Saturday, March 18, 2000

Report from the Wild West End

The Full Worm moon arrived on the night of the nineteenth, just hours before the vernal equinox on the twentieth. Spring is here! Red maple trees lining Washington Park are bursting with red blossoms clearly distinguishing them from the other maples. Tight yellow flowers festoon the twisting limbs of the Cornelian cherry. An immigrant from somewhere in Eurasia, the Cornelian cherry makes its home happily in the city along with the native red maple, as it can take pollution.

A very helpful resource for identifying trees around town can be found at Click on "Interactive mapping", and then click to zoom on a location of the map, and soon you can click on a tree icon on a map, and find out the name of the tree.

Spring seems to be lurching wildly with the advances and retreats of snow and temperature, but the planet is serenely on its course; the days inexorably lengthening. The air is clear and cold as a bell, yet when the wind stops for a second, the sun hints warmly of caresses to come. For weeks, we've been watching the increasing activities of the birds. The robins are eating the crabapples. They join the starlings, crows and cardinals to check what's in the garden that was mulched with leaves last fall. They throw the leaves around in their search for seeds and worms. In one brief interlude of 50° weather, I raked the leaves off one of the garden beds to get it ready for planting peas and lettuce, spinach and carrots. On the suddenly naked soil surface, worms coiled and flipped in surprise and grubs turned suddenly into vulnerable invitations to birds. With the next snow, I regretted removing that protective layer... but soon the sun will shine and warm up the soil.

In the thirteen years I've been gardening here and keeping records, there's usually been a moderate spell the last week in March and the ground's been dry enough to work. The earliest I've ever planted was March 19; the latest April 17. Yes, it gets colder again, but the seeds swell up whenever it rains, and wait for that moment of warm enough to burst forth.

I'm longing for something new and fresh, tired of the old winter squash, discouraged to see the potatoes are sprouting. Squash soup for dinner doesn't yield the same zest or comfort it did back in the late fall. The appetite yearns for the fresh greens of spring. Fortunately there was a garlic bulb left in the garden that is thick with broad blades of garlic. Succulent with garlic flavor, I sliced them last night onto store-bought Romaine lettuce.

Early in March when the weather was mild, I found a bunch of winter cress over at the community gardens. Considered a weed, no one grows it on purpose, yet it is here and there lushly available at this time of year, when otherwise only the grocery stores can make such boasts for nutrition and good taste in produce they import from far away. I must have arrived at the community gardens shortly after someone pulled a couple of large plants of winter cress and threw them in the compost bin. I pulled off a few leaves that were still good. More winter cress was found around the compost area where many weeds grow the best, and spotted here and there in rich, abandoned gardens. I only took the largest leaves so the smaller leaves would get a chance to grow. Euell Gibbons, in that classic work Stalking the Wild Asparagus, noted that one of the earliest signs of spring near his home in suburban Philadelphia was to see the Italians out roaming the fields and ditches collecting winter cress.

After coming out of the renewed onslaught of winter weather in mid-March, greedy for more signs of spring, I went back to the community gardens again the last day of winter. Now the winter cress plants that had been thrown so diligently into the compost bin had taken root, revitalizing the bigger leaves that had been wilting when last I was there and sprouting new young leaves. In another bin, a thick growth of cleavers was luxuriating. I tore off the tops, leaving some to re-grow for someone else. The cleavers that grow along my fence at home are not so well enriched and well-advanced.

Here's my favorite recipe for cooking up greens: rinse the leaves and cup them up. Mince up a bunch of garlic cloves. Heat up a little bacon grease, or maybe some canola oil with a dash of toasted sesame oil. Throw in the garlic and stir for just a few, then add the leaves with a little water still clinging. Stir, splash on some tamari, add some bacon bits if you're so inclined, lower the heat, cover, let cook for a few minutes. Taste til it's cooked to your liking. Splash on some balsamic vinegar (or whatever kind you've got), and eat to your health!