SPRING IS HERE!!! And while other gardeners have yet to even think about putting seeds in the ground, you can be out there harvesting bowls of fresh greens that just appear without any intervention on your part.
Yesterday I biked over to a community garden in search of greens, and you better believe I was not disappointed. Pathways and garden beds were filled with tasty and nutritious greens. I forgot to take a bag with me, but fortunately (or unfortunately) there were plenty of old plastic shopping bags blowing around, so I picked the strongest, cleanest one and began filling it up.
While some may call these plants “weeds”, I personally believe that “weed” is really more of a state of mind than a class of plants, as these species are so easy to cultivate and perform so many critical ecosystem functions from repairing soil to feeding wildlife. I’ll add that feeding people is an important ecosystem function as well, for if we do not get our food from beneficial, regenerative sources like these “weeds”, then we will be getting them from commercial farms that, as we have seen, do horrible things to the environment.
One thing that I will add before moving on is that it’s important to pay close attention to where you are harvesting these plants from, as many people who don’t understand their benefits will poison them with toxic chemicals. Eating plants treated with such poisons can make you seriously ill, or worse, so if gathering from local parks or neighbors’ lawns, make sure they don’t spray anything.
With that disclaimer aside, let’s take a look at some of the greens that are out today and what you can do with them.
Cress, or rather, the Cresses are small species in the mustard family that pop up in the cooler months of early spring and late fall and retreat in the warmer months in between. There are many different types of cresses, and it is often difficult to determine exactly which one you are looking at, but all are in the mustard family and all are safe to eat. Being in the mustard family, they have a distinct spiciness to them that makes them ideal for garnish or pesto. The leaves, stalks, flowers, and seed pods are all edible. You can harvest individual leaves or pop the whole rosette off the roots, but be sure to leave the biggest and strongest rosettes to mature and set seed so that the population can continue to thrive and provide.
Onion grass is perhaps one of my favorite wild greens, and it can be found all year round in diverse habitats from lawns to forest floors. You can use it like you would onion, garlic, leeks, or any other allium for everything from soups to pestos to omelettes and beyond. Onion grass grows in clusters and produces tall, round, hollow green leaves that resemble grass, at least to the untrained eye. As soon as you break the leaves, however, the sweet smell of onion will fill the air and you will know you have onion grass. Onion grass also produces small bulbs below the soil surface, like all alliums, but it is best to only harvest the leaves to ensure that there will always be onion grass for everyone who wants it.
There are many types of dock — curly dock, patience dock, bitter dock, etc. — but all are in the Rumex family with the sorrels, and all are edible. Although edible, some are so bitter that they will not be palatable even after boiling in multiple changes of water; a quick taste test will let you know what you have.
Docks are much less bitter in the colder months of early spring when the leaves are young and tender, some being as mild as spinach with a similar texture. The leaves also tend to lose some bitterness in the late fall after setting seed, but I think spring is the best time to harvest.
Chickweed is a tasty green that can be quite abundant in the spring, though it is not my favorite of the spring greens. It has an almost vine-like growth habit, as it produces long shoots that generally lie along the ground. It produces opposite leaves and small white flowers.
Henbit is a herb in the mint family that comes up in the early spring but can be found throughout most of the year. Like most mints, it has a square stalk and has flowers that are loved by bees. The leaves of henbit are round with wavy edges and wrap almost entirely around the stem. Flowers are usually purple and have a nice sweetness to them.