IT'S a great time of year for kitchen gardeners. Good rains mean great greens, and we've been happily tracking muddy footprints into the house as we bring in fresh-cut large-leaf mâché or Italian wild arugula. At the same time, we're thinking about what to plant for spring and summer harvesting.
For near-immediate gratification, plant radishes and spring onions right away as well as another round of lettuces and greens. Try one of the several radicchio varieties available as seedlings from Windrose Farm of Paso Robles at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market on Wednesdays. Barbara Spencer, owner, says she has some great chicory varieties ready to plant.
Not quite as fast-growing, but an indispensable part of spring harvests, are fragrant strawberries. For the happy surprise of them, and for what many say is an even sweeter taste than the red, try Yellow Wonder, a yellow alpine strawberry from Swallowtail Garden Seeds in Santa Rosa.
The next several weeks are also great for planting herbs. Italian Cameo basil, new from Renee Sheppard's Renee's Garden Seeds in Felton, has big leaves that will make as much pesto as you can eat, but is a compact 8 inches tall, nice for an edging plant in the garden, or a good choice for those whose kitchen garden is a window box. Renee's Garden also offers wonderful salad greens collections.
Your Italian grandmother, if you had one, might tell you to sauté mixed, fresh mushrooms in a little olive oil and sprinkle them with a generous handful of chopped mentuccia, an Italian herb that's been hard to find locally until recently. Jimmy Williams of Hayward Organic Gardening hadn't even heard of it when a customer brought him some seeds from Italy a few years ago.
Williams, who says he "learned everything I know about gardening from my Gullah grandmother," now grows mentuccia as well as other hard-to-find vegetables and herbs organically in his Hollywood backyard. He and his son, Logan, sell seedlings at the Sunday Hollywood Farmers Market and on Wednesdays in Santa Monica.
Mentuccia is used in classic Roman artichokes, carciofi alla Romana, stuffed with a paste of minced garlic and mentuccia, then braised in white wine and olive oil.
Subtle but rich
MANY recipes suggest mint or parsley, because mentuccia hasn't been available, but once you taste the real thing -- rich, subtle, almost buttery -- you won't be able to imagine a substitute. It has a marvelous affinity for mushrooms, artichokes and fish. Sal Marino, chef-owner of Il Grano restaurant in West L.A., also suggests strewing mentuccia across a frittata.
Ben Ford, chef-owner of Ford's Filling Station in Culver City and a committed gardener "since the second grade," is planning an herb garden of burnet, cilantro and French thyme, an herb he says he can't do without (both Jimmy Williams and Windrose Farm sell French thyme plants).
This year, Ford is also interested in agretti, a feathery-leafed Italian vegetable (seeds are available from Seeds of Italy) with a flavor he describes as "salty and sea-vegetable-like."
Down the street, Tender Greens co-owner and co-chef Erik Oberholtzer plans a home garden of "great heirloom varietals" that do well in small spaces such as his coastal patio. Green Fingers Persian baby cucumber from Renee's Garden is a small-space, big-harvest plant that's tolerant of powdery mildew and difficult conditions, meaning it'll be especially welcome for beach-area gardeners.
It's not too early to gather seeds for planting in April and May. Children and grown-ups alike will be charmed by World of Color giant pumpkins grown from seedlings sold by Windrose Farms. They have skins in shades of blue (yes, blue!), white, peach, pink and deep orange. "It'll be a bit of a lottery in a six-pack," Spencer says.
For summer harvesting, owner Jere Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Missouri recommends Roberto's Cuban Seasoning peppers, describing their balance of sweet and hot flavor as "smoky and fruity -- like habañeros, without the intense heat."
The disc-shaped wrinkly peppers range from dark green to gold to bright red as they ripen, and can be eaten fresh at any stage. Gettle started Baker Creek in 1998 as a means of collecting and preserving heirloom seeds, and now offers 1,200-plus heirloom varieties.
Baker Creek, along with a growing number of other seed companies, offers organic seed when possible, and all of its varieties are open-pollinated (that is, pollinated by wind, birds, insects or other natural means). The test gardens for Baker Creek use organic gardening practices (as does Renee's Garden, which uses French bio-intensive methods).
But many seed growers who practice organic growing aren't certified. Gettle and Sheppard explain that though there is burgeoning demand for organic and untreated seed, the certification system is difficult for smaller growers with diverse crops who often can't afford the time and expense needed for formal certification.
COMPANIES such as Baker Creek and Renee's Garden select seeds for performance, flavor and attractiveness, and aren't able to get the variety they want to offer from certified organic growers.
For home gardeners, the wisest, greenest course may be not to worry so much about certified organic seed, but to choose varieties best suited to your growing conditions and tastes, and practice organic gardening methods.
And even people who don't think of themselves as gardeners should plant a few tomato plants each year to experience the singular pleasure of that incomparably sweet, tangy, still-warm-from-the-vine taste, come summer. Brandywine has recently been a favorite of chefs and home cooks alike, but this year a few other varieties promise flavor to rival Brandywine's. Among them, the extra-large True Black Brandywine from Baker Creek has a deep, earthy sweetness and rich tomato taste.
Yvonne Savio, manager of L.A. County's University of California Cooperative Extension Common Ground program, will be trying out the new Japanese Trifele Black tomatoes this year. Il Grano's Marino, who grew 37 tomato varieties in a plot next to the restaurant last year (and featured them on his seasonal "Tomato Wednesdays" menus) is planting, among many others, Pisanello this year. It's a Tuscan variety available from Reimer Seeds.
From Victory Seed in Willamette Valley, Ore., a company offering open-pollinated heirloom varieties, comes Extreme Bush. It won't get much taller than knee-high, but it's prolific -- perfect for the kitchen gardener whose south forty is a few pots on a patio in Silver Lake.
And perfect for your very own "Tomato Wednesday" some evening come July.