These spring herbs are known for their restorative effects.
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Illustration by Gayle Ford
• Design Plans: Grow These Plants For a Tonic Garden
In early spring, we all hunger for green. The vibrant green of new life in the garden draws us outdoors, and I remember from my many years in cold climates how often that felt like emerging from hibernation. The sun’s warmth on my face, the feel of the dirt and that chartreuse green of tiny new shoots all worked like a tonic on my winter-weary spirit.
Today, most of us aren’t tied to the seasons and the land as our ancestors were. We can eat a salad anytime we want, we don’t have to make it through the winters on roots and beef jerky, and we take plenty of vitamins so we don’t get anemic. So why is it that, especially in the early springtime, I crave salads and other green things loaded with vitamins as much as I crave sunshine? Even if these yearnings are just ancestral echoes, you can satisfy them with a traditional Southern rite of spring—the spring tonic.
Generally, the term “spring tonic” referred to plants that were traditionally foraged in the wild in the springtime for their invigorating and restorative effects. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of spare foraging time in my life, so I say bring ’em closer. The garden shown here is a seasonal one, designed to provide a steady supply of nutritious greens for those satisfying, fresh spring salads. It is also meant to pay homage to some herbs that are more often seen on weedy roadsides than in garden beds, such as the lowly dandelion.
Banish the word “weed” from your thinking, because you’re in control of this little bed tucked away in the backyard, and weediness is just a state of mind. You can enjoy the bitter bite of young dandelion leaves and the tartness of sorrel, or young leaves of the unfortunately named stinging nettle, without inflicting any negative cultural baggage on yourself. Toss up as many different lettuces and tonic herbs as you can fit in a salad bowl, spritz it with your favorite herbal dressing, and eat your weeds with a clear conscience.
The perennial rhubarb is included here because it’s always such a welcome sight in early spring, so it anchors the corner of this little garden bed. But many of the other plants, including the lettuces, arugula, spinach and the herbs grown for their greens, will thrive through the cooler months until the summer heat pushes them to flower, set seed and be done for the season.
I’ve included violas for their edible flowers, which to my way of thinking are a fine garnish for a fresh spring salad; nasturtiums deliver color and flavor in both the leaves and flowers. I include parsley in this little garden for the simple convenience when salad-gathering at dinnertime, as it’s worth so much more than garnish status.
Here in Texas where I live now, the fierce summer heat is a time of dormancy for many if not most plants (and people), so the early spring garden is particularly welcome. You can start early and harvest daily through the spring, then yank the whole plants out before they scatter their seed, as some of these reseed a little too vigorously for comfort. Wherever you live, dandelions are less welcome when their cheerful yellow flowers turn into puffballs that scatter the seed through the neighborhood, so be watchful. Some herbs, such as sorrel, can either be grown as annuals and removed, or deadheaded and left to grow on, depending on your plans for the plot. You can pop in some summer bedding plants to fill in the holes, or dig in compost and other organic soil amendments to get the corner plot ready for your next garden in the fall.
There are countless new varieties of old favorites to include in a garden like this, as well as many other traditional spring tonic herbs and spring greens in general. From one season to the next and from one year to the next, you can continue your favorites while replacing others with new edible plants to try out or grow in rotation. Sometimes a garden meant for a single season can evolve to earn a more permanent place in your landscape. Or you can enjoy the planting for a season and move on to something else.
Much of this spring garden can be grown from seed as soon as the ground can be worked. Once they sprout and start growing, you can give them a dollop of liquid seaweed to give the roots a boost, and then an organic nitrogen fertilizer for green growth, either granular or liquid at half strength. Thin them by cutting unwanted seedlings at soil level, or transplant them to where you want them (or pot up a few for friends).
When the young plants get to harvestable size, turn visiting this backyard garden, harvest basket in hand, into a daily habit. It’s a great excuse to be outside, if only for a little while, and this lets you keep a watchful eye on the garden to keep it tidy and well-mannered. Being able to harvest just as many leaves as you need, rather than whole heads like you buy in the grocery store, is the freshness benefit of growing your own; the regular pruning keeps the plants shapely and productive and helps extend the season.
There are few meals that aren’t improved—nutritionally and on every other level—by a salad fresh from the garden. After all, sunshine and salads are the tonics of spring—indulge in both liberally!
Kathleen Halloran is a freelance writer and editor living and gardening in beautiful Austin, Texas.
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