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Groundwork: Channeling spring


In the author's Alexandria garden, the herb garden sundial tells perfect time. Time to head to the Caribbean, that is. Or at least focus on the spring garden. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

They can keep their GPS and atomic clocks, what can beat that enduring and faithful gardener's companion, the sundial? Gently, it tells the time and reminds you of the patterns of light that are so important to garden and gardener alike. It's trendy to knock low-tech machines, but as you can see, my sundial took last week's three feet of snow in stride, and proved as accurate as ever without the need for silicon chips, batteries or downloadable software. Below that pile of snow, its gnomon never missed a beat. OK, it was completely useless except to gauge a measure of snow that was unfit for man or beast.

So, what time is it? For the gardener-cook, it's time to think of what to grow in the season ahead, and to order seeds. Even if you are not starting them indoors and are not sowing melon seeds until mid to late May, it's nice to have them in hand (or better yet, in safe keeping in the crisper of your fridge). It's the early bird that gets the desirable varieties, and it is through buying from mail-order seed companies that you get to pick the varieties you want to grow.

The catalogs want to entice with novel varieties, lusciously depicted on the front cover. Burpee is the king of this, and can be relied on to present its newest glory. It's usually a tomato, and this year is no exception, with something called Tye-Dye, a slicer. (Its flesh is streaked).

I've never gone in for breathlessly endorsed novelty for its own sake, and tend to grow varieties that I know and like along with veggies that caught my eye in other people's gardens the year before. Sometimes the two converge, in finding fresh varieties of old favorites.

I am struck by how well Romaine or cos lettuce types do in late spring in spite of the accumulating heat. Jericho is commended as one of the most heat-tolerant varieties, but I am drawn to two dwarf varieties that mature early, making them great for the Washington spring. Rouge d-Hiver and Rubens are both available in the catalog of John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seed.

I cannot garden without trellising, and the need to grow things up as well as out. It increases the real estate and makes for healthier vegetables that vine by their nature.

I love Malabar spinach: It relishes the heat of summer, is beautiful and delicious. It is not a true spinach, and really bears little resemblance to spinach. It remains sweet and crunchy in high summer, something spinach would never do. The stems are a fuchsia color. Scumptious.

I cannot face the spring or the fall without a mesclun mix directly sown in the garden. I love any assortment with arugula, endive, beet and mustard green in the mix, though I am mightily drawn to an offering that caught my eye in the Cook's Garden. The Cook's Tangy Mix includes red and green chicories, arugula and peppery broadleaf cress mixed in with warm to hot Japanese mustard greens. Yum. Actually, the Cook's Mild Mix looks good, too, with mizuna, golden purslane, red orach, chervil and corn salad. And so does an Asian mesclun mix from Kitchen Gardens, that includes bok choy, mibuna and mustard and cabbage flavored Komatsuna.

Swiss chard, a close relative of the beet, is one of my favorite greens. Slow to bolt, heat tolerant and so sweet. I used to grow Bright Lights for its trendy looks, as well as the magenta stalked Rhubarb. But my heart this year belongs to Golden Sunrise, which is as beautiful as it is flavorful. Sow extra to take as baby greens.

Nantes types are the carrot for me, long and sweet and full of carrot flavor. I fancy Yaya (Kitchen Garden Seeds) and, what else, Nantes Fancy from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Super Root is a new Nantes variety from Burpee. As a root crop, carrots are sown directly in the garden in early April.

The 2010 list goes on: kohlrabi, broccoli rabe and the petit-pois variety Precoville. But enough. Each packet of seed means a lot of spade work in the garden. Sometimes, one's eyes are bigger (or stronger) than one's back. Next week, we'll be back with our friends at Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia when we will ask the question: What is that stuff beneath the snow? Oh, yes. Soil.

-- Adrian Higgins

By Adrian Higgins  |  February 15, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Groundwork  
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Comments

I am so very anxious to start tilling the soil again, so that I can plant tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, green peppers.

I know, I know, I first have to wait for all the snow to melt.

Posted by: ziggyzippy | February 18, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

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