By Terri Smith –
Spring is almost here. But it may be a while yet before you are ready to plant your garden. While you are still dreaming and planning for summer abundance don’t forget that there is already excellent spring eating right outside your door.
Part of the excitement of preparing the garden for spring can be harvesting the first salads of the year. If you have a greenhouse, you can find these delicacies even earlier. As soon as the ground thaws I like to bring a harvest basket or bowl out to the garden any time I visit.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is prolific and one of the tastiest greens out there. It has a flavour that reminds me of baby corn. When I first visit the garden in spring, I pull it up by the handful for a delicious spring salad. I like to pull small handfuls at a time and then tear or cut all the roots where the dirt is clinging. By doing this you will save yourself time washing it later. If you, like me, are a conscientious harvester, you don’t even need to worry about the usual rule of only harvesting 10% because chickweed is incredibly resilient, and even if you think you’ve pulled it all, it will return with a vengeance. It’s good for digestion, weight loss, skin problems, and inflammation, and is high in vitamins C and A as well as protein, iron magnesium, and more. I encourage you to read more about it, because it is truly amazing. Try it in a salad or pesto; you won’t be sorry.
When I’ve harvested a good amount of chickweed I move onto the young dandelions (Taraxacumofficinale). The young leaves are not so bitter, and they are full of calcium and vitamin C and are also high in potassium. My favourite tool for dandelion harvest and/or weeding is an old butter knife. I push the knife point into the soil close to the root and wiggle it a little as I grasp the plant and pull. Usually I pluck the youngest, tenderest leaves for salad first and then harvest the rest. The roots can be used the same way as carrots: boiled or baked or diced and added to soups and stews. We all know they can also be dried and used as a “coffee substitute,” although I just like to think of it as dandelion root tea. It is a poor substitute for coffee, but it makes a lovely, nutty tea. The roots contain an encyclopedia of essential minerals.
Even the flowers are great; the petals are pretty sprinkled on top of a salad or use the whole flower. They are delicious sautéed with garlic or even battered and fried.
Every evening in spring, I like to walk a path that I think of as “nettle alley.” This is where my stinging nettles (Urticadioica) first appear in abundance. I get excited when I first see their purple-green shoots pushing through the soil. When they are about 8-10 inches tall, I begin to harvest their tops. I usually wear a pair of garden gloves, but sometimes I forget them and just harvest bare-handed. If you grasp them firmly the tiny hairs containing formic acid will be crushed and you are less likely to be stung. Nettle is good for your whole body. I like to steam it and eat it as a side dish with a bit of butter and lemon juice or add it to soups. I also like to make wild-green spanakopita using a combination of chickweed, nettle, and lamb’s quarter.
One of the great things about viewing native “weeds” as food is that our attitudes toward them change. When you are harvesting a weed instead of just trying to eradicate it, you begin to feel happy to see it instead of annoyed. Weeds are resilient, and they have an important role to play in maintaining healthy garden soil. Biodiversity can be about more than just planting many different varieties in the garden; it can also be about establishing good relationships with the plants that are already there. I heartily recommend Beverley Gray’s book, The Boreal Herbal, to anyone wishing to learn more about wild plants for food and health.
An erstwhile market gardener and mother of goat, Terri lives on a small farm near Quesnel, BC. Here she gardens, makes art, writes about local food, teaches workshops, and works at Long Table Grocery as Guardian of the Vegetables.