Ground frozen all one week, T-shirt weather the next. What’s a poor plant supposed to think? Well, a lot of forest garden regulars are hardy creatures and have decided to think that it’s spring already. The Japanese plum has started to blossom – fully five weeks before it did last year.
However, spring always comes early to the forest gardener and quite a number of early species are now into production. The first leaves of wild garlic (Allium ursinum) have spiked up through the soil and unfurled. The alliums are obviously a competitive family, because the chives, welsh onions and tree onions (A schoenoprasum, fistulosum and cepa proliferum) are all not far behind.
A perennial relative of spinach, with the splendidly silly name of Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), has been sending up tentative leaves for a couple of weeks now, as has Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis), which has unpleasantly strong-flavoured leaves later in the year but is sweet and mild when young. Sea beet (Beta vulgaris maritima) seems to come in both perennial and biennial strains – both are starting into new growth. It’s probably my favourite ‘spinach’ after spinach itself and is almost embarrassingly easy to grow.
While all these leaves are probably best cooked, salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) is a salad leaf. As a root vegetable, it is known as ‘vegetable oyster’ but to me this is the least interesting part of the plant. In summer, I’ll steam the flower buds which taste quite like globe artichoke and once the flowers open they’ll go into salads, but at this time of year it is the young leaves I’m interested in. While later on they will become tough and bitter they are now juicy and sweet and already being produced in enough quantity to make them the basis of a salad.
Finally there are two plants that I don’t encourage in the forest garden but which make very fine greens if you know how to cook them. Nettles grow anywhere but the ones from shade are the best for eating; ground elder mystified me for years as to why anyone would eat it, til I discovered that it is a gourmet dish if you pick the youngest, hardly-even-unfurled leaves and fry them in olive oil. Which makes sense for a plant introduced to Britain by Italians.