by Maria Reidelbach
So, spring is here, at least according to the calendar. This is the time of the year that I feel compelled to go out and stare at the soggy, beat up earth, looking for signs of green emerging from the muck. This might be hard-wired in the human psyche, or it might be a result of my early training. One of my first food memories is being sent outside by my mother in the early spring to pick the tiniest dandelion leaves—it took a long time, but luckily our yard had lots. From these she would make a delicious wilted greens salad with chopped hard boiled egg and bacon bits. The richness of the bacon and eggs really contrasted nicely with the bitter greens. Years later I realized that on the Depression-era farm on which she was raised, those itsy-bitsy leaves must have been the first greens they had gotten since autumn and an important source of vitamins—a true spring tonic!
Last month, I wrote about herbs to give a jump-start to your edible landscaping. This month, I’d like to talk the fundamentals of a good garden. Sun and soil are two of the most important elements to insure the success of your plantings.
Almost all vegetable and fruit-bearing plants want at least 6 hours a day of direct sun, and preferably 8 or 10, to transform into delicious produce. Look around your yard to discover the sunniest spots, and remember that trees and shrubbery will be growing leaves and producing shade within the month. The more sun, the more vigorous your plants will be.
Soil is a little more complicated. First, soil needs to be a good consistency to both hold moisture and drain wetness, and so should be a mixture of clay, sand, and humus. To determine what your soil’s texture is, pick up a little damp soil and squeeze it. If it’s got too much clay it will clump together like the stuff you remember from your first grade classroom. If it’s too sandy, it will fall from your hands like powder, and if it has too much humus it might be mucky or slimy. You can add sand, clay, and compost until you get a nice texture.
Next, you want your soil to contain lots of nutrients, the right pH level, and few contaminants. You can buy a test for nutrients and pH at any good gardening store and do it yourself at home, or you can send it away. If your home is in a location that has a history of mixed use or agricultural use (especially an apple orchard), or if it was painted with lead paint, you should also get your soil tested for heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and cadmium. Materials dumped and pesticides used in the past can remain in the soil for decades and are accumulated by plants, especially leafy greens. Our house’s lot is mixed use and had a commercial garage, and also once had a hotel. Our soil tested positive for a low amount of heavy metals, so we brought in soil for some of our plantings, although we are growing berries in the existing ground.
What to plant now?
Radishes – there are a number of terrific radishes to grow, from the familiar dark pink spheres, to other shades of pink, red, white, and purple.
Lettuce, arugula, chervil
Peas – they look very pretty growing up an arbor, and even come in violet and yellow varieties.
Dandelion, bacon and egg salad: nytimes.com/2006/09/20/dining/202brex.html
Soil testing: soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu/extension/test.htm
Soil contamination study: news.cornell.edu/stories/Dec10/NYCSoils.html
Radish and lettuce seed: seedlibrary.org
Blue and yellow peas: cooksgarden.com