The First Green
The first official day of spring is next week, though those of us that live in Alberta know true spring with reliably above freezing temperatures and hopefully the last of the winter season’s snow, may not actually arrive until May. Despite this gloomy thought there is reason to rekindle hope and excitement regarding the approach of spring. Those of us who are lucky enough to have a greenhouse or sun facing windowsill have still been able to get our “green fix”, while the rest of the population can prepare for the first green.
If you are a planter, this may mean deciding which plants you wish to grow for this garden season and once you have your list, the next tasks are to figure out which of those plants is the hardiest and where best to plant it in order to get it outdoors as soon as possible.
If you are a wild crafter, this may mean pulling out the maps that you hopefully created of where which desired plants grew last season so hopefully you can find them again when they resume growth this season. It will also mean polishing up on which species tend to be the first ones to poke through the snow and which areas of your chosen landscape will warm up fastest due to day length (what areas receive the most hours of sun?), natural heat sinks (like heat retentive stone or water bodies) and the lay of the land (north vs south facing or a warm hill vs a cold collecting gully).
We will start with wild crafting as it is a bit more straight forward since the variable of where to plant is already decided by Mother Nature. Your job is to gather and process information to give you the best chance of finding your desired plants at the optimal time. Here is a list of some of the first edible and medicinal plants that grow in our area west of Stony Plain and tips to help you formulate your gathering plan. Many of these plants grow farther north and south of here as well and some may be available nation wide and into the States:
- Paper Birch (Betula papyifera) – If collecting the sap it will probably be one of the first on your list as daytime temps need to be above freezing, but nighttime temps below freezing in order to have the greatest success. Around here this means a bit later than Sugar Maple – usually in April with snow still on the ground. You have to tap trees in order of them warming up as high vs low ground, more vs less sun etc. will affect whether they “wake up” sooner or later. Wait too long and bud formation will make the sap bitter. Too soon and the sap won’t be flowing.
- Fiddleheads, considered to come from the Ostrich Fern (Mattueccia strutheopteris) – Have a wider window in Alberta due to our unreliable spring weather. You can start looking for them from the end of April in an early spring year, but if you wait too late the swampy areas they like to grow could be flooded and by the time you can get in again the ferns may already be past fiddlehead prime. In some years when it’s not too wet or the spring season has a late start you may still be able to pick a fiddlehead or two almost into the beginning of July. The big thing to remember is to check fiddlehead beds regularly. As ferns in general are thought to have higher levels of oxalates and possibly develop carcinoids as they mature, it is best to stick to Ostrich Fern as it is thought to contain lower levels of these things. Picking young curled shoots no more than 9 cm or 4″ long will further help to keep toxin levels low as will washing and cooking your harvest. Rule of thumb is to pick no more than 20% of a plant to allow it to regenerate and survive through the winter. If you eat them in moderation and follow these guidelines however, you will be able to enjoy these delicious spring greens reminiscent of a broccoli/asparagus blend.
- Chickweed (Stellaria media) – Yes, it is an annoying little weed so do not intentionally plant it anywhere, but you can wildcraft it almost everywhere to add to salads, sandwiches or garnish your soup. It is a good indicator of when the soil has warmed as it is usually one of the first greens to pop up in spring.
- Morel Mushrooms (Morchella genus) – As there is more than one species I just mentioned the genus though around here if you are lucky enough to find them they will most likely be Black Morels. They may be found starting at the beginning of May (give or take a few weeks depending on Mother Nature’s whim) at the base of coniferous trees and seem more plentiful after forest fires, but other than that it’s pretty much mushroom roulette. Their apparent desire for randomness has so far made them extremely difficult to cultivate and so demand is high (and therefore prices) for wild harvested ones. Maintain an ecological mind though if you do find a Morel goldmine and leave a portion for re-population purposes.
- Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioicia) – For those that are into inflicting pain upon themselves, by all means get your buzz with a mouthful of fresh young Nettle. For the rest of us that appreciate self preservation, Stinging Nettle is an amazing wild edible to enjoy as soon as you have dried it, frozen it or cooked it. Any of these processes will take the sting out of the tiny hairs that are present on the plant that will inject their toxins into your exposed skin otherwise. This means always collect with gloves, long sleeves etc. – not flip flops and shorts, unless like I said before you are one of the crazies that like that kind of thing. The young shoots appear around the end of April/beginning of May and taste their best at this point. Leaves for tea can be harvested up until the plants flower at which point the plant is no longer really edible. Once the tops start withering in the fall, the roots can be harvested. They can be uplifted in early spring before growth resumes too, but can be more difficult to find and here the ground may still be frozen so I suggest the fall harvest makes more sense.
Check out this great vlog from a fellow Albertan gardener how to overcome some of the obstacles our winter to spring transition has to offer.
Now onto the first greens you can plant out in your garden for spring in Alberta. Keep in mind there is some elbow room as being farther north or south, your unique mini climates pertinent to your yard and what resources you have available all can make huge differences. Even variations from year to year affect how early/late/well/poorly things will grow:
- Kale – This amazing plant from the Crucifera family has germinated reliably for me at 4 C and in fact is healthier in and prefers cooler temperatures. It will grow more slowly the colder it gets, but is also sweeter in taste. Established plants are fine under a blanket of snow and as long as it doesn’t fluctuate between freezing and thawing, can be harvested into the winter months. I even had a crop I thought was done for the season resume growth in an unheated hoop house in Feb. when I lived in Longview, Alberta! If you start it early enough you can get a crop to harvest before the dreaded cabbage butterflies come out. Using raised beds and row covers can help you get an earlier start. If you must plant later, row covers can protect against cabbage worms and also provide shade when it becomes warmer than kale would like to grow in. There are also more heat tolerant varieties such as Portugese Kale if you are forced to deal with warmer weather when either planting or harvesting. Just remember to harvest the lower leaves first as you need them and always leave the topmost central leaders or you will terminate the growth of the plant.
- Chives – Wild Chives (Allium shoenoprasum) grow throughout Alberta and can be harvested fairly early, but make sure you test some by bruising it for that “onion smell” as people can otherwise confuse it with Death Camas which, as the name suggests, is poisonous. An even safer bet is to wait until they flower to id it (which is why I did not put it on the wild first greens list) because believe it or not, not everyone can smell. If you have a patch of Wild Chives, or in my case, Garlic Chives growing in your garden, you will always be able to find it and will know what you have. It is hardy and will come up every year as it is a perennial for you to add to your salads or eggs as soon as the soil thaws. I even cheat and keep some in a pot to bring in the house to resume growth when all my other stocks have been depleted for the season. It’s a little floppier than outdoor grown chives but also more tender to eat, so a fine trade off in my mind!
- Baby Bok Choi – Many oriental veggies are tougher than you think and Bok Choi is no exception. By sticking to baby varieties which are more compact and faster maturing, you increase your ability to plant when it’s colder and harvest sooner. It’s another plant that will bolt when it gets warmer so use our cool spring weather to your advantage. I have some sprouting in my prop (propagation) house right now and it germinated just fine at 8 C. As an added bonus you can get multiple harvests if you leave the bottom rosette of leaves and just slice off the rest of the plant cleanly with a sharp knife. Just keep in mind flea beetles love this stuff so either grow before bug season or under row covers.
- Spinach – Crinkled leaved varieties or savoy types are more cold tolerant but also more difficult to clean should they get mud etc. splashed on them. I reduce this possibility by mulching with some fresh straw which also acts as a mulch for water rentention and helps retain heat which can allow you to plant sooner. You can always do a staggered planted of semi-savoy or flat leaved spinach a bit later to give you a longer harvesting window as they can be more heat tolerant and reduce cleaning later when it is more likely to get into rainy season. Mine started sprouting at about the same temp as the Baby Bok Choi.
- Gai Lohn – Otherwise known as Chinese Broccoli, this is really another type of Kale that looks like it got frisky with some Broccoli. I love it because around here Broccoli is always such a pain to grow with it taking up so much valuable real estate for so long before you reap the rewards. Gai Lohn is a bit hardier, faster maturing, takes less space and tastes every bit as good as Broccoli in IMO. Mine just started sprouting in the prop house at roughly the same temp as the Bok Choi and Spinach. Just like the Bok Choi you can get multiple harvests as well.
So even though it may seem that the snow is never ending, look forward to the fact that the first green is closer than you think!