Greenery, For Humans And Ducks

Spring has come early, as usual, in my greenhouse. Growth is shifting into high gear as brighter sunlight fuels more photosynthesis and warms the greenhouse more and for a longer time each day. Giant mustard plants, which provided greens all winter, are no longer tasty now that they have shifted their energy to stalks topped with yellow flowers. No matter. I’m digging the plants out and sowing lettuce seeds.

Paths in the greenhouse are carpeted in green — mostly from weeds, mostly chickweed, which is also soaking up the sun’s goodness. No matter. I’m also digging these plants out before they go to seed and threaten takeover of the greenhouse.Greenhouse weeds & claytonia

To take over the greenhouse, the chickweed would have to do battle with claytonia, which already has self-sown to  bogart much of the greenhouse floor. Fortunately, the claytonia is good fresh in salads.

Chickweed is also good — to some people — for eating. But not for me. My ducks, however, love the stuff. So it’s a win-win situation. I weed the greenhouse paths, gather together a pile of chickweed, then throw it to the ducks as I walk past them on my way back to the house. They rush over to reach it soon after it hits the ground, gobbling it up at a frantic (for a human) pace. Good thing they don’t have to chew.Ducks eating weeds

The ducks also enjoy the flowering mustard plants which, along with the chickweed, transmute into delicious duck eggs.

Bottled Summer Goodness

A couple of weeks ago I finished off the last of the elderberry fruit syrup I made this past fall. No fruit could be easier to grow than elderberry. In just a couple of years, the bushes have grown to enormous size, their clusters of creamy white flowers bowing to the ground at the ends of stems late each spring. Later in summer, those flower clusters morph into blue-black fruits, which, admittedly, aren’t very flavorful plain (and shouldn’t be eaten raw).Elderberry blossoms

The only care I’m planning for my plants is to prune them every year or so. Pruning will entail cutting some of the older stems to the ground to make way for younger, more fruitful stems, as well as shortening any branches that arch down so much that their fruit would rest on the ground.

In summer, I stripped the ripe fruits from their clusters into a half-bushel basket, and, postponing what to do with them, froze them. Come fall, I cooked them in a little water, added some maple syrup, crushed them with a potato masher, and then jarred them up.Elderberry harvest

Why all this trouble for a fruit that’s not very flavorful? Because the berries are so healthful! Studies have shown them, or their extracts, to be “supportive agents against the common cold and influenza.” Other benefits have also been ascribed to use of elderberry, but common cold and influenza are enough for me.

Now that I’m out of elderberry syrup, I already feel a slight cold coming on.

Timing Is Important

Back to the greenhouse . . .  and sowing seeds of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae), also called crucifers. Which gets me thinking back to last fall when a friend was bemoaning the lack of fat sprouts and the puny growth of his brussels sprouts plants. I asked when he sowed the seeds. “Back in early August,” I think he said. At any rate, back in summer.

It’s no wonder he wasn’t going to be harvesting brussels sprouts. The plants need a long season to mature, from 90 to 120 days, depending on the variety. For best yields, this means sowing seeds now, growing them as transplants for about 6 weeks, and then planting them out for harvest that will begin in late summer. At the very least, the seeds could be planted directly in the ground in a few weeks.Crucifer seedlings

I’m sowing other crucifers now, not because they need such an inordinately long growing season, but so that they can be harvested in late spring and early summer. First harvests will be of miniature bok choys, and then cabbages and, if I grew them (I don’t), broccoli and cauliflower. Kale is the most versatile member of the family — and the one I grow in greatest quantity — amenable to sowing anytime from now until later in summer for harvest in late spring, through summer, and on into fall and winter.

Mustard, turnips, and arugula are also crucifers, the whole family most easily identified by their four-petaled blossoms in the shape of a cross, the root of the word crucifer.


Chickweed, Not for Me

    Warmish days come and go, but I’m not twiddling my thumbs waiting for spring to come early, late, or vacillate. True, I have a greenhouse. Even there, though, weather can be quite cool, down into the 30s at night and on overcast days.
    A few plants that are good for fresh, salad greens aren’t just surviving under these conditions; they’re thriving. And with very little effort on my part because rather than cultivating them, they grow so profusely that I have to weed out excess before they take over the greenhouse.Chickweed
    Speaking of “weed,” one of them really is a weed, at the very least in name: chickweed (Stellaria media). This weed loves cool weather; it’s been sprouting in the greenhouse all winter. It’s also no stranger to the garden outside the greenhouse, where winter temperatures snuff it out so that each year it must return from seeds it sows. In the greenhouse, it might become — perhaps is now — perennial.
    Chickweed is tasty and nutritious. I don’t doubt the second adjective but disagree with the first. I wish I liked the flavor. Because I don’t, I’ll spend some time today in the greenhouse weeding it out.

Claytonia All Over the Place

    The greenhouse is also pleasantly indundated with claytonia (Claytonia perfoliata), another wilding cultivated for salads, perhaps soups(?), in cool weather. This green is native to California, where it drops its seeds in spring; cool, moist weather of fall induces sprouting whence it blankets Western ground in green all winter long.
  Claytonia in greenhouse  Conditions in my greenhouse are very similar to those of norther California. (Claytonia is sometimes called miner’s lettuce because Gold Rush miners ate it to prevent scurvy.) Years ago I sowed some claytonia seeds in greenhouse beds. No longer is that necessary. Those first plants came up in the straight lines of my furrow. Nowadays, they blanket the ground as a lush edible groundcover, mostly near the sidewalls where rain washed down from the roof and into the  ends of the beds when I rolled up the sidewalls in summer for ventilation.
    The plants make more than just an edible groundcover; they make an edible, ornamental groundcover. The tender stalks rising from ground level are capped by heart-shaped leaves, in the center of which eventually sits a cluster of small, white flowers. I’d use it as a winter groundcover if it could survive our winters; temperatures below about 10°F kill it.
    The flavor is nothing to write home about. It’s mild, to say the least. Perhaps its greatest contributions to cold weather salads are color and texture.

Make Mine Mâche, My Favorite

    Some people might say the same thing about mâche (Valerianella locusta), in my experience the most cold-hardy of all salad greens. It’s ready for harvest no matter how cold the weather in the greenhouse, or out, and will actually grow a little with the slightest degree of warmth whether natural or from the protection of a south wall or a cold frame.Mâche plant
    To me, mâche is the most delectable of salad greens. It also self-seeds both in the greenhouse and outdoors. What else can you ask for in a plant: tasty, available all winter, no need to plant.
    Like claytonia, mâche is a cool weather annual. Sow it in summer and nothing happens. Sow it under cool, moist conditions and it sprouts readily. This is another salad green that I planted years ago, but not since. Cultivation of mâche entails, mostly, pulling up wayward or excess plants before they expire and drop seed in late spring, in so doing preventing it from becoming weedy.
    Mâche is a European import, a centuries-old favorite only of the peasantry until the gardener to Louis XIV gave it street cred’. In English-speaking countries, it’s sometimes called “corn salad” because it’s a weed of grain fields, “corn” in the Queen’s English being any kind of grain, not necessarily and not usually corn, which they call maize. If I had a grain field, I’d welcome some corn salad for tender, tasty salads almost all winter long.