Like a lot of people these days, I grow a few vegetables and herbs during the summer. From one year to the next, my vegetable garden has ranged from pretty darn good to just plain pathetic. But even in the years when I've been neglectful and spent half the summer traveling every weekend and the other half sipping gin-and-tonics in the shade, I'm always able to eat something I've grown ? the odd onion or leaf of lettuce, a few handfuls of basil or parsley. Even some of the weeds are edible, you know. It's one of the parts of gardening I love the most: You can really screw things up and still produce something good. (Kind of like parenting?)
Recently, though, I've made a shocking discovery: there are an awful lot of people growing vegetables and fruit during the summer, and almost no one doing it during the winter. This makes sense, in some ways, since the ground in New England freezes solid during the winter, and the average ambient temperature is somewhere around "go-outside-and-die-alone-by-a-pine-tree," as my friend Jenna Woginrich, author of Made from Scratch, would say. Not such hospitable environs for the wee spinach plant.
Clearly, this lack of warmth and sunshine spells disaster for the northerly locavore seeking fresh greens during the "off" season. In July, my local farmers markets are overflowing with salad greens, arugula, kale, chard, any kind of green you could imagine. But in February? No dice. Root vegetables and winter squash, baby ? that's what you've got.
Don't get me wrong; I love a good roasted beet or parsnip. And I've got a handful of superb squash recipes, too. After a month or two, though, I definitely start hankering for something with chlorophyll. I consider my houseplants and wonder what fern salad would taste like. Probably not so good.
This winter, though, I found a halfway solution: sprouts! Everything that eventually becomes a salad starts its life as a sprout, after all. Rather than plant seeds in the ground, though, you can sprout them indoors. No soil required, and not a lot of light. I have an inexpensive sprouter that comes with several layers, so I can stagger my sprouting schedule. But you can do it the old hippie way, in a mason jar with cheesecloth secured by a rubber band. Just soak the seeds overnight and rinse them twice a day after that. Easy.
Now that spring is here and the days are lengthening, I'm able to supplement my sprouts by growing a few pea shoots and salad greens in old tofu containers. There's a farm a few towns away that finally has fresh, frost-sweetened greens from their unheated greenhouse, and soon I'll be able to start foraging for fiddlehead ferns (Aha! You can have ferns and eat them, too!), tender milkweed pods, and other delicacies of spring. Winter is almost over, finally. I'm sure I'll still grow vegetables this summer. Come fall, though, I'll be laying in a store of seeds to keep me sprouting salads through the cold