and sesame oil, Tamari sauce, freshly grated ginger root, minced garlic, and rice wine vinegar.

The just-harvested trumpet mushrooms that I buy at the market are so marvelous that I had to do the classic preparation of sauteing them in butter albeit with the twist of a sprinkling truffle salt. Strips of Ataulfo mangoes topped with coarsely ground pepper and charcoal-grilled chicken thighs marinated in a mixture of Vietnamese lemon curry, sea salt, and black pepper rounded out the dinner plates.

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I wake up to the multitude of birds chirping outside my bedroom window and go to sleep to the sound of gentle rain. Digging into the chocolate dirt, I carefully place my seeds within. I clean windows, sweep sidewalks, wash off yard furniture, and for the next five months we move our lives outdoors. Yes, spring has arrived. She has flung her bountiful self upon us, and I am basking in her presence.

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Rhubarb: The Vegetable That Thinks It’s a Fruit

The Heritage of Rhubarb

When I think of the classic plant that has anchored the corner of every Midwestern garden for the past century, I think of rhubarb. Some of my favorite dessert recipes are based on rhubarb. Rhubarb custard pie is oh, so delicious! I remember with fondness my Mom’s strawberry rhubarb freezer jam which we spread on warm toast. Warm Spilling Rhubarb over vanilla ice cream. My friend Jill Jorgensen’s gooey sweet Rhubarb Rolls. All these come from an unassuming plant that is so easy to grow you almost forget it’s even in your garden.

Rhubarb is a perennial vegetable that can flourish in most parts of the country. Rhubarb is delicious and easy to add to your garden. There are many recommended varieties to choose from. In my experience, the pinker the stems, the better they taste. Once planted, it can be left undisturbed to come back year after year.

Growing Rhubarb

Growing rhubarb is very simple. The plants make a nice addition to the perennial section of a vegetable garden or even a perennial landscape. In milder climates where they can overwinter without freezing, rhubarb also grows well in pots if you give it enough root space.

Spring is the perfect time to plant. Working some well-rotted compost or manure into the rhubarb bed will increase production. However, don’t pick any stems in in its first year. The plant needs all its foliage to help it establish a strong root system. In the second year, a small percentage of the stems can be harvested. In the third year and after, removing up to a third of the plant every year will keep it healthy and producing strong stems year after year. Dividing the plant every five years keeps the roots from getting too crowded. Which of your friends would turn down the offering of one or two baby rhubarb plants?

Uses of Rhubarb

Even though rhubarb had been used medicinally in China for thousands of years, its use as a food really started in England in the 17th century once sugar became available to counter its tartness. In the U.S., its use didn’t take off until the 1930s.

Nutritionally, rhubarb is high in fiber and loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. It can be a healthy addition to your diet if you curb the often added sugar. The stems (or petioles) are the only part of the plant we can cook and eat. The leaves contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to ingest and irritating to the skin if there’s prolonged contact.

Rhubarb is a great addition to desserts such as pie or crisp, cake, muffins, jams and jellies, and more. It is also great as a tart chutney over meat such as pork. My favorite completely unsweetened way to regularly include rhubarb is in fruit smoothies. The sweetness of the other fruits counters the tartness of the rhubarb, which lends a refreshing brightness to the final product.

Common Questions

  • Can you eat the leaves? No, they contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans. So throw away the leaves, and use the stems.
  • We just had a late spring frost that has damaged my rhubarb. Can I still eat the stems? No, when the plant has been affected by frost, the oxalic acid migrates from the leaves down into the stems, leaving them also toxic. If this has happened, throw away the whole plant. Look in your farmer’s market or grocery store for this year’s supply. If you live in a region prone to early or mid spring freezes, plant your rhubarb in a protected part of your yard. Last spring many in my area lost their rhubarb to freeze damage. Mine was spared because it is planted in a corner, protected on one side by a shed and on the other by a fence. The other option is to keep track of the weather forecast and cover it if a frost is on the horizon.

If you haven’t already, make this the year to add rhubarb to your yard. Like a long-time friend, it’ll always be there for you, but you never have to tend to it.

 

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The Invisible Glory of Dirt

What Happened to All the Dirt?

The new house we were moving into was in a section of town that was being carved out of native prairie. The neighborhood was located on a large (mostly) limestone plateau that looked out over the city below. I was excited. It was a large lot for a new subdivision. It was flat, and we had big plans for all that space. The final thing to happen before we moved in was for the contractor to grade the yard and lay down the sod. We had reserved a chunk in the very back for what would become our vegetable and flower garden. The rest they scraped and sodded. They said they had to do it so that we’d have a nice flat lawn. Our plan included flower beds surrounding the house and a stone patio with beds around that as well.

We moved in the fall, so when spring rolled around, we were ready, with shovels in hand, to create our flower beds. We pierced the ground with our shovels only to discover rock and clay hiding just below the surface. This was not the dark, rich soil we had envisioned. Our plants would not grow in this! Then we remembered; the native topsoil, teaming with living microorganisms, that was there originally had been scrapped away by those developing our neighborhood and by our builder as he leveled our lot.

Developing Good Dirt

At the time, we didn’t know a lot about dirt, but we knew enough to know the bulbs, flowering bushes, and perennials we had planned to put there weren’t going to thrive in rocky, clay soil.

So we decided to go about changing our dirt. First we carved the outlines of our beds. Next we removed all the dirt down about two feet. Truckloads of good, black dirt, compost, manure, and sand were dumped in tall piles on the end our driveway. We mixed these together, including some of the original dirt. Then we refilled all of our soon-to-be flowerbeds and vegetable garden with this new mixture.

All this work paid off in spades. We were rewarded with abundance in flowers, vegetables, and fruits. Though we didn’t know why exactly our plants thrived in healthy dirt, we saw the delicious and beautiful results.

The Microscopic World of Soil

Only relatively recently has the scientific community begun to put together all the many parts of what goes on under the ground in our soil. Scientists have historically thought that soil was made up of clay, sand, silt, and dead plant material. They didn’t know that in healthy soil the organic matter is almost completely made up of living and dead microbes. They are just beginning to understand how critical these microbes are to soil health and thus to plant health, and because we eat plants or eat animals that eat plants, to people health.

Life in the soil is mostly microscopic. What cannot be seen has not been understood. Now thanks to advances in scientific research, we are beginning to get a grasp on the role of bacteria, viruses, fungi, protists, archea, etc. The vast majority of these are extremely beneficial and essential to plant health.

Plant roots and the microorganisms that surround them have a mutually beneficial relationship. In a myriad of ways, this symbiosis makes our plants healthier. They have bigger root systems, and they have a much higher immunity to diseases. It has been shown they not only produce more fruits and vegetables, but those yields contain higher amounts of nutrients compared to plants grown in poor soil.

Creating Healthy Dirt

This begs the question, how can we get the healthiest soil possible? Of course, that is what we all want, right? Our solution over the past century has been to fertilize. If plants and soil need nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, let’s just give it to them. And we have … in abundance. The problem is that putting these minerals on the soil does not create healthy, living soil the plants need. Yes, the plants can grow large, but they are not growing better. They do not have the immunity to disease. They are not able to take advantage of the millions of organisms in the soil that make it possible for them to absorb necessary nutrients. Healthy soil absorbs and holds onto moisture better, making for more water for the plants as well as less runoff.

I liken it to the old adage, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Creating good soil is providing plants with the all the tools at nature’s disposal to flourish.

Enriching Your Soil

Healthy soil can be created almost anywhere by thinking through what you have at your disposal and faithfully applying it to your yard and garden.

It’s not unlike a recipe in your kitchen. Laying down compost and dried leaves in the fall (especially oak) grass clippings, wood mulch, compost tea, aged manure, even things like coffee grounds or fish emulsion. The more you add, the more food there is for the microorganisms to eat. This healthy soil makes for plants that can better fight off pests and diseases while bearing more produce.

As the saying goes, “We are what we eat.” And as it turns out, so are plants.

Spring is the perfect time to start creating great soil. Your landscapes are fairly bare, making it much easier to work with your soil. I would recommend just laying everything on the top of the ground. Don’t work it in. Trust me, the microbes will know where to find the food they need. It turns out the underground is like a microscopic city with infrastructure, pathways, and means of communication all set up. When we till, we destroy these established networks. Then it takes time to set it all back up again.

Soil experts and farmers around the world are only beginning to understand this and put into practice “no till” methods of farming. Farmers that practice just this one thing are seeing greater crops yields (as well as lower expenses because they are not spending the time and money it takes to till).

Try this: put away your chemicals, and instead feed your soil. Let’s see where this takes your yard and garden.
Soil is one of earth’s greatest assets, so let’s do what we can to make it better. The funny thing is, when we improve it, it will improve us.

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What Should You Plant First?

As early spring begins, I am starting to think about what seeds I want to plant in my garden beds for the first planting of the season. You are probably thinking it is too early to start thinking about one’s summer vegetable garden. However, this is the ideal time to plan and purchase those first seeds. Some of the most interesting varieties of seeds sell out fairly quickly, so once you know what you’re hoping to plant, get the seeds while they are still available.

A number of types of vegetables thrive in the cool, wet days of spring. Many plants need this weather to really do well.  I take the temperature of my garden soil, and when it’s around 50 degrees, it is time to plant.

The vegetables I am planting this early spring include:

Radishes

Last year I planted “D’Avignon,” the traditional French breakfast radish. This year I am trying two very different varieties. Early Scarlet Globe is a very dependable radish. It is ready in 20 to 28 days, so we can enjoy eating them early. And because I like to try new things, I am planting Purple Plum, a purple radish with a great flavor. A second new venture for me is Watermelon, a white radish with a stunning, dark pink center. This variety shines in the very early spring. It lends itself well to pickling, so I may play around with doing that later this spring.

Sweet Peas

I’m going all out on three completely new varieties of snap or snow peas this year. I chose two from Seed Savers Exchange (an organization that preserves historic and heritage varieties of seeds, saving them and also reproducing some for sale) The first pea variety is the Amish Snap. This is a pea that was been grown by the Amish community long before our present varieties existed. It vines tall and vigorous. The other choice from Seed Savers is Swenson Swedish. This heirloom variety was brought to Minnesota from Sweden in 1876. It is sweet, flavorful, and productive.

Another seed company that is doing great work in preserving rare and heirloom varieties is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds out of Missouri. I chose my third variety of sweet pea from them. This hypertendril snap pea produces more tendrils instead of some of its leaves. These, along with the beautiful pink blossoms, are deliciously edible and taste just like peas.

Lettuce

With lettuce I like to plant several kinds. I start early in the spring and reseed several times throughout the summer so I have a constant supply. I am planting two mixes, a Mesclun blend that contains some peppery lettuce varieties and a lettuce blend. All the Romaine lettuces are wonderful, so this year I am planting Red Romaine. A large variety, it is both a colorful and tasty addition to salads. Lastly, I am planting an English variety Craquerelle du Midi, sweet and crisp with dark green curled leaves. Its slowness to bolt in the heat of summer is another desired trait.

Carrots

I am starting with two varieties of carrots this year. One is an old faithful I have used for years, Scarlet Nantes. It is sweet, tender, and a proven producer. The other is a red carrot called Dragon. I love the beauty of red carrots. This tasty variety is red on the outside and orange in the center.

Arugula

The arugula I planted last year will come up again this year. I am also, however, planting a bitey variety that will nicely complement what is already out in my garden. Wasabi arugula has the spicy taste of wasabi, a very helpful addition to Asian dishes. It is more tolerant of swings in weather than other varieties. I’ll also be picking the edible blossoms to throw into salads or pasta dishes.

Kale

Lacianto Dinosaur is my kale choice this time around. This Tuscan variety dates back to at least the early 1800s. It is beautiful with dark green, deeply savoyed leaves. It is quite flavorful, making for a fabulous addition to soups and stews. This grouping of vegetables prefers the cool wetness of spring. At least a month before the final frost, I am out cleaning my garden beds and burying the these little nuggets in the ground. They don’t mind a little snow, frost, and cold spring rainstorms. They get to work, germinating and soon popping their little heads through the surface of the earth. The unsuspecting surprise of eating sweet lettuces or crunchy peas in the middle of May when most of us are just starting to put in our summer vegetables is refreshing indeed.

These early vegetables in an otherwise dormant space is like spring opening her door and saying, “Welcome to my home.” And, in fact, welcome it is!