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Home & Garden: Sliding Into Spring

We met up with spring somewhere in Virginia, as we headed north from subtropical southwest Florida and up through the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the trees were fully leafed out last week, dogwood and redbud in glorious bloom. We stopped for a couple of days in central Pennsylvania, where the trees weren’t yet fully in summer leaf, to acclimate to the cooler weather and enjoy the early forsythia and apple and lilac blooms. The soil there was warmed up, farmers already fertilizing fields for planting corn, while home gardeners had begun rototilling. It was, as always, a shock to continue on into northern New England and find barely budded tree branches and soil too cold and sodden for planting.

While we wait for the weather to warm up, we enjoy the banks of pussy willows lining the roadsides, as well as daffodils and tulips newly in bloom. We pick our way through muddy puddles and ruts to pick up fallen branches and twigs that litter the yard, and prune dead and broken limbs from the apple trees along the road and between the fields. On early-morning dog walks, I start collecting cans and bottles tossed out over the winter by passing litterbugs, but someone more intent on cashing in on the returnables’ deposits comes along, stopping his van every two hundred yards or so to jump out and scour the ditches, filling bags with this bounty and saving me from fishing the stinky castoffs out of the cold, muddy water.

While waiting to plant we have time to revise vegetable garden plans. We’d talked over the winter about having a smaller garden, so we’d have less work and more time to fish, kayak and visit family and friends. Last fall we’d planted only one bed of garlic, instead of the usual two or three, because we never seem to use up all the garlic before it sprouts. We’d also decided to skip peas, so labor intensive when you factor in fencing and shelling, in favor of more onions, which we use a lot of. Onions are also easy to grow, and they keep well over the winter, even the sweet Ailsa Craigs. We’re still eating the Stuttgarters stored in the root cellar, as well as beets and potatoes, so we decided to continue to plant lots of them. Cabbages kept so well that the last of them went into the pot for a St. Patrick’s Day dinner, so we will plant more of them, passing on Brussels sprouts, which have been disappointing the last two seasons. Peppers did well last year, and we never can have too many of them, as it’s easy to freeze any we can’t eat fresh, and any excess go into relish, along with cucumbers. Last year we didn’t plant enough cucumbers to make much relish, so we’ll increase those this year. We are huge fans of homemade relish, which we use on burgers and hot dogs, of course, but also in tartar sauce, which we lavish on fried fish.

We’re putting in fewer tomatoes this year, as we’re constantly troubled by early blight, which decreases the yield and also looks yucky. Cherry tomatoes withstand this blight, but since I have a small kitchen garden that has been free of early blight, we can put a few full-sized tomatoes there, along with herbs and salad greens. Fresh corn is always such a treat that we’ll continue to grow it, even if it doesn’t produce well. As with asparagus, when the corn comes in we eat it two meals a day; there’s nothing like fresh corn and eggs from a neighbor’s hens for a summer breakfast.

So that was the plan, but who can have a garden without a few new and experimental varieties? This is the year I’d like to put in a few Asian vegetable varieties, which grow well in cooler climates. Both Renee’s Garden Seeds and Johnny’s offer baby pak choi that is quick to grow and sizes up to plump heads while only six to eight inches in length, perfect for a quick stir-fry. There are also mini Napa cabbages of the same size that are great for a small family. Both grow best under floating row cover to keep pests away. I’m also going to give the long, thin-skinned Japanese cucumbers a try, putting up some kind of support for the vines so they’ll grow straight fruits and save space in the garden. Since we’re forgoing traditional peas, I want some edible-pod snow peas to toss into stir-frys and eat out of hand, as well as some Japanese spinach, which is said to be extremely fast-growing, so perhaps we can get it in and harvested before the pesky leaf miners know it’s there. And it’s time to try Japanese baby turnips again. We had success with them a couple of seasons ago but they somehow slipped beneath our radar. They’re great just eaten raw or sliced in salads, and the tops are delicious as sautéed greens. Finally, I think I need some of Renee’s wasabi arugula, a wild variety that grows in rosettes and allegedly tastes like fresh wasabi paste, as well as some kabocha winter squash seeds and … whoops! Looks like the garden won’t be much smaller after all.