01 June 2012

Home grown, already!?

It might seem a tad too early in the season to be discussing local food, other than crab and lobsters here in Québec, or last year’s potatoes in Montana. However, local farms and gardens are already sprouting fresh local produce, and we can all take advantage of it. If you are shopping, this time of the year you could seek out local microgreens and salad greens. If you are gardening, there are a variety of things to look forward to in late spring.

Home gardeners who got a jump on spring planting might already have radishes to enjoy, but most of us are likely only looking at sprouts. You can expect a few other seeds to have sprouted by now, including kale, and peas. If you have not planted these seeds yet, go ahead and do so. They are cold-hardy enough to withstand most weather we will encounter in May. Beets, swiss chard, and lettuce can also be planted now. If you are planning to seed in beans, squash, brassicas and cabbages, consider waiting a week or two longer, to ensure the soil temperature is warm enough to encourage germination.

 As for starts, the key consideration at this point in the season is whether or not you have “hardened off” the young plants before transplanting them into your garden. Whether you started your own seeds indoors, earlier this spring, or have purchased starts from a local source, it is important to provide a transition period, during which the plants receive increasing amounts of outdoor exposure, to condition them to the vagaries outside the greenhouse or sunny windowsill. Plants not afforded this chance to adapt may be shocked, and do poorly or even die if the weather suddenly turns harsh. If you are determined to transplant right away, consider rigging up a cover of sorts, which can buffer the plants from wind, heavy rains, or cold. Be sure to water regularly, as young plants and germinating seeds will die if they dry out.

If you are an average outdoor gardener, overwintered herbs might be the extent of your harvest at the moment. However, if you planned ahead, you might be enjoying rhubarb already. Technically, it is a perennial vegetable which tolerates cold well, and is a good source of vitamin C and iron. Wild rhubarb was cultivated in China as early as 2700 BC, where it was valued medicinally. Greek and Roman records indicate it was imported as a dried medicinal root, and it was used in a similar fashion in Europe in the 1600s. Evidently, rhubarb did not gain popular entry to European and North American dessert menus until the early nineteenth century. 

Growing rhubarb is extremely easy, and it can be worked into landscaping plans even if you do not have room for a full garden. It is propagated from roots, known as crowns, which should be planted in holes two feet deep and two feet wide as soon as the soil can be worked in early spring. These holes should be filled with a mix of the soil and aged compost or manure, and each crown, with the plant buds facing up, should be placed into the hole so that it is covered with 3-4 inches of soil. If you missed the planting window this spring, the same approach can be applied in the fall, after the leaves have withered.

Rhubarb likes plenty of sun, water, and rich soil, and regular harvesting. When your rhubarb plant begins to form flower stalks, as the result of hot summer weather, remove the stalks to encourage the plant to keep producing leaves.

The edible portions of the plant are the leaf stalks, which are harvested by simply pulling them away from the base of the plant; it is not advised to cut them off. It is important to leave some stalks and leaves in order to ensure the plant is able to fix enough nutrients to overwinter. However, you must avoid consuming the leaves — they contain poisonous oxalic acid concentrated enough to be toxic to humans. Be sure to fully trim away the leaves before preparing the stalks.

Today, rhubarb signals spring to many of us, and may remind you of a favorite relative’s home made pies or jam. However, sometimes it is worth thinking outside the box.  One low-effort option is a variant on the classic French dessert clafoutis.  This dessert is typically made with stone fruits which will not be in season for a few more months.  In early summer, try my improvised rhubarb version, instead.

A couple weeks ago, we served rhubarb to a friend who had actually never tried it before. We opted for an even less complicated preparation than the clafoutis: chop up a bunch of stalks and heat them in a pot with maple syrup, raw sugar, ginger and a touch of cinnamon, to taste. Simmer the fruit slowly until it becomes a sauce. Serve the sauce over vanilla ice cream or a mildly flavored cake. Long-time fans and new converts alike will be delighted by the tart flavor, maple undertones and creamy texture.

Rhubarb clafoutis tastes as good as it looks!


AnnOnandOn said...

I wish I was there to enjoy the rhubarb with you. 

I have seeds germinating in my containers.  This will be an interesting year of gardening.  If you read any interesting "container gardening" articles please pass them on.  

fruit.root.leaf. said...

Me, too!  Glad to hear things are growing in your containers.  I'll certainly pass article along.  Meanwhile, check out www.yougrowgirl.com - all about urban gardening, mostly in containers, and even on rooftops.  It's written by a gal in Toronto, and she is a heavy hitter in the urban gardening world these days.  It is funny, accessible, and chock full of good info.  There's also a great book called "Lasagna gardening for small spaces" which talks all about container gardening, but specifically about some great soil building and low-effort gardening techniques.

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