Your Italian-American Gardening Tips: Leeks come back! Planting Strawberries, Asparagus, Spinach and Peas in the Springtime

Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! It’s been so nice to be out in the garden again this spring! It seems like ages have passed since my last gardening blog in December of 2020.

January was temperate in Chicagoland.  It finally started to snow in earnest in February, and then seemed like it would never stop.  By the end of the month, my yard was blanketed in 4 feet of snow!  But once the snow cleared, I was excited to see the tiny, bright yellow, sun-like faces of my winter buttercups, followed by daffodils, tulips and hyacinths in the early spring. Check out my Instagram posts at Conversationalitalian.french  to follow my flower beds  more closely if you like.

I have great expectations for the vegetable garden this year, since I hired a landscape crew to build 4 new raised beds! These beds are on the top of a hill, in the sunniest location in my yard, and I know this will be wonderful for the Italian summer vegetables my family loves. 

As I have mentioned in my  Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blogs, for the last two years, my focus has been on how to grow Italian vegetables in the suburbs, even in a small space.

My hope is that you will enjoy the tips I’ve learned about gardening through many years of experience and be encouraged to start an Italian garden yourself — be it large or small, in a yard or on your porch, or even indoors in pots near a sunny window — after reading the blogs in this series “Your Italian Gardening Tips.”  

Check out my Instagram account, ConversationalItalian.French to see photos of my garden as it progresses.

In this blog I’ll describe how to get started in the springtime with vegetables and greens that love the cool weather, and set out my garden plan for 2011. 

And remember the Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books on Amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com if you want an easy, step-by-step way to learn the Italian of today. Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel Italian.com.

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Watching Leeks Spring Back to Life

 

In my December post, I mentioned my first attempt at growing leeks last year. In short, I had found leek sets in the garden shop and  planted them in two rows in the center of my lettuce bed by the house. Although I did not realize it at the time, they were planted in a good location for over-wintering; that particular bed is sheltered by a large tree on one side and the house and patio wall on the other two sides. The leeks provided greenery in the center of that bed all winter, their long so I knew they were alive. By early spring, when the ground thawed I was able to pull two fragrant leeks to make with my salmon for Friday night during lent.  

A few tips about cooking with leeks:

Whether store bought or homegrown, remember to continuously clean the leeks of the bits of dirt that hide in between the layers.

The long, white “bulb” portion of the leek (called the “shank”) is used for cooking, along with the tender green portion of the bulb at the border with the white.  The long green leaves are normally discarded into the compost bin. Although, I did find an article from La Cucina Italiana that mentions boiling the tough green leaves and rolling each to make individual serving “rounds,” with a filling or to use them for soups or stews. Interesting ideas!

The “white part” of the leek is usually cut crosswise, is tender when cooked, and has a delicate, oniony flavor and  floral scent.  This portion of the leek alone can flavor an entire dish. So when I paired leeks with salmon for the Instagram post shared below, I did not use the usual Italian technique of a preliminary sauté in olive oil to soften them, and I did not include garlic in the dish. But the pasta in this dish is cooked and then added in the “typical” Italian way.

My salmon, leek, and cream with pasta dish is so simple to make. It takes only one large pan and I think the flavors meld beautifully. Check out how I did this on my Instagram video below and then try it yourself and see if you agree!

 

 

 

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Planting Seeds for Spinach

and Italian Greens

 

This year I wasted no time ordering seeds. As soon as the catalogues appeared in my mailbox in January, I sent out my order. The first item on my list was spinach, as it is one of my favorite leafy green vegetables. It is said that Catherine de Medici from Renaissance Florence loved spinach so much that when she was queen of France she asked it be served at every meal! Perhaps this is why dishes that feature spinach are called “Florentine.”

Spinach grows easily from seed in the cool spring of Chicago, and homegrown spinach has a fresh taste that the supermarket spinach lacks. I especially love young spinach leaves and it is wonderful to have them available right in my backyard for an afternoon lunch. This year I planted two varieties of spinach, both of which were advertised as being resistant to going to seed and dying out in the warm weather. Fingers crossed, because it typically turns from a cool spring into a hot summer very quickly in Chicagoland.

Other than spinach, I like to plant greens that are not commonly found in the grocery stores here in the US. My favorite company to order from is Seeds from Italy. They are an American distributor of seeds from authentic Italian producers.  As a result, I was able to find two varieties of arugula, lamb’s lettuce, and several types of Italian leafy romaine that love cool weather but are also supposed to be resistant to going to seed when it turns warmer. 

Another of my favorite Italian greens that can be planted in the springtime is cavolo nero.  The name means “black cabbage,” but it is really a kale. This leafy green has become popular lately, but I’ve grown it in my garden for years. Cavolo nero grows easily from seed and will last all summer into the late fall. Cavolo nero is an attractive, tall leafy green and needs a lot of space, so I planted the seeds in their own row just outside the garden bed. 

Just north of the cavolo nero is my bed of Swiss chard. One valiant plant came up again on its own this year. I’ve planted more seeds in the perimeter of the old bed since Swiss chard needs cool weather to germinate. The package recommended soaking the seeds in water for 24 hours prior to planting for best germination. And in the center of this garden bed, I trying to grow some new vegetables from seed: broccoli rabe and romanesco broccoli from Seeds of Italy.  

Shallot sets and green onion sets from the garden shop in my neighborhood complete my lettuce beds this year. My chives came up again in their own pot nearby, as expected early in spring, as they have been for over 10 years!

Of course, before planting this year, I added more soil to my garden beds and amended the soil with cow manure and some garden compost. In my experience, lettuce will grow well without any other additions to the soil. 

See below for an image of my garden beds with the greens and onions this year.  Between the garden beds are lavender that I planted last year as part of my herb garden. A row of sedum was planted by the previous owners of my house, and comes up reliably every year, so I have kept it in place as a border. The leeks are in the center of the southern raised garden bed. Otherwise, not much to look at right now, but I know from experience that it will not be long before the seedlings pop their heads out of the ground!

Leeks growing in the center of a raised garden bed; in the distance another raised garden bed and additional land for leafy greens. Seeds have just been planted.
Italian garden beds for lettuce, onions, and leafy greens, after seeds were planted. The leeks overwintered from last summer.

 

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Last Year’s Overwintered Strawberry Plants


and Planting New Bare Root Strawberries

 

Last year’s strawberry plants have greened up again. At this point, with many of the leaves now green and functioning again, I’ve read it’s important to cover the plants with a old sheet if the temperature dips below freezing at night. I’ve sometimes followed this advice and sometimes not. Either way, my strawberry plants seem to survive. They do need fertilizer for berries early in the spring and then in mid spring (about 30-45 days later)  when they get ready to flower.

 

Raised garden bed with overwintered strawberries, now with green leaves
Strawberries spring 2021, overwintered with green leaves. Two small plants showing new red stalks and green leaves, peeking out in the center are overwintered rhubarb.

I’ve also planted more strawberries in the periphery of my asparagus beds at the top of my hill. Strawberries love the dappled shade that asparagus provides and are a nice border plant. I’ve always found the two to grow well together.

This year I was able to get down to Peoria (where I lived for about 18 years and learned to garden) and bought bare root strawberries from Kelly’s Seed in Peoria, Illinois.  A family run business since 1905, Kelly’s seed only sells plants that will grow well in central Illinois. All of their staff today are knowledgeable about when and how to plant the seeds and root stock they sell, which is a huge added benefit. Plus is is always fun for me to share stories with them about my garden and they always listen and are helpful!

Check out your area for a  local gardening store instead of the big box stores. If you are lucky enough to have a garden store in your area, and can buy bare root strawberries, just click on the link I’ve found to a post that will walk you through each step for planting strawberries:  How to Plant Bare Root Strawberries.

Below are my morning’s adventure. Only 1 1/2 hours and 18 strawberry plants planted in each box! For that little work, hopefully I will be enjoying strawberries for years to come.

 

Bare root strawberries as they are sold on the left, demonstrating their long roots and a second image of the roots trimmed and ready to plant.
  Bare root strawberries as they are sold on the left, and trimmed and ready to plant on the the right. Roots were soaked about 4 hours.

       

Newly planted strawberry crowns peeking out of the soil
Strawberry crowns, newly planted

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Last Year’s Asparagus Plants

 

I planted asparagus crowns in the spring of last year,  and after they came up posted about how to get them ready for winter. 

Since it is now spring again, here are some tips about planting asparagus. First: check your location and see if asparagus will grow. Asparagus likes cool weather. The best way to plant asparagus is by buying “crowns” or the roots of the asparagus plant. I found an excellent post about how to plant asparagus that will take you through each step, with lots of pictures. The details about how to plant the crown are in the middle of the post. I would skip there as the home gardener would find it difficult to plant asparagus from seeds (as mentioned in the article).  I have only grown asparagus from crowns. How to Plant Asparagus.

Asparagus that has overwintered needs a covering of cow manure compost in the spring and fall and with this little care the plants should continue to produce asparagus each spring for about 10 years and even up to 25 years. Since I live in hardiness zone 5 (temperature falls to -20 degrees for part of the winter) I cannot cut my asparagus for the first three years or the plant will die. Extra root power is needed to survive the cold Illinois winters! So no posts on fresh asparagus will appear until the year after next! 

I plan on planting potatoes in the beds next to the strawberry patch along the west side of the house, and moving the tomatoes that were in these beds last year to the new beds when it gets warmer this spring. But for now, I have other plans for the new beds…

 

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This Year’s Peas and Then…

Tomatoes, Peppers and Eggplant

 

And in my four new raised garden beds? I’ve planted peas! My family and I love fresh peas and this year I hope to have enough peas to enjoy all spring. A second planting in two to three weeks will help to prolong the season as long as it does not become hot too quickly.

Peas are also a good vegetable to start with in a new garden bed because they accumulate nitrogen gained from a symbiotic relationship between their roots and the bacteria in the soil. The bacteria are able to obtain nitrogen from the air and transfer it to the pea plant. After harvesting the peas, the remaining plants can then be turned into the soil to increase the nitrogen available to the next set of plants to be grown in the bed. Which in this case will be the Italian favorites — tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.

Here is an image of the raised beds. Nothing to look at for now. I just need to keep them watered and my fingers crossed they will germinate. A tip: Soak peas overnight in cold water and they will germinate more quickly.

 

Four new raised garden beds planted with peas
Four new raised garden beds planted with peas

 

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 My Grand Plan for 2021

Below is a map of my garden plan for this year. A map always helps me to plan what I need to do for each part of the spring and summer. You may notice the blackberries, raspberries and cherry trees… hopefully we will have fruit from these new plants in a few years also!

 

Italian garden plan for Spring 2021
IItalian gardening plan for Spring 2021
 

 

 

Please write and let me know what you are planting in your garden this spring.
I’d love to hear how your garden grows!
Until the next blog, follow my Instagram account, Conversationalitalian.french
for recipe ideas from my garden to yours!