Round Robin: Welcome Spring with Sorrel

Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners

| April/May 2000

CHICAGO, Illinois—Midspring may be my favorite time of year. It’s warm enough to be out in shirtsleeves but not yet so hot that air conditioners beckon. The damp, gray mudtime is over and nature is springing to life. Everything is clean, new, and brilliantly verdant.

I walk in my garden, delighting in each new day’s unfolding of leaves and swelling of buds, the fresh shoots poking out of the earth, the deepening colors. Few insect pests have yet come to life; no plant diseases are in evidence; weeds are small and easily dispatched. There is outdoor work to do, but we are still a few weeks shy of the last frost date here, so it’s not yet an urgent frenzy.

The rabbits nibbling clover in the lawn still seem cute—not the garden menace they’ll become when I have vegetables at risk. It’s all too short a season, and precious.

My half acre in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago is solidly Zone 5, too far west for Lake Michigan’s moderating influence. The temperate zone, they call it.

Right. Within six months during 1995 and 1996, we went from a killing high of 105°F to an arctic low of -20°. One day, the temperature rose from the 20s to 60°—just long enough to melt the snow cover—and then dropped overnight into single digits before sinking further into the subzero range. Couple these weather extremes with heavy, sticky, alkaline clay soil, and gardening here is a continual challenge.

I expect to devote most of this spring to serious digging up and dividing of my herbs, most of which have really spread in the past couple of years. The one herb that hasn’t spread more than I’d like is sorrel. Although herb books tell you that “a few” plants will provide all the sorrel you’ll need, their authors obviously don’t make sorrel soup. Even harvesting all the leaves I dare from my three large plants, I still usually need to eke it out with spinach.

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