As the ground begins to warm up, the wonderful and distinctive smell of the wet earth is beginning to come up. This may be the year for you to start a small patch of your own, be it on a windowsill or in a shared garden plot. Renee Shepherd, creator of Renee’s Garden and a pioneer in finding the choicest produce from around the world, shares her picks for spring seeds.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: At this point in your career, you have probably seen it all. With that in mind, what’s new this year?
Renee Shepherd: There’s always something new in the world of seeds because there’s so much to choose from. I think a couple highlights that I’m looking forward to eating again this spring are: beautiful new edible landscaping lettuces -- lettuces that are picked for their beauty as well as their flavor and color; something new in the mustard family is arugula that tastes exactly like wasabi that you’d get at a Japanese restaurant; tiny Padron peppers, which you basically grow, throw in a frying pan and eat whole; Portuguese kale is a new old vegetable from Portugal that tastes like something between collards and kale and is sweeter and easier to grow; all kinds of new tomatoes -- there are always lots of heirlooms that are being rediscovered; baby Persian cucumbers that only grow about five inches long; and many, many new vegetables suitable for growing in containers.
LRK: If we were really in a hurry, what would you have us grow for instant gratification?
RS: I think if you’re a relatively new gardener or someone without a lot of space or time, I would definitely encourage you to grow some baby leaf mesclun, which means a mix of fresh greens. There are mesclun mixes that are all lettuces and others that would have things like arugula or Japanese greens mixed in for some spiciness. Or, if you wanted to, you could have a container of mixed, sweet lettuces of all colors and forms and one of sharper flavored greens like arugula and mizuna and other spicier, peppery flavors. Then you would harvest them basically based on how spicy you wanted your salad: more lettuce, less spicy greens or vice versa.
LRK: Then you could pick them, and as you pick them, they keep growing so you could keep them going for quite a while?
RS: It’s called the “cut and come again” method. You prepare the soil and you sprinkle the seed fairly thickly, like grass seed, cover it lightly and in about 35 to 40 days you can make a cutting of the leaves that are by now 4 to 5 inches tall. You leave 1-inch crowns; in other words, leave the bases in the soil, water and fertilize them, and you’ll get another harvest out of them. It’s a very traditional and very intensive way of growing your own salad, and you get a lot of leaves from a small space.
LRK: What’s new in herbs?
RS: There are always wonderful herbs that are coming down the pike. Last year, for example, we started selling the hibiscus that you can grow for their calyces, which is what flavors Red Zinger Tea, for example. I am now growing some Zaatar oregano, which is a wonderful spice that you use in Mediterranean cooking -- we’ll have that soon. This year we introduced an Italian oregano which has purple flowers and is slightly sweeter than its Greek cousin. So there are many distinctive kinds of herbs to enjoy.
I’m also much more interested in things like chervil and Amsterdam cutting celery. There’s a celery that you can grow that looks like big tall parsley, but it tastes like celery. You really don’t eat it like you do stalk celery. What you do is pick a big bunch and hang it upside down so it dries in about a week, and then you can use it all winter for soups and stews when celery is really expensive. It has a real deep, clean, rich celery flavor. That’s something that you hadn’t seen much before.
LRK: Are you seeing any new trends in seeds?
RS: Yes, I would say that there are a lot of new gardeners coming into gardening who want to grow their own food. There’s a real interest in growing food in containers of all kinds and in small spaces, of integrating food gardening with ornamental gardening -- the concept of ornamental edibles or edible landscaping, and of rooftop and vertical gardens. People are trying to figure out how to grow food and get the benefits of having a garden, which are much more than just growing food, because a garden anywhere makes life better.
Renee Shepherd's Top Ten Picks for Spring Seeds