How to plant a spring garden or Passover garden
By Miriam Rubin / Special to the BJV
Starting late April through mid-May, when the weather begins to warm, if it’s not too rainy, it’s time to start planting your garden.
If you’re new to gardening, herbs are a super-rewarding way to begin, even if that’s all you do. Herb plants are ready to harvest soon after planting; simply snip a few leaves to add freshness to any dish. And you can proudly display your home-grown parsley on the Seder plate.
When to begin: If you have an established garden plot or raised beds, squeeze a handful of soil; it shouldn’t clump or feel overly cold or damp. Frost too should be mostly behind us. In Pittsfield and Boston, average last frost dates are May 1 to 15, though most of these herbs survive a light frost.
How to start: For an established garden bed, dig up or pull any weeds and chop compacted soil. Work in about 1 inch of compost. For raised beds, the soil warms more quickly and you’ll have fewer weed problems but still, yank any out, adding soil if needed and compost to aerate compacted soil. For first-time gardeners or for small yards, an easy solution is to grow herbs in large containers or pots. Place the container in a sunny spot, layer gravel in the bottom for drainage, then fill with organic potting soil.
What to plant: Parsley, sage, thyme, and chives are good beginning herbs; they can take a little cold and a bit of frost. Start with herb plants instead of seeds. Don’t reach for basil and rosemary just yet. Wait until the weather warms.
Choose organically-grown plants whenever possible to protect the butterflies and bees. Plants should be perky and fresh-looking, no wilted leaves. Avoid those with a mass of roots at the bottom of the pot which means the plant has been there a while.
Sage, thyme, and chives are perennials, meaning they’ll come back year after year, with luck, but parsley needs to be replanted each year. It’s a biennial, meaning it comes back once but it will bolt, or go to seed quickly. I generally plant flat-leaf Italian parsley; it’s the most flavorful.
For chives, I plant the thin, needle-like chives instead of wider, flat-leafed garlic chives, which spread and can be tough when raw. The Chinese kitchen adds garlic chives to stir-fries and dumplings, delicious, but you’d have to grow quite a lot! Regular chives are mainly used to impart a mild allium accent. Garlic grass, the chive-like plants found in your lawn or garden, grow like the weeds they are but they are edible. Cultivated chives won’t spread and most often, return each year. In late spring, they sprout charming purple flowers. Trim off the flowers and stems and use the flowers for violet-colored chive-flower vinegar. Put them in a jar with white wine vinegar and brew in a cool, dark spot about 3 weeks. Strain before using.
Sage has multiple varieties, all members of the large genus, Salvia, but we’re talking culinary sage here. Select common sage or the larger Berggarten sage, both with lovely grey-green soft leaves to flavor roast chicken or salmon. Sage develops attractive purple flowers for bees and other pollinators. Trim them so the plant continues growing.
Thyme has many varieties also, but for culinary uses, choose French or English thyme. Add thyme leaves to chicken, lamb and vegetable dishes. Lemon thyme is lovely but it spreads so put it in its own pot.
How to plant. Choose a sunny location and dig a hole that’s about the same depth and width as the pot. Remove the plant from the pot, shake off some of the planting medium and plant it. Shovel dirt around it, firming it with your hands. Water well. That’s it. Check the tag for spacing as herbs will grow bigger. Follow the procedure for warmer-weather herbs, such as basil, cilantro, dill and rosemary. Mint and oregano are invasive. They need their own pots.
Heading into Passover, spring’s also the time to plant horseradish which takes well to our climate. Plan ahead though, it needs about a year to form roots. If it takes, you’ll have it forever.
Look for a root or starts from a nursery, order from JohnnysSelectedSeeds.com or get a piece from a friend’s patch. Plant the crown, with a piece of attached root but no leaves. Give it its own space – not in your garden bed – it needs good sun and rich, soft soil, no rocks. Or few rocks. It’s pretty tough, actually, and grows deep – so dig down about a foot, digging in compost or manure. Plant the root and harvest it in spring the following year.
To prepare horseradish, wash the root and peel. Grate it with the shredding blade of the food processor, leaving it in the workbowl. Averting your eyes from the volatile oils, place the knife blade in the processor and grind the shreds. Let it sit for 3 minutes for hotter horseradish, then add a little sugar if you want, salt and apple cider vinegar to taste, making a paste. Transfer to a jar. Store refrigerated. For red horseradish, add beet juice from a can.
Want to plant more? Other plant starts or seeds to plant in spring include lettuces, arugula, spinach, radishes, leafy greens, such as chard and kale, green peas and beets.
Freelance food columnist and cookbook author Miriam Rubin was the first woman to work in the kitchens of New York City's famed Four Seasons Restaurant. She went on to become the food editor of Weight Watchers Magazine, and her work has appeared in many other publications. Rubin’s first cookbook, Grains, was published in 1995, and her second book, Tomatoes, in 2013. She edited Gil Marks' Encyclopedia of Jewish Food and edited and developed recipes for Matzo Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South. Find out more at her website MiriamRubin.com and Instagram @Miriam Rubin.
This was named after the spring herbs and bitter greens featured at the Seder. Hopefully you’ll have some homegrown bounty to add to this inviting salad.
6 ounces baby arugula (about 6 loosely packed cups)
Leaves from 2 bunches flat-leaf parsley (about 4 cups)
Leaves from 1 bunch cilantro (about 2 cups)
1/2 cup chives cut into 1/8-inch lengths
3/4 cup dried pitted dates, thinly sliced
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted and cooled
1 1/2 cups pomegranate seeds (about 2 pomegranates)
Fresh dill sprigs, to garnish
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the salad: In a salad bowl, combine arugula, parsley, cilantro and chives. Add dates and pine nuts and toss. (Cover and chill if needed to serve a bit later.)
For the dressing: In a small bowl, whisk lemon juice (to taste) and oil. Season with salt and pepper. Toss salad with dressing. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and dill to garnish, adjust seasoning and serve.
Makes 8 side-dish servings
Adapted from The Community Table: Recipes and Stories From the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and Beyond by Katja Goldman, Judy Bernstein Bunzl and Lisa Rotmil (Grand Central Publishing, 2015, $35)
Image: “Parsley,” by David J. Lesako