By Kira Burger
As the lingering months of winter begin to give way to longer days and hopeful hints of spring, many gardeners are eager to put an end to store-bought salads and savour once again the flavours of fresh produce. Luckily for us, there is no shortage of leafy vegetables that are just as eager to be out in our gardens as we are.
Early spring gardening, for many, is limited to sprouting our summer-loving seedlings indoors, but it doesn’t have to be that way. For the eager gardener, the options for outdoor gardening are abundant. There are annual vegetable seeds that can be sown directly in the ground, and there are highly nutritious leafy greens that have likely “volunteered” in your garden already – no planting required!
Direct sowing refers to sowing seeds right into the garden,rather than starting them indoors in seedling trays.There are many edibles that prefer cool weather, and are ideal for direct sowing in late spring.
Once the snow has melted and the ground has thawed, keep an eye on your garden to determine when the soil can be worked. When you can squeeze a handful of soil and have it crumble rather than drip water, you can begin sowing seeds for some cool season crops.
A garden favourite.Choose from snap peas,sweet peas and snow peas. Peas fix nitrogen in the soil, so no need to add a nitrogen-based fertilizer around them. Fifty to 70 days to maturity.
A hardy root vegetable, parsnips resemble white carrots in appearance. Excellent when baked. One hundred to 130 days to maturity.
This leafy green packs a punch. Spinach is an excellent source of iron, calcium, vitamins K, A, B6, B2, and much more! Forty to 50 days to maturity.
Lettuce, mustard greens and arugula are just a few of the leafy greens you might mix into a sweet and spicy, nutrient-packed salad. These salad greens will mature in 40 to 80 days, but can be harvested sooner for baby greens.
Praised for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as its high nutritional content, bok choy is a tasty addition to a stir-fry or plate of steamed veggies. Forty to 50 days to maturity.
Curly kale, red Russian kale, dinosaur kale, Siberian kale; and the list goes on! Kale’s bold colours and unique textures make it prized both as an edible and ornamental in many gardens. Fifty to 60 days to maturity.
These spicy little treats are one of the quickest growing veggies; some are ready to harvest in as few as 20 days!
The large, easy to handle seeds make beets a great choice for planting with children or grandchildren. Fifty to 70 days to maturity.
Harvesting “volunteer” salad greens
Many of the common plants we find popping up uninvited in our gardens are edible and highly nutritious – sometimes more so than our cultivated vegetables! Plants capable of growing in inhospitable conditions (read: “weeds”) often concentrate high levels of vitamins, minerals and disease-deterring compounds in their roots,shoots,flowers and seeds.Conversely,plants that need to be babied in order to survive, or that have been bred for size and shelf life rather than nutritional content, may not always pack the same nutritional punch.
That’s right, I’m suggesting we eat the weeds. And why not? Many of our common weeds have been food sources for humans for centuries. Go ahead, put that dande- lion in your harvest basket. Just be sure to use your common sense:avoid harvesting in dog parks and heavily trafficked areas, and never consume a plant unless you are 100 per cent sure of its identification.When adding new foods to your diet, start slowly and with small quantities. Many perfectly edible foods will not sit well with everyone.
Try adding these tasty greens in your spring salad:
Dandelion – Taraxacum officionale Dandelion greens have a lot to boast about: they are a good source of dietary fibre, vitamins A, C, E, K and B6, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and thi- amin,to name a few.Reported benefits of dandelion greens include improved liver and gastrointestinal function, cancer prevention, weight reduction and clearer skin.Toss tender baby greens into a salad or try steaming the mature greens.
Broadleaf plantain – Plantago major Spring is a great time to harvest plantain, as the leaves are still young and tender. They can be eaten raw or cooked. These omnipresent perennials have proven to be packed with vitamins, calcium, and health-promoting polyunsaturated fatty acids. Broadleaf plantains have been used extensively in traditional medicine. One common use is a topical poultice of the crushed leaves to reduce swelling, bleeding, and infection for stings, bites, burns and abrasions.
Garlic mustard – Alliaria petiolata This prolific plant is considered invasive in many areas, so tossing it into your harvest basket is a win-win. You’ll help make a little more space for native flora, while nourishing yourself with a plant that contains mineral elements like calcium, iron, and magnesium in higher concentrations than are normally found in common leafy vegetables. Hot weather brings out a bitter taste in the leaves, so spring is an ideal time to harvest.
Getting out into the garden early doesn’t have to be an onerous task. By sowing easy-to-grow, cool season vegetables, and by harvesting the edible greens that pop up in your garden of their own accord, you can enjoy the benefits of fresh vegetables, crisp air and moderate exercise, even earlier than before.
Debunking days to maturity
Seed packets can sometimes produce more confusion than clarity. Most will provide an estimated number of days to maturity, but when do you start counting?
For seeds sown directly outdoors, start counting from the day the seeds germinate – that is, you see the tiny seedlings pop out of the soil.
For seeds started indoors, start counting from the day you transplant the seedling outdoors.
Then, be prepared to be surprised. Days to maturity is an estimate. The rate at which your plants ma-
ture will depend on how much rain, sun, shade, nutrition, pest or disease problems, heat and humidity your plants receive, as compared to their ideal growing conditions.
Days to harvest versus days to maturity
A plant reaches maturity when it flowers and bears fruit. For something like a tomato, pepper, corn or squash, harvest time and maturity are the same thing.
Leafy greens can be harvested before the plant reaches maturity.For example,you can harvest tender baby spinach, lettuce, and chard before the leaves get larger and tougher. n
Kira Burger is a landscaper and urban food tree advocate by day, and a passionate organic gardener by night.Trained in biology and horticulture, Kira encourages gardeners to appreciate the edible bounty hiding in plain sight.She volunteers with the Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton.