It always amazes me that I've thrown myself heart, soul, and filthy fingernails into my vegetable garden every year for 18 years, and I am still learning fundamental things. That may be what makes vegetable gardening so compelling. I suspect that even God hasn't learned all there is to learn about vegetable gardens yet. Otherwise, why all the new hybrids every year?
What I've learned this year–and I can't believe it never occurred to me before–is the importance of the stuff that I don't sow or plant, the things that emerge in their own good time with no assistance from me.
They are important contributors to good eating in spring after a long winter, since they show up much earlier than anything I could possibly plant. I had self-seeded mache this year in March, and it tasted more like Chanel Coco than any mache I've ever planted, possibly because, as one of Garden Rant's readers suggested, left to its own devices, it germinates at precisely the right frigid moment for its best flavor.
I also had held-over parsnips, though I have to say, I think the ones that wintered over in the root cellar were superior. Last year, I followed instructions and planted my parsnip seeds super-early, as soon as the snow retreated. But some of them just got too big over the course of a long season: They aren't harvested until after a number of fall frosts. So I've decided to allow one parsnip, which is a biennial, to go to seed this year, just so I can observe its natural cycle. I'm suspicious about all questions of timing from the vegetable gardening lore. My volunteers allow for scientific inquiry.
The parsnips and the mache were quickly followed by two self-sown heads of a chartreuse lettuce I can't remember the name of and one head of radicchio, a straggler that toughed it out under the snow.
Asparagus, too, a perennial crop, is earlier than the first crops I sow–spinach, arugula, and peas. The peas don't do anything worth noticing until almost July. Rhubarb, another perennial, offers a fruity taste in April when nothing much is happening on the fruit front even in the supermarket.
RIght now, I have one bunch of kale from a seed that didn't germinate last year and welcome little snippets of self-sown cilantro.
I planted my potatoes a few weeks ago, but first up the are the volunteers. Actually, they are small potatoes I missed digging up last year. Since they are in spots where I don't want them, I've had no compunction about yanking them up right now, while they are a single, perfect potato rather than a full clump, slicing them very thin, roasting them in olive oil in a hot oven with some garlic until they are just soft and then putting them on pizza with rosemary, mozzarella, and Parmesan. Really delicious.
Then there are the self-seeded flowers: poppies, Johnny Jump Ups, and one mullein in a good place for a mullein. They make my garden beautiful in a way that my stiffly planted rows of dahlias and zinnias do not.
Of course, these kind of gifts from the gardening deities are only possible in a no-till garden. If I were rototilling the hell out of my ground every April, the mache and the Johnny Jump Ups would suffer the same fate as the stinging nettles and the docks. What a waste!