Friday, April 17, 2009

Planting for spring meals

Express Staff Writer

Each spring, as the snow melts and plants start coming back to life, a slice of common wisdom gets passed around the Hailey gardening community. "When the snow has melted off the top of Della Mountain," it goes, "it's safe to plant your vegetable garden."

I'm not sure if the adage is accurate—that planting at a certain time provides a sure-fire guarantee that we're deep enough into spring to avoid crop loss to a nighttime freeze—but if it is, I need to get busy. The snow is disappearing fast.

For Wood River Valley residents who grow their own vegetables and herbs, late April is an important time. The decisions we make now and in the coming weeks will—more or less—determine which fresh ingredients we have to cook with come July, August and September. What's more, our choices of which seeds and seedlings to plant influence whether we'll have fresh produce at a steady rate throughout the summer or slim pickings followed by a sudden, potentially excessive bumper harvest.

For us cooks, contributions to the family garden are often colored by our visions of what we want to prepare in the summer. That's fine, but in the high desert of central Idaho—where the season is short and the nights are sometimes cold—we also have to think about what grows well and what might be an ambitious farmer's fantasy.

My family eats a salad before or after just about every meal we eat, making the decision to plant mixed greens an easy one. What makes the decision even easier is the fact that many lettuces grow well here and—if harvested properly—provide consistently through the summer. We've had great success with planting mixed-greens seeds in a raised bed and cutting leaves off the plants each afternoon before dinner. The fresh leaves can be served as a plain salad with little or no dressing, or can be dressed up with fruit, nuts or some gorgonzola cheese.

We also eat a fair amount of grilled fish in the summer, so I like to plant fast-growing vegetables that can help round out the plate. If you can keep the birds off the seedlings, green beans and snow peas are a good bet. Green beans sautéed in a touch of butter and olive oil, plus some chopped garlic and a quick shake of salt and pepper, are a simple accompaniment for all sorts of grilled fare. Swiss chard—a hardy plant that endures well in the cold—also fits the bill. It can be lightly sautéed with some chopped garlic and a touch of balsamic vinegar for a bold, healthy side dish.

Then there are tomatoes. Most of us love them, of course, but they can be hard to grow in this climate. We buy well-established tomato plants for our garden and tend to them lovingly when the temperatures drop. The yields aren't always great but having fresh, organic tomatoes gives the home chef seemingly countless options. They can be served fresh in an appetizer, cooked into a sauce or served in a light pasta dish.

Zucchini and other types of squash can do well in the valley. If they get enough water and sun, they will provide a good harvest later in the summer. Small squashes can be grilled, cooked into a variety of side dishes or mixed into a summer stir-fry.

Root vegetables are also a Wood River Valley gardener's friend. Radishes can complete your green salad and carrots go with—or into—just about anything.

And don't forget about herbs. We can't grow rosemary into hedges here, like people do in Northern California, but many herbs do well enough to provide the perfect finish to that grilled fish, pasta or stir-fry.

Gregory Foley, Web news editor for the Idaho Mountain Express, has been a professional writer and editor since 1997. He has worked as a restaurant sous-chef and for four years guided food- and wine-focused bicycle tours in Europe.

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