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  • Peter Heffelfinger

Winter to Spring Gardening

Pictured left to right: Leeks and radish greens, Savoy cabbage, Purple sprouting broccoli, Mache and turnips, Winter cabbages

Leeks are my main hardy in-ground allium, which remain available long after my storage onions have run out. The outer leaf sheaths get a bit mushy from the cold but are easily stripped off. The lower mixed green and white sections, protected from frost by being deeply rooted in the soil, are still fresh, solid and full of bite. The tattered tops can be used for soup stock or for feeding the livestock in worm bins. And of course leeks pair traditionally with the last of the stored potatoes for winter soup. As the days lengthen and warm up, a hard inner stalk will develop as the leeks start to go to seed. The thin solid core can be easily removed when the stalk is cut in half lengthwise. Chopped leeks serve as my basic vegetable soup or stir-fry starter, along with the last of the stored garlic heads that haven’t gone soft yet.


My hardy winter variety cabbages made it through the cold, with the green cabbages being culled first, followed by the dark reds, with the green Savoy lasting the longest as the heads started to go to seed. If you carefully cut off just the main head, leaving most of the outer leaves, the remaining stalk will soon sprout a ring of fresh side shoots that can be snapped off as tender greens. To spruce up fresh cabbage salads, I add apple slices, some dried currants or cranberries that have been finely chopped and macerated in a honey-vinaigrette dressing, and a handful of buds of the chive plants that have re-sprouted and are already overflowing their pots in my kitchen garden.


Garlic chives, also grown in containers, is another hardy perennial, which if protected by row cover or tarps during heavy freezes, will start rapid growth in early spring. I use them chopped into soups as a last minute addition, as well as in making kimchi, my latest expansion into fermented foods, using the dried Korean hot peppers I grew last year.


Brassica buds are the most common spring edible. In the past I relied on overwintering Purple Sprouting Broccoli, grown specifically for the heavy set of purple seed heads in spring. This year I had a winter purple broccoli that usually heads up in mid-February but was delayed by the heavy snowfall. By spring it had morphed into a bush of small purple broccoli heads. If you keep harvesting the buds, the lower side buds will expand but be smaller. I also tried a semi-cold hardy Italian leaf broccoli that required protection under row cover all winter. It made very dark green buds and white flowers that were easily chopped for soup. The Lacinato kale, a standard winter plant these days, also offers an endless supply of buds, often lasting deep into May.


Another hardy green, also kept under row cover as protection from wind and cold, is Mizuna mustard, a Japanese thin-leafed variety resembling dandelion leaves that is very mild and tender. The tops of over-wintered Oriental white radishes have slightly thicker greens, and will supply a few mature bulbs that can be grated for a horseradish-style condiment or added to a miso soup. Last fall I also potted up a few young volunteer Purple Mustard plants that I protected during the cold. By spring they had new large leaves and bright yellow buds that were very pungent, akin to Chinese mustard.


Mache, also known as corn salad, is a hardy but very tender green that comes into its own in early spring, forming a mound of soft greens and white flowers for salad. Finally, the hardy arugulas start to leaf up just about the same time as the ever present dandelions start to sprout. Of course dandelion greens are a standard spring tonic, salad green, and diuretic, known in France as pissenlit, or bed wetter.


As for spring planting in my large garden, so far I have early red and white potatoes in the ground, as well as transplants of green, red, and Chinese cabbage, plus broccolini, all under floating row cover as protection against the root maggot fly, as well as bulb fennel, also under cover as a defense against rabbits. Leeks will go in soon, to restart the allium cycle.


I have expanded my at-home kitchen garden with large containers of snow and snap peas, bok choy, yellow onion sets, as well as Cipolini and Walla Walla starts, lettuces, dill, cilantro, and endive. Note: I use nursery plants as a quick and reliable way to get started during the usual cold and wet spring weather. While I wait for the new generation of plants to grow, I can keep whittling away on the last of all the winter survivors.



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