Do you feel fall in the air? September sends signs of autumn in the subtle changes of light and slightly cooler breezes. Although this year, anything goes with the fearful, eventful hurricanes, earthquakes, and hail! Still, by the end of the month, fall will be official and garden time will be filled with clean up and crop changes—from summer’s tomato-peppers-cucumbers to autumn’s Bitter Herbs Blitz.
What is a “Bitter Herbs Blitz?” This is my pet name for the all-out offensive on every available patch of flower pot and garden bed to sow lettuce and mustard seeds. Nothing has had a better impact on my “grow your own” vegetable gardening than raising chicory, endive, and romaine, in honor of the species likely taken up by the Israelites, to accompany their last supper in Egypt before their hasty deliverance.
That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast…Eat it in haste, it is the LORD’s Passover.
Exodus 12:8, 11 NIV
Bitter herbs—as in herbaceous, low-growing plants, that is; those with edible, broad leaves that grow as annuals, often reseeding (not herbs, as in fragrant spices). To the Cichoriums and lettuces I include the wide-ranging bite of leafy green, cool season crucifers—arugula, kale, mustards. Also leafy and colorful are the cool season amaranth family favorites, beets and Swiss chard. There are a few basic “how-to’s” to keep handy in growing bitter herbs.
Growing Bitter Herbs: Cut and Come Again
Before becoming a Bitter Herbs Blitzer, I would buy lettuce heads at the grocers, aspiring to make healthy, fresh salads each night, though typically my ambition would flounder and leaves would rot before I got around to it. By contrast, growing leafing greens promises freedom from such waste.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Deuteronomy 5:6 NIV
Now I bring in a variety of greens from the garden, an even broader selection than I would have bought from the produce section. And if a night or two or six of salad prep is skipped, the greens just keep growing, staying robust and hearty. Nothing is lost or wasted, what a relief!
“Cut and come again” is the term for the method of cutting a few leaves from a few different plants to create salads and side dishes; alternate across the crop, letting the herbaceous plants replenish themselves naturally by the time you come again. Crops seeded now will get a small start this fall, and though growth is restrained by winter conditions, plants will be ready to flourish in the early spring with the warmer days that mark February. Zone 8 and some zone 7 gardens are able to host bitter herbs with temporary covering on intermittent, snowy or deep freezing nights, while zone 7 to zone 6 gardens will thrive with “hoop house” or row covers permanently installed for the season.
Growing Bitter Herbs: Thinning Harvest
Another delightful discovery in sowing bitter herbs seeds has been the immediate joy of the “thinning harvest.” What is a thinning harvest? The thinning harvest is the yield from thinning out the plentiful seedlings that sprout from generous sowings. Like many vegetables, chicory, endive, lettuces, mustards, beets, and chard should be spaced approximately every 6 inches, leaving enough room in between for the plants to fill out and draw up adequate moisture from the surrounding soil. However, after sowing the small, lightweight seeds, seedlings will appear in clumps, sometimes within millimeters of each other.
No worries! These little threads of existence are already packed with nutrition and taste, even at one inch tall. They make delicious, colorful additions with interesting texture—sprinkle atop salads, soups, sandwiches, grain and rice side dishes, the newly-popular poke bowls, or as a flirty garnish.
The thinning harvest is another great liberation in salad gardening. Often seed packets are full of more seeds than necessary for a small home garden or container of planted edibles. I used to feel conflicted buying a packet of 50 to 100 seeds, when I only hoped for 5 or 6 plants. Knowing now that the extra sprouts are just as edible, with a flair of their own, has made a Bitter Herb Blitz more rewarding.
Thinning sprouts brings to mind the story of Gideon, the tentative leader who had his army paired down from over 30,000 to 300 in order to keep a well-spaced army that would display the LORD’s power.
The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ …the Lord said to Gideon, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there…with the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.
Judges 7:2,4, 7 NIV
From the multitude of sprouted seeds, a relatively few, thriving bitter herbs will supply your leafy green nourishment from now until warm weather is back. Feel the freedom to rest in the few.
Growing Bitter Herbs: Final Words
The final words for a Bitter Herbs Blitz? Use Snippers! In the thinning harvest, snip or cut the thread-like stems—do not pull them up, or you will uproot those you want to keep for full season growth. Jesus touched on this garden truth:
The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them.
Matthew 13:28-29 NIV
Again, it is necessary to cut, not uproot, the sprouts that first appear when growing bitter herbs. Likewise, scissors or snippers will serve well in cutting larger leaves away from the plant’s outer base once grown to the cut-and-come-again size.
My favorite tool to have on hand for the Bitter Herbs Blitz is the ComfortGEL® Micro Snip, forged by Corona Tools. These lightweight, easily-gripped trimmers offer dexterous, quick-snip capability, slim enough for the kitchen drawer where I keep mine. They are great for maneuvering between tiny sprouted seedlings and selecting leaf by leaf for a luncheon salad.
The Blitz is on! Enjoy growing bitter herbs this fall and the freedom they bring to “grow you own” vegetable gardening, ever mindful of the One who sets us free.
Christ has set us free to enjoy our freedom. So remain strong in the faith. Don’t let the chains of slavery hold you again.
Galatians 5:1 NIRV
For more devotions on bitter herbs, see “Bitter Beginnings,” part of the Celebrating the Harvest series, Garden Work section, in God’s Word for Gardener’s Bible, page 174
Many thanks to Corona Tools and their faithful support of GWA: The Association of Garden Communicators shop.coronatoolsusa.com
Photo Credits: © Shelley S. Cramm