April is the Cruelest Month


Mache Mache going to seed in summer 2010, getting ready for spring 2011

Early crops are really, really important.  It's been a long winter, and everybody is desperate for local greens. So desperate, as the New York Times reported this week, that ramps are being over-foraged in the Northeast, because everybody wants a taste of spring.

Early cultivated crops are important, too. I'm always relieved when in late May, I finally have big, inexhaustible patches of arugula in the garden. To me, arugula is the kick-off vegetable that promises I will be eating well for the next half a year at least.

But what am I going to do until then?  I was out the other day planting my spinach and peas–the first crops to go in, a little later than normal, but it's been cold and wet here–and I noticed how many seed packages have instructions to plant "as soon as the soil can be worked."

If you really insist on "working" the soil–as in tilling it, adding amendments, turning it over–you cannot reasonably do that in my part of the world until May, or you risk turning beautiful loam into cement by messing with it when it's wet. I know very disciplined vegetable gardeners who don't even bother going out into the garden until May, and by then, it's too late for spinach and peas.

I don't till any more, I do a sheet mulch. So to plant my peas and spinach, I try to do the minimum with a metal rake and a shovel to create a congenial planting bed.  But I do know that I'm damaging the soil even with that bit of interference.

That's why spring crops that appear on their own seem increasingly important to me.  I've been eating parsnips that wintered over for the last month. Delicious.  I've also been eating mache, which germinates in fall and then is there ready in spring as soon as the snow retreats.  My girls have discovered mache, which tastes like perfume, and have been consuming big salads of it with a nice sweet mustard and shallot dressing.

Perennials like chives are also important.  They are already standing tall and are prepared to flavor mayonnaise for trucked-in asparagus and artichokes.  The rhubarb is poking its head up and will be ready for a pie or a crisp in a week or two.  Alas, no sign yet of my own asparagus, which is so tender and delicious that I've decided to boot the rhubarb to some spot outside the garden in order to make room for 25 more plants.

I've also decided to experiment with some of the annual "plant as soon as the soil can be worked" crops like spinach and chard by tossing the seed out in fall and seeing if this gives them a jump on spring.  So far, no luck, but it's early yet. 



  1. Another early edible is sorrel–we love it on scrambled eggs, along with chives and Parmesan cheese. I had the first batch on April 17th, about average in Minnesota. It’s a perennial, easily grown from seed. I’ve also seen it at our farmer’s market. I have just one plant, so not really enough to produce for sorrel soup.

  2. thanks for writing about vegetables and showing a pic of your garden. i ready your book and i put it on the list for my book reading club. i have had bad luck with Mache here in St. Louis. i had my first my first mixed green salad from my back yard last night.

  3. Here in way downeast coastal Maine, where we drop a zone from our surrounding Mainers, I have had pretty good luck with the seed-and-wait technique. Spinach, lettuce, chard are all worth trying for me. They do have to be covered – a lightweight row cover will do it – and they are still covered although looking good because the hares would get them. It’s variable, good years and bad, good varieties and bad, but those early greens are so wonderful. I’m just about a week away from a great harvest of chard. I can’t afford the expensive layouts (a la Eliot Coleman) but whatever works!

  4. Nancy, could not agree more! Whatever works. Seed is cheap, so experimentation is worthwhile.

    Beth, maybe you should try what nature does, and scatter the mache seed in high summer for the following spring.

    Jodi, I love sorrel, too. I planted it from seed last year–but keep stupidly forgetting, grubbing it out thinking it was a weed, and then realizing what I’d done and replanting.

    I’ll have to check whether any survives this mistreatment.

  5. A couple of my outdoor beds are pretty much untouched from year to year (to avoid the grubbing-out fate suffered by your poor sorrel, Michele) and in those untouched beds I allow a few lettuces to go to seed every year. Even though I am also a crazy-thick mulcher, itsy-bitsy lettuces start sprouting at the beginning of April. Likewise, I “leave” a few biennials in those same beds (salad burnet being the current fave but also tatsoi and mustards) and, sometimes, they make it through the winter…and it’s now, before they shoot to seed, that we’re enjoying them.

    I figure it’s two less beds to tend to in the fall and I get rewarded by an early harvest in the spring. Less work!

  6. I planted some carrots at the end of Aug last year hoping for a fall crop but the snow came too soon. I gave them no cover in the winter but to my surprise, spring arrived with a lot of delicious fat carrots in the ground- the best I’ve ever had from my garden! I’m going to plant carrots in late summer on purpose for an early spring harvest from now on.

  7. Michele, do you remember what cultivar of asparagus you grow?

    With all this talk of seeding greens in the fall, I’m going to have to try it later this year. I’ll let my lettuce bolt this year in hopes that it seeds itself. I’ve had dill and cilantro seeding for years. Can’t beat that!

  8. I’m going to try mache and sorrel – but it is so discouraging on a morning like today when we woke to snow, then sleet then snow and sleet and I think just rain now. I do have herbs perennial herbs like chives,mint, sage, thyme, and tarragon that are harvestable.

  9. Our garden FINALLY lost its snow cover this week, only to get covered again yesterday. Sigh.

    Even the daffodils aren’t up — never mind edibles. It is so nice to hear about spring coming elsewhere! Makes me have hope…

  10. Through laziness I found the best way to time pea planting. The first year I tried purple-flowered drying peas, I waited too long to harvest, and most of the pods dried and shattered, dropping their peas in the ground around the vines. Well, rats, I thought and forgot all about them until late the following winter, when I went out in early February (2 full months before peas are supposed to be planted here) and found wee pea sprouts everywhere. Now I time my own planting (if weather permits) with the volunteer pea seedlings I accidentally on purposefully leave in the ground over winter. If there are more than just a couple, I move them to where I want them to grow. I do the same with mache, claytonia, kale and spinach that sprouts early early.

  11. Overwintering is the way to go for me, in zone 7 midAtlantic. I had early lettuce, spinach, and arugula. Even the roots and borccoli “di ciccio” are producing now–I never would have gotten the timing right in late spring, when our weather was utter misery. I use plastic greenhouse covers and can harvest throughout winter also.

  12. A nice vegetable garden patch. Mache is definitely great addition to a salad garden for super early green crop before everything else.
    They taste so delicate and great for wrap too.

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