Yellow berries and pink pumpkins

Special to The Times

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 mache 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 saute 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 habaneros, 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.

Top traits

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.

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food@latimes.com

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Spinach and strawberry salad with thyme-infused vinaigrette

Total time: 30 minutes, plus steeping time

Servings: 4 to 6

Note: This makes three-fourths cup dressing. Save the remaining dressing, refrigerated and covered, for 1 week.

1/2 cup best-quality olive oil

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, divided (any variety of strongly flavored thyme will work; lemon thyme gives a particularly nice flavor)

4 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 small shallot, finely minced (1 generous tablespoon)

1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

1/2 pound baby spinach leaves (about 12 cups), stemmed, washed and dried well, and any large leaves torn into bite-sized pieces

1 1/2 pints fresh strawberries, preferably red and yellow, washed, dried, hulled and sliced lengthwise

4 sprigs thyme or strawberry blossoms for garnish

1. Pour the olive oil into a small saucepan and heat over low heat until warm, about 2 minutes, then remove the saucepan from the heat. Pour the oil into a small nonreactive bowl. Stir in 1 tablespoon thyme, and allow the mixture to cool and steep, at least 30 minutes and up to 24 hours.

2. Whisk the vinegar into the cooled thyme-oil mixture until well-blended, then whisk in the mustard, shallot, remaining chopped herbs and salt and pepper. Check the seasoning and adjust to taste.

3. Place the spinach in a large salad bowl and drizzle the vinaigrette over by spoonfuls, tossing after each addition until the leaves are just slightly glossy with the coating. Pile the salad evenly among 4 chilled plates, and arrange the strawberry slices evenly on top of each. Garnish with strawberry blossoms if available, or with a sprig of fresh thyme.

Each serving: 159 calories; 1 gram protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 14 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 316 mg. sodium.

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Persian cucumber salad with walnuts and golden raisins

Total time: 45 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: If you have access to fresh, unsprayed rose petals, they add a lovely, subtle flavor and beautiful color. Dried rose petals are available in Middle Eastern or Latino markets, or the Latino sections of well-stocked supermarkets (they will be hanging with the dried spices). Greek yogurt is available at Trader Joe's and well-stocked supermarkets. Persian cucumbers are available at well-stocked supermarkets, Middle Eastern markets and farmers markets.

1/4 cup golden raisins

2 tablespoons fresh, unsprayed rose petals (optional), washed and dried, plus additional for garnish, or 1 tablespoon dried rose petals

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

1 (16-ounce) container good-quality plain Greek yogurt

1 medium shallot, peeled and finely minced

1/2 clove garlic, peeled and very finely minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, plus whole sprigs for garnish

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint, plus whole sprigs for garnish

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill, plus whole sprigs for garnish

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

1/2 pound (3 to 4) Persian cucumbers, washed, dried and sliced crosswise very thinly

2 small radishes, sliced as thinly as possible

1. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan, add the raisins and turn off the heat. Let sit for 5 minutes, then drain and transfer the raisins to a small bowl. Mix in the rose petals; set aside to cool.

2. In a medium saute pan over medium-high heat, toast the walnuts until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat; cool.

3. In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, shallot, herbs, salt and pepper and mix with a rubber spatula until well blended. Add the sliced cucumbers and radishes, and stir to combine.

4. Just before serving, add the walnuts and raisin mixture and stir well to combine. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish the outer edge of the bowl with sprigs of basil, mint and dill. Scatter a few rose petals over the top.

Each serving: 159 calories; 7 grams protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 11 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 13 mg. cholesterol; 220 mg. sodium.

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Uncommon seeds and seedlings

Internet/mail order seeds and plants

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, 2278 Baker Creek Road, Mansfield, Mo., 65704, (417) 924-8917; www.rareseeds.com. Rare and unusual heirloom vegetables, herbs and flowers, all open-pollinated varieties. Look for Cuban Seasoning peppers, as well as Japanese Black Trifele tomatoes, French thyme, Thai basil, burnet and Thai Golden Round melon, a very sweet melon with a bright orange skin and pineapple-like flavor.

Reimer Seeds, Box 236, Mount Holly, N.C. 28120-0236; www.reimerseeds.com. Nearly 4,000 varieties of vegetables, herbs and flower seeds. Note that this is an Internet-only seed company; orders can be made only through the website -- though you can order online and then mail a check. This is a source for Pisanello tomato seeds.

Renee's Garden, 6116 Highway 9, Felton, Calif. 95018, (888) 880-7228; www.reneesgarden.com. Many vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. Source for Green Fingers cucumbers, Italian Cameo basil, several Thai basils, numerous lettuce and mache varieties, including some offered in seed collections. Test gardens in California.

Seeds From Italy, Box 149, Winchester, Mass. 01890, (781) 721-5904; www.growitalian.com. Great selection of Italian vegetables, herbs and flowers. U.S. distributor for 200-plus-year-old Franchi seeds. Source for agretti seeds, along with other traditional Italian items. Try their Cascine fava beans or grow your own capers.

Swallowtail Garden Seeds, 122 Calistoga Road, No. 178, Santa Rosa, Calif. 95409, (707) 538-3585; www.swallowtailgardenseeds.com. Annual and perennial flowers, vegetables and herbs, many heirlooms. Source for Yellow Wonder Alpine strawberry seed. (Note: Alpine strawberries typically don't produce many runners, if any, and are more easily grown from seed than traditional strawberries.)

Victory Seed Co., Box 192, Molalla, Ore. 97038, (503) 829-3126; www.victoryseeds.com. Offers organically grown or certified organic open-pollinated and heirloom seeds for vegetables, herbs and flowers, many of which are grown on its family farm. The company also has a seed bank, and offers the chance to be a trial gardener. Source for Extreme Bush tomatoes. It also carries mint seeds, which many companies don't, and some old-fashioned herb seeds such as hyssop and horehound.

Plant sales and nurseries

L.A. County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, (626) 821-4624; www.arboretum.org. March 26, tomato lecture, heirloom tomato sale; May 2 to 4, LA Garden Show (includes sale). $7 arboretum admission.

Fullerton Arboretum, 1900 Associated Road, Fullerton, (714) 278-3407; www.arboretum.fullerton.edu. March 13 to 16, tomato (200-plus varieties) and pepper (90-plus varieties) sale. Free.

Hayward Organic Gardening, (323) 216-0379. Sells unusual vegetable and herb seedlings and plants at Sunday Hollywood farmers market and Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers' Market. Look for mentuccia, chocolate mint, large and small-leafed mache, wild Italian arugula, French thyme and many others, including yerba santa, whose leaves are used to wrap tamales, and for seasoning, and the fabled "collard green tree."

Sunset Boulevard Nursery, 4368 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 661-1642. Selection of vegetable and herb seedlings not typically stocked by larger garden stores.

Tomatomania, www.tomatomania.com. L.A. sale dates April 4 to 6, Tapia Bros. Farm Stand, Encino. 300-plus tomato seedling varieties.

Windrose Farms, www.windrosefarm.org. Sells seedlings at farmers markets including Wednesday and Sunday in Santa Monica, Saturday in Santa Barbara. Beginning in April, sells from farm stand east of Paso Robles, near Creston. Look for many herbs, including French thyme, French tarragon, Thai basils. Source for World of Color Giant pumpkins and heirloom tomatoes beginning in March.

Resource

Common Ground, (323) 260-3348; celosangeles.ucdavis.edu/CommonGround_Garden_Program. Free garden tips and planting schedules, online information.

-- Dawna Nolan

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