Savoring the arrival of spring

Bright greens are the first tasty sign that the growing season is upon us

March 25, 2007|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special To The Sun

Early greens -- lacy `Golden Frill' and delicate `Ruby Streaks' mustard, red choy erupting out of the ground in a tight little bloom of red-tinged leaves, tattered Kyona mizuna (Brassica rapa), lance-shaped Bordeaux (Spinacia), and many more -- are like robins. They're the first harbingers of spring.

"They're usually the first thing out of the garden," says Theresa Mycek, manager of Colchester Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in GeorgeTown on the Eastern Shore.

"They germinate when the air and soil temperatures are about 45-50 Fahrenheit," says Mike Pappas, owner of Eco Farms in Lanham.

Nutrient-packed early greens, long prized as a spring "cleanse," range from Asian greens, many of which -- like hon tsai tai, komatsuna, and tatsoi -- are Brassicas, i.e. cabbage family, to arugula, garden cress (nasturtium, barbarea or lepidium) shungiku (edible chrysanthemum), corn salad (mache), various types of spinach, and orach, whose latest variety, `Oracle' is a lovely purply red.

"We sow little baby versions of the mesclun mix greens like baby amaranth, herbs, chervil, cilantro, baby radish, buckwheat, cabbages, even sunflower," says Pappas, who supplies area chefs.

Pappas also produces corn sprouts, which are grown in the dark so they don't turn green, and pea shoots, which are harvested quite young and can be used either raw or cooked tender-crisp. In addition to offering a smorgasbord of choices, early greens are little garden speed demons, going from seed to harvest somewhere between 35 and 55 days depending on variety. You can even start harvesting many days before they reach full size.

"Greens have a huge harvest window," says T.J. Vinci, vegetable product manager at Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine. "Anywhere from leaves 2-3 inches [tall] to full grown pac choy, which holds a long time in the garden without bolting or growing bitter."

Microgreens, those tiny little leaves beside the seared tuna wasabi in restaurants, can include virtually anything you take a fancy to. But to be "micro," they're harvested almost as soon as they come through the soil.

"We cut before the true secondary leaf comes out," says Pappas. "The flavor is sublime, a bright accent to fish or chicken and in salads."

Exceptions to the huge harvest window are greens like han tsai tai or `Green Lance,' where you're shooting for little unopened flower clusters that look like baby broccolis. The perfect clusters, which suddenly appear one day, will hold maybe two days if it's cool. Wait any longer, especially if it's warm, and you're harvesting bolted bitter blooms instead of buds. Yet even with the narrow harvest window of these brassicas, you can double and triple your pleasure with successive sowings. And successive sowings let you play with the varieties you plant so you can compare flavors while you still have a taste-memory of what was thumbs-up and what was thumbs-down among family and friends.

"We tried a mesclun mix with just mustards -- but it's spicier than what some wanted," says Mycek. "But we make a lettuce mix with beet greens, chard, kale, tatsoi, mustard, arugula and escarole that members enjoy."

Planting and cutting greens

You can start early greens in flats in a bright room under full-spectrum lights or direct-seed in the garden when danger of hard frost has passed (though that timing's been harder to estimate in recent years). Eco Farms owner Mike Pappas direct-seeds plants such as radishes and those in the cabbage family Brassica, but starts his lettuces in a greenhouse then transplants them at the end of March for spring harvest.

"I succession-plant lettuce heads," says Pappas.

The simplest way is to direct sow in the ground when soil reaches 45 or 50 degrees, then lay on a layer of row cover. In addition to protecting seeds and seedlings from wild temperature fluctuations, it wards off marauding birds and bugs.

When sowing, you can broadcast seeds in a raised bed for a thatch effect, but it's easier to weed and thin when planted in rows. (And, by all means, use the microgreen thinnings.) If you've never tried to grow early greens, Pappas suggests starting off with radishes.

"You can harvest in 21 days. It can be extremely satisfying," says Pappas. "You can even do it on a windowsill in a box. It's great for kids."

Mix in compost before you plant; Brassicas, particularly, are fairly heavy feeders. If it's dry, water them thoroughly but with a light drizzle, so you don't disturb seeds or tiny plants.

When harvesting leafy greens, cut across the plant not quite to the ground so you leave the core, which will probably keep producing (depending on variety). For the broccoli rabe types, you can harvest in leaf stage or wait until the florets form. Cut as soon as florets begin to swell.

Nancy Taylor Robson

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