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.