Life Doesn’t Always Go as Planned

I should have been hitting the I-81/70 interchange right 6:30am on my way to Bethesda Central Farm Market, but at a stop sign several miles into the commute the Check Engine and Traction Control System lights came on. Nothing happened when I stepped on the accelerator. As a reformed geek, my immediate assessment was to first reboot. Restarting the engine turned off the Traction Control System light, but not Check Engine. An emergency call to my mechanic precipitated another call to AAA.

Vehicles can be repaired and replaced. I wasn’t worried as much about the van as I was my customers. An overwhelming guilt washed over me. Unloading and reloading into the bed of a truck would be difficult and time-consuming. All the coolers would be exposed to the blazing sun during the hottest part of the day on the drive home. I took a deep breath and accepted reality – I would not be going to market.

It happens to us all. The unexpected rears up and changes plans. As we’ve become a culture of availability where big box stores, franchises and chain stores have fail-safe work forces offering 24/7 service, occasionally this expectation spills over into farmers markets.

One of the favorite things customers do which I have come to appreciate over the years is they tell their vendors when they won’t be at market or when they are moving away.

“I’ll be gone for six weeks,” warned a regular. Sure enough when the seventh week rolled around he was back with his insulated bag and standard order.

Unlike the homogeneous (and boring) world of corporate retail, farmers markets are dynamic, ever-changing experiences. This is a more realistic view of a food system, especially agriculture. On a daily, seasonal and annual basis farmers must be flexible to accommodate everything the world throws at us while trying to get our products to the customers.

Breakdowns; it’s not a matter of if, but when.

In the early years of my agrarian endeavors, I always thought farmers spent a lot of time fixing stuff. Experience has taught me that if you’re fixing stuff, you’re farming. Tractors, implements, fences, watering systems, tables, tents and yes, vehicles all take a beating in this industry (sometimes the farmers, too). As much as we try to prevent such events through regular maintenance and mitigation, manure happens.

Many Central Farm Markets vendors travel the same arteries into the city. When a fellow farmer’s vehicle is broken down on the side of the road, one, two and even three other vendors have pulled over to help get them safely off the busy highway, to market or back to the farm. These are events few customers ever witness or hear about.

Trust me, we don’t want to break down, get injured, get sick or anything else that causes an unexpectedly missed market. Farmers with planned absences try to inform customers the week prior to not being at the market. The market staff does an excellent job at listing all vendors attending markets that week.

Breaking down on the way to market was stressful, but thanks to all the wonderful messages of concern from both customers and fellow vendors the frustration of the experience was significantly lessened.

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Staying Sharp

With the purchase of meats, vegetables and fruits comes the task of preparation. What is the primary tool for such tasks?

The knife.

From paring to carving and every size and shape in between, slicing, dicing, boning and peeling all take their toll on a blade over time. Unless you know your way around a whetstone or sharpening steel, keeping an edge on frequently used knives means turning over your tools to a professional.

So, it made perfect sense for Central Farm Markets to include a mobile sharpening service as one of the markets’ regular vendors.

Robb Balfour, owner of Robb’s Edge Express, rotates through all four of the Central Farm Markets sharpening everything from scissors to scythes. “Kitchen knives are by far the most common item,” Robb said when asked about his work at the markets.

Most services can be performed in an hour with Robb’s mobile sharpening equipment. Simply drop off your knives, scissors and gardening tools like loppers and hedge shears with Robb and his wife, Keli, enjoy shopping at the market and pick up your tools on the way out. Some things, like chainsaw blades, circular saw blades and hand saws must be done at Robb’s workshop in Hagerstown, MD. They can be dropped off at the market and will be returned on his next trip.

Although Robb has only been with Central Farm Markets for four years, he’s been sharpening blades since 1961. He is certified by the National Beauty Tools Sharpeners Guild and regularly attends trade shows to stay up-to-date. In addition to the markets, Robb specializes in professional salon scissors, clippers and clipper blades. He also repairs Andis, Oster and Wahl clippers (I know there are horse and dog people who frequent the market who should know about this).

Robb is currently working with Shepherdstown University to offer a workshop on basic sharpening.

I asked Robb if he could tell people one thing to stop doing with their knives, what would it be? “Do not put knives in a dishwasher.” He explained that the humidity and moisture attack the edge which is very thin. “The edge gets pitted and etched.”

For those who put their knives in the dishwasher, here is Robb’s schedule so you can have your knives restored sharp enough to split a hare (or a chicken, or a tomato). Bring your blades wrapped in a towel, in a box or in a sheath for a proper sharpening.

Robb’s Edge Express Schedule for Central Farm Markets

Pike: 2nd Saturday
Westfield: 4th Saturday
Bethesda: 2nd & 4th Sunday
Mosaic: 1st & 3rd Sunday

Happy Independence Day

You know the great thing about the Fourth of July falling in the middle of the week? Sure, it screws up the three and four-day weekends, but it also stretches the festivities across two weekends instead of one. Flags appear, cherry pies get baked and the fireworks begin. The first two icons are easy to understand, but when did fireworks become part of the celebration?

From the very beginning, thanks to John Adams.

The drive to market from the farm is my time to listen to audiobooks. Last year I went through a founding fathers phase queuing up biographies of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and a slew of similar works. After all, they too were farmers.

In Joseph J. Ellis’ book First Family: John and Abigail Adams, there were excerpts of a letter Adams had written to his wife on July 3, 1776 detailing his vision for marking the signing of the Declaration of Independence the following day. He told Abigail that the occasion should be “commemorated with pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.” The weight of Adam’s words carried far beyond his personal letters and the very first public Independence Day celebrations were held in Philadelphia and Boston on July 4, 1777 with large fireworks displays. The tradition continues…

As for the cherry pie, walk through Central Farm Markets and you’ll find cherries galore right now. How fortuitous that cherry (and berry) season occurs during the first week in July. We can thank the Dutch for importing cherry trees to New York (when the region was under the sovereignty of the Netherlands) in 1689.

There are assorted shades of the stone fruit which basically fall into two categories: sweet and sour.

Today, we think of cherries as fruit for eating, but in colonial times each type of cherry had a purpose. Sour cherries were a favored remedy for gout as they lower uric acid levels in the blood. Added to brandy, sour cherries served as an antiviral, antibacterial and to reduce muscle and joint pain. Sweet cherries are high in the antioxidant melatonin that has a calming effect on the central nervous system, alleviating insomnia, headaches and irritability. I can attest that a bowl of fresh sweet cherries and Blue Ridge Dairy Greek Yogurt can quickly cure a bad case of grumpiness due to oppressive heat.

This year my go-to recipe for cherries has been Spiced Brandied Cherries. They store well in the refrigerator or can be canned. A spoonful is perfect over ice cream for a quick and easy delicious summer treat. Old Fashioned anyone?

Brandied Spiced Cherries

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 cloves
  • 2-3-inch cinnamon stick
  • 1 star anise pod
  • 2 allspice berries
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 1 quart cherries, pitted and stemmed
  • 1 cup brandy

Directions:

Combine spices and sugar in a sauce pan with ½ cup water. Simmer until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add cherries and brandy to the mixture. Store in jars in refrigerator.

Summer Sizzle

Mother Nature wasted no time cranking up the heat after the official start of summer last week. Temperatures have soared into the 90’s with equally oppressive high humidity. It seems like only a few weeks ago we were lamenting the frigid chill of a lingering winter. Last weekend was a scorcher and the coming weekend is forecasted to be even hotter.

Here are seven tips to make your market experience in hot weather easier.

1. Leave your dog at home. We love dogs. They are welcome at all Central Farm Markets locations. However, look down at your feet at market and you’ll notice you’re standing on black top or concrete. By noon on a sunny, hot, summer day concrete can reach 150 degrees and black top temperatures can pass 160 degrees. That’s hot enough to fry an egg!

2. Bring an insulated bag or cooler. In addition to cold items, an insulated bag will help protect tender greens from wilting between the market and home. Here’s a tip. Fold several layers of newspaper to the dimension of your bag. Shop for cold products first. Cover the cold products with the paper and put fruits and vegetables on top. Newspaper is a great insulator and will help keep cold items cooler. Or you can go all out in full summer market style.

3. Protect yourself from the sun and heat. Hats, umbrellas, shades, sunscreen, and linen are all ways to ward off the ultraviolet rays of sun. For additional cooling I’ve seen everything from bandanas with cool packs to battery-operated fans on baby carriages. My personal favorite is a misting bottle with plain ol’ cold water for regular spritzing.

4. Stay hydrated. It never fails. At least once each summer someone hits the ground from dehydration during market. Vendors, customers – we all need to consume more than our usual amounts of liquids this time of the year. Mountain Valley Springwater and other drinks are available at many of the prepared food vendors. Dr. Brown with Doctors to You stresses the need to replenish electrolytes during extremely hot weather to avoid heat distress.

5. Know the signs of heat distress. Signs of heat distress include clammy skin, heavy sweating, faintness, dizziness, fatigue, rapid pulse, muscle cramps, nausea and headache. Be aware if you are experiencing any of these symptoms (or witness someone in distress) to immediately move into the shade and drink plenty of cool liquids, preferably liquids with electrolytes to replenish those lost through sweating. Dr. Brown explained that everyone reacts to heat and sun differently depending on age, health and medications. He advised, “When a person stops sweating and their skin turns red, then it’s time to call 911.”

6. Shop early. In addition to beating the high temperatures of the day, early shoppers get first pick of a fully stocked market and a good parking space. At the same time, please allow vendors to get set up and ready for business if you arrive at market prior to 9 AM.

7. Use the Market Concierge. This is the final market weekend prior to Independence Day. We’re expecting it to be not only hot as in temperatures, but hot as in busy with everyone stocking up for their Fourth-of-July celebrations. Instead of making multiple trips to a hot car that could melt zucchini, leave your purchases with a Central Farm Markets employee at the Customer Service tent who will load your car curbside.

A Community of Trust

We Are Family

My high school class reunion was last weekend. I was on the fence about going since doing anything social on a Saturday night requires I be home in time for a decent night’s rest prior to market the following day. Throughout social media in the days leading up to the reunion fellow classmates started hash tagging their posts #wearefamily in anticipation (I’ll date myself, Sister Sledge was on the charts when I was a teen).

My decision was made – Central Farm Markets won because we are family.

There is an inherent vibe to a great farmers market that folds customers and vendors into a unique camaraderie cutting across social divides. I get to see my siblings once, maybe twice a year, but my fellow vendors and customers are there just about every week, some year-round. Creatures of habit, many customers frequent the market about the same time each week, developing their own relationships through chance meetings at their shared favorite vendor stands. Recipes are shared. Together we celebrate our milestones, like births and weddings. We mourn our losses.

We develop a trust with each other. Sometimes that trust pays off in ways far more valuable than what’s for sale.

The customer had a special order, her regular purchases and an add-on of something extra. The amount was much more than what she usually spent. Rooting around in her basket she panicked realizing she did not have her wallet. She apologized profusely then lamented she’ll have to wait until next week.

“Take it,” I said, “I know you’re good for it,” refusing to take back the products and writing down her total in my notebook. She’s been a regular for ten years. I wasn’t worried in the least about getting stiffed.

After she walked away, the next customer incredulously said to me, “I can’t believe you let that woman walk away without paying? Maybe I should forget my wallet, too.”

“Not on your life. I’ve never seen you before,” I responded and then went on to explain the benefits of regularly participating in a local food (or anything) economy where in addition to financial transactions, relationships are valued.

I get it. I’ve been there when I realized my wallet was sitting on my desk at home when I’m at the butcher shop, at the organic feed dealer, at the poultry farm where I pick up peeps for broilers – all in one day, all at a significant distance from the farm. Being there every week, every month, year after year has created an element of trust within our sphere.

…just like at market.

There are several ways Central Farm Markets fosters weekly community spaces – tables, chairs and shade for customers to congregate, to visit with each other and, listen to live music. There are activities for children and pets. There are cooking demos along with health education programs. Central Farm Markets works with community groups, such as Manna Food Center.

Family keeps in touch.

Did I miss catching up with my old classmates? Yes, but thanks to social media I’ve been able to keep in touch with many of them over the years. Which brings me to the Central Farm Markets family. There are many ways for everyone to stay in touch. #CentralFarmMarkets tracks across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram platforms. Even if you are not signed up for the weekly email newsletter, it’s cross-posted along with the line-up of vendors at each market that week. Show us what you’re buying, what you’re cooking, what you’re eating at the markets. In return, you can follow what your vendors and markets are up to and you just may get in on The Dirt before everyone else.

The Dirt on Certified Organic

This week’s Dishing the Dirt answers the question, “Why are there not more Certified Organic vendors at the markets?”

First, let’s establish the official lingo. There’s a distinction between organic practices and being Certified Organic – little o versus big O. Unless a producer has been granted approval (and paid fees) from a USDA-approved third-party certification body, they can not legally mark or advertise their products as Organic or Certified Organic. Certified Organic producers you will find at Central Farm Markets include Spiral Path Farm (Bethesda, Westfield), Bending Bridge Farm (Bethesda), Toigo Orchards (all markets) and The Mushroom Stand (Bethesda).

What is “Certified Organic”?

Certified Organic produce is grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms (GMO), or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

To use the Certified Organic logo, producers must be certified by one of the 48 domestic USDA-accredited and authorized certification operations or use imported materials from 32 certification bodies located in foreign countries approved by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) or the 21 foreign governments with specific organic trade agreements with the U.S.

While most of this sounds simple in practice, in reality it can be onerous, especially for new and beginning and small-scale producers who would much rather be devoting their time and resources to growing food instead of paperwork.

The Challenges

The first hurdle to becoming Certified Organic is the Transition Period – a 36-month time-frame in which producers must follow all the regulations, keep all the records and pay all the fees without the benefit of using the Certified Organic designation and the ability to charge accordingly, thus increasing the likelihood of operating at a loss.

This brings us to the second hurdle – money. Organic certification costs the farmer money every single year. The certification body charges not only annual fees based upon formulas of application fees, certification fees, site-inspection fees and a percentage of sales, all of which adds up to thousands of dollars every single year. Add to that number resources allocated to paperwork, the added expenses of a Certified Organic supply chain and costlier, more labor-intensive agricultural practices. It starts adding up quickly.

Many customers ask for Certified Organic meats, however, for a producer this means starting with Certified Organic animals (breeding or young), using only Certified Organic feeds which routinely cost more than twice that of non-certified, have the land where the livestock is raised certified and have the livestock processed at a Certified Organic slaughterhouse/processing facility, so few and far between many organic livestock producers must transport their animals several hours away and book their animals several months in advance. Plus, if an animal becomes ill or injured, medicating it automatically removes it immediately from being sold as Certified Organic. And here’s the rub, if a farmer is raising multiple species, each species of livestock must be certified. Similarly, so must the processor. Given the stringency of the guidelines, for smaller producers/services the investment in fees, ongoing paperwork and logistics doesn’t often pencil into profits for small-scale producers who direct-market to their customers.

Why do it?

There are many reasons producers go the extra mile to obtain organic certification along with other third-party certifications validating their production practices, such as Certified Forest Grown, Certified Gluten-free, Certified Kosher, Certified Grass-fed and Animal Welfare Approved, to name a few. Many of Central Farm Markets’ vendors utilize organic practices but forgo certification, especially those who only sell direct to their customers.

“We grow beautiful food. To us, that means food produced with integrity, care for the land and for the people who grow it,” says Audrey Fisher-Pedersen, co-owner of Bending Bridge Farm, which has been Certified Organic for ten years.

In addition to the extra effort to adhere to rigorous standards and third-party inspections, Pedersen added, “It’s damn hard. Organic methods are genuinely more difficult to use successfully.” She cites row covers to protect tender plants from insects instead of spraying chemical pesticides. “Row covers cost us thousands of dollars each year for the product itself. Plus, they are labor-intensive to apply to crops and remove for cultivation and harvest.”

When asked what the largest hurdles to having more Certified Organic producers are, Lucas Brownback of Spiral Path Farm, now in their 25th year of certification and second generation, immediately responded with “money and paperwork”.

“Though costly, we believe in the standards that the certification implies, and we are willing to make that investment,” said Brownback.

Toigo Orchards has been a staple of the farmers market landscape in the mid-Atlantic region for over twenty-five years and has been a founding vendor at all Central Farm Markets. Although the original orchards are not certified, throughout the years they have worked diligently to battle production challenges by using organic methods such as integrated pest management (IPM). With the construction of their state-of-the-art greenhouse, Toigo Organic Farms now produces Certified Organic vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.

Owner Mark Toigo witnessed the growing demand for Certified Organic and has come to where he is through much trial and error. “It’s not an easy undertaking and you have to have the right people who genuinely care,” said Toigo who strives to do a better job at what he is trying to do.

Certified Organic is much more to these farmers than just a label, a standard, a certification – it is a belief, a way of life, a philosophy.

THANK YOU

To our customers, you’re the B E S T!!!

I am very grateful to Central Farm Markets to write this blog as an interface between the markets, our customers and extended community. The online platform has offered space to bridge the gap between eaters and producers. As I’ve worked my way through subjects relevant to both audiences, this week’s post is a HUGE thank you from the Sunday markets vendors, volunteers and employees to all the people who braved torrential rains to shop.

Yeah, we know we had a washout with the rain killing hopes for a lucrative day during the spring flush of strawberries, the first cherries, asparagus and many other crops that farmers have been working relentlessly to bring to market. Here’s the rub – we can’t hold over most fresh products from week-to-week. The good news – much of the unsold produce goes to Manna Food Center.

The reality is going to market is a gamble and sometimes Mother Nature gets the best of us. It’s tough to do business and keep your tents from cartwheeling into a twisted mess for the recycle bin. Each vendor must make a call based upon their own experience. In severe weather, some vendors may not be able to physically make the trip due to localized flooding, blocked roads or the need for all-hands-on-deck to deal with weather-related emergencies. Similarly, choosing to close a market is not a decision made lightly, one often involving a combination of weather-watching and vendor feedback.

Although the markets made it through Sunday, some vendors chose not to come, and the Diabetes Awareness Day at Mosaic had to be cancelled…but has been rescheduled to Sunday, September 16 at Mosaic! Others made the best of a bad situation with a healthy dose of humor.

Even though we were all soaked to the bone, our stands awash in rain, some products damaged beyond donation, there was a sense of accomplishment, of gratitude because of our customers chose to show up in some of the most miserable weather in the history of markets.

Many customers lamented our fate to spend six hours (or more) working in the unrelenting rains. Here’s a secret: market day means standing under a tent on black top and interfacing with people who appreciate our hard work as opposed to….well, farming in all sorts of weather and conditions. See all that gorgeous produce? It’s harvested when there’s oppressive humidity and pouring rain as well as when there’s not a cloud in the sky on a balmy day every single week. It’s what we’ve chosen to do with our lives. It’s what we’re passionate about. Last Sunday our customers rewarded us with gratitude instead of grumbling and we love you for coming out along with us in the rain.

Despite the frustration and helplessness of inclement weather there was a definite air of relief as patrons dashed in and out, many with colorful rain gear (especially the kids!), graphic umbrellas and waterproof boots. Oblivious to the rain, internationally renown chef and humanitarian Jose Andres strolled through market shopping with his family, thanking vendors and customers for being there.

Die-hard customers are a sign that a market has become an integral part of the existing community. While the markets coped with high winds and downpour last Sunday, customers were also doing their best to support their market by showing up and we thank you!

Deviled Eggs, the perfect picnic food

Picnic season officially kicked off with the Memorial Day weekend. Nothing screams S U M M E R like Deviled Eggs. These sinfully delicious concoctions have a history dating back to ancient Rome, acquiring the name “deviled” in the late 18th century in England to denote a spicy food. A hundred years later the recipe hopped the pond to the United States showing up in Fannie Farmer’s cookbook with the first suggestion to use mayonnaise as a binder.

Although purists only stuff the whites with mayo, mustard and yolks dusting with paprika, the sky is the limit when it comes to making Deviled Eggs. A walk around Central Farm Markets offers plenty of ideas for innovative versions – crab meat, pickles, kimchi, and my personal favorite, hard-boiled eggs soaked with pickled red beets overnight prior to deviling. The whites turn pink! FYI – hard-boiled eggs can be stored in pickled red beets up to three months in the refrigerator.

Deviled Eggs also make a bite-sized base for toppings.

The first step in making Deviled Eggs is to hard boil and peel the eggs. Now this may sound simple, but hard-boiled eggs aren’t always easy to peel leaving you with a mess (and egg salad sandwiches instead of hor d’oeuvres). You can blame your super-fresh-from-the-farm market eggs for this bit of kitchen hell.

The sad truth is older eggs are easier to peel than fresh ones due to the albumen (the white) having a low pH that rises as the egg ages. To work around this problem, here’s how to hard boil fresh eggs.

  1. Place eggs in a pot covering them with 2 inches of cold water
  2. Add 1 tsp. of baking soda
  3. Bring to a slow boil for 12 minutes
  4. Drain hot water from pot, shaking it when empty to crack the shells of the eggs
  5. Cover in cold water for 15 minutes

There are numerous tricks and tips from professionals and grandmothers online, from sliding a spoon between the egg and the shell to blowing the egg out of the shell. Peeling under a steady stream of water is my choice.

When I am making Deviled Eggs I always hard-boil twice as many as I want knowing that the chances of every single egg turning out perfect is next to zero. Peeled hard-boiled eggs will last up to a week in the refrigerator leaving the not so perfectly peeled for quick snacks and salads.

I know there are those of you out there that want to power through making Deviled Eggs a few hours prior to picnicking, but these tasty tidbits need to be cold for two reasons – easy handling and food safety. Cooked eggs are soft while warm, but firm up when chilled making them easier to cut in half and fill with savory stuffings.

Stuffing the egg whites can be as simple as spooning the yolk mixture into the empty divots or as fancy as piping swirls from a pastry bag. My favorite is a tiny cookie dough scoop – it’s the perfect size!

Here are two of my favorite summer recipes using hard-boiled eggs. Enjoy!

Deviled Eggs

Ingredients:

  • 6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled, chilled and cut in half
  • ¼ cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tsp. prepared mustard
  • Salt & Pepper
  • Paprika

Directions:
Slice hard-boiled eggs in half. Remove yolks. Mash yolks in bowl with mayonnaise and mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Fill eggs with mashed yolk mixture. Dust filled eggs with paprika.

Pickled Beets & Eggs

Ingredients:

  • 6 hard-boiled eggs
  • 6 red beets, peeled and cubed
  • 1 medium yellow onion, sliced into rings
  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup brown sugar (honey works, too)
  • 1 Tbsp. of prepared pickling spices
  • ¼ tsp. salt

Directions:
Place beets in a pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 20 minutes. Add apple cider vinegar, sugar (or honey) and salt to the beets in the beet juice. In a container large enough to hold everything (2 quart glass jar works well), add pickling spices to the bottom, then the onion rings, and eggs. Add the cooked beets and cover everything in the container with the liquid. Refrigerate.

HINT: Wondering what to do with beet tops? Don’t toss them out! Use the stems in place of celery. Beet greens make a wonderful addition to salads.

Grow Your Own

The recipe calls for a teaspoon of minced fresh herbs. It doesn’t matter if its rosemary, tarragon, thyme or parsley. You plunk down up to three bucks for a fresh bunch, use only what you need, and the rest turns into a runny, brown goo in the bottom of your vegetable drawer. If you’re resourceful, you might hang the remainder from the overhead pot rack or key holder on the wall to dry for future use or as a place where house spiders will nest.

Now is the time to act to avoid such predicaments in the coming months by building yourself an Herb Pot. Spring is the season when farmers have thousands of young plants growing in their greenhouses to be transplanted in the fields. It’s not a stretch for vendors to pot up plants to bring to market early in the season for customers who want to have a bit of constant greenery in their life or a few tender leaves of basil to top off a simple caprese salad.

There are many ways to grow your own herbs – all together in a single container or in separate smaller pots. Containers can be as simple as recycled glass jars or metal cans to designer self-contained gardens that hang on a wall. A container herb garden can be kept indoors in a sunny location or outside until the first frost. Perennial herbs can grow for years in the same container providing they are regularly fed and trimmed. Annual herbs, such as basil, have multiple varieties in assorted shapes and sizes making it the perfect addition to seasonal flower containers.

Whatever you choose, here are a few tips to help you succeed.

  • Start simple: think about what you use the most, but never seem to have on hand. Mint for mojitos? Cilantro for tacos? Or the fantastic four of the kitchen – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme – all which like well-drained soils so they won’t croak if you forget to water them.
  • Drainage holes: regardless of the type of container you choose, be certain the pot has holes so the plants will not be drowning in water. Most herbs prefer damp to wet soils.
  • Use potting soil: commercial potting mix soils are designed to support plants grown in containers. Dirt from outdoors may harbor unwanted insects and fungi or not have enough nutrients to support plant growth.
  • Harvest correctly: herb plants should be trimmed from the top instead of the bottom. Unless you want edible herb flowers, keep trimming off all the flower buds before they open to keep the plant growing vigorously.

In addition to herbs, vendors offering live plants for sale also have vegetable plants at the markets now that do well in containers. Lettuces grow well in containers as their roots are shallow, needing no more than six inches of soil depth.

If you are more adventurous, tomatoes can also be planted in containers. Tomatoes like lots of room (for both foliage and roots), lots of water, lots of support (string, rod or trellis) and lots of sun – at least six hours a day. Like herbs and lettuces, tomatoes come in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes, bringing beauty along with taste into your home this summer.

First Flavors of the Season

For me, the harbinger of summer is the arrival of strawberries, asparagus and ramps at the market. The first harvests trickle in and get scooped up immediately by lucky early bird shoppers. A few pounds, several flats, a dozen or so bunches the first week lasting less than an hour. The second week lines snake around tents as people wait patiently hoping there will be some for them when their turn arrives. There may be some available by the second hour of market. By the third week the building frenzy of nature has unleashed a torrent for everyone to enjoy.

Much is written and discussed about local, heirloom and native foods which got me wondering about the seasonal trifecta of ramps, asparagus and strawberries that draws shoppers out in droves from their winter hibernation.

Ramps

Allium tricoccu, a.k.a. wild leeks or ramps, are a wild member of the onion family native to North America that have risen from Appalachian folk tonic to culinary cult status ingredient over the last generation. Once prized as the first green edibles to break through the brown litter of last season, the emerald-green leaves delivered much-needed vitamin C for those subsisting on a foraged and seasonal diet prior to the availability of imported foods. With flavors of spring onion, shallot, garlic and chives amalgamated into a slender stalks of bunching rose-shouldered bulbs, talented chefs with a heart for fresh, seasonal ingredients began integrating ramps into seasonal menus.

Three to four weeks is the extent of ramp harvest in any one location. Further limiting the supply is that it is foraged as opposed to cultivated, leaving them vulnerable to over-harvesting. Ramps are picky about where they grow, preferring damp, shaded environments and take five to seven years to regenerate from seed. Once the weather heats up, they’re done. Ramps have been at the markets for three weeks, so now is the time to get them.

Asparagus

This fleeting spring crop is also in the same taxonomic family – Liliaceae – as ramps. Although asparagus does not share the pungent flavor of ramps, it is also a herbaceous perennial that can take years to establish a crop with a brief harvest season of four to six weeks.

Native to northern Africa, western Asia and most of Europe, asparagus has been cultivated as food for over two thousand years. Settlers in the 1700’s brought asparagus with them to America where it became quickly established along fence rows and marginalized lands as it is drought tolerant.

Market shoppers generally encounter the green and purple varieties. White asparagus is the same plant as the green or purple only the stalks have been kept covered (with dirt or plastic) to prevent them from developing their color.

Strawberries

Strawberries have been harvested since early Roman times – mainly for medicinal purposes. Technically not a “berry,” but an aggregate accessory fruit made up of hundreds of fleshy receptacles the seeds – those little green specks which are individual ovaries with a seed inside. Strawberries only became popular as a fruit when early European settlers returned to France from America and began crossing cultivars from throughout the world to create the modern strawberry we know today.

Currently, the United States is the top producer of strawberries in the world, surpassing the combined production of the remaining top five producing countries – Turkey, Spain, Egypt and Mexico – with an annual harvest of over one million tons. This copious production is a result of breeding ever-bearing cultivars which means the plant can continue to bear fruit for an extended period, especially in more temperate areas.

There are numerous cultivars which allow farmers to choose the characteristics that best serve their needs for production, taste and resistance to disease. Farmers have also developed cultivation techniques – high tunnels, plastic mulch – that allow them to extend the length of strawberry season. Look for strawberries at the markets from now through July.

You may be thinking to yourself that the seasons seem to last longer but remember that the farmers of Central Farm Markets travel both from the north and south. Farmers in Virginia start harvesting prior to ones in Pennsylvania who will still have crops when their southern counterparts’ season is over.

This is one of the many ways to enjoy the first tastes of summer together:

Asparagus with Strawberry-Ramp Vinaigrette

Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch fresh asparagus
  • 1 pint fresh strawberries
  • 2 whole ramp stalks, leave & bulbs
  • 2 Tbsp. honey
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon each of sea salt & fresh cracked pepper

Directions:

  1. Chop asparagus spears into one-inch lengths. Lightly steam 2-3 minutes.
  2. In a blender, mix the remaining ingredients until smooth.
  3. Toss with steamed asparagus until coated.
  4. Enjoy!