On the Side | A promising start to the season in Chester County
By Rick Nichols
Inquirer Columnist

To everything there is a season, which is why for a while there you saw a run of shad roe on menus and why, at 33d and York, the parking-lot rib business has picked up, scenting a fallow stretch of Strawberry Mansion with the soft spring fragrance of burning charcoal.

The trouble with early seasons on the farm, though, is that they don’t have very clear starting lines. One year, you’ll get frost Garlic2after the middle of May; the next, it’s clear sailing.

Two miles southeast of West Chester, on the sloping 180 acres that is Pete’s Produce Farm on Route 926, the shelling peas took off like a shot, then turned grumpy during last week’s warm spell.

The vegetable patch can be an undisciplined orchestra in which, in a manner of speaking, the French horns feel free to jump in whenever they get a mind to, and the timpani might pack up and go home, even as the crowd chants for more.

It got that way with pumpkins last September, at the end of the season. The homegrown crop sold out before the autumn demand peaked, requiring the last-minute purchase of a trailer load of Canadian pumpkins, which sold out in no time, too.

All in all, though, things are off to a very good start in this piece of Westtown Township. Owner Pete Flynn says it has been a long time since he has seen such an auspicious spring – strings of hot, sunny days broken up by cool spells and a fair amount of rain, nicely spaced.

The tomatoes are fruiting. Early corn is knee-high. Rows of cut straw twist like pale rivers in the fields, stripes snaking across the slopes first one way, then the other.

Last week was strawberry-picking time, except that it rained some mornings, delaying the harvest. There were quarts of Chandlers at the farm stand, but not quite as fully sugared up as the very first batch. The rain, it appeared, had diluted the flavor.

Over a few rows was the companion crop that Flynn had planted in the fall with the berries – about an acre’s worth of hard-neck garlic.

The bulbs themselves won’t be ready to pull until July, when they will be dried and braided to hang in the barn.

But the garlic’s budding, needle-nosed scapes are ready right now, egged on by precocious zucchini and sturdy asparagus.

The scapes (or spears, or tops, or flowers) are the middle, looping shoots of the garlic plant, which looks like a bunch of overfed scallion stalks.

They are good in stir-fries, he says, popular in Asian cookery (and in pestos, or for grilling brushed with oil, and in mashed potatoes) – milder than garlic cloves but full of sweet, fresh, crisp spring flavor.

They form only at this time of year and only on hard-neck garlics (not on the soft-neck variety prevalent in California), so fresh ones can be rare – if elegantly tapered-beaked – birds.

Left to their own devices, the scoliotic scapes would eventually straighten up and flower, denying energy to bulk up the root bulb.

So, they will be plucked over the next few weeks from the farm’s 36,000 garlic plants and bagged for sale – a sizable bunch for $1 – at the stand, just as the new broccoli appears.

Next will come the skulls of cauliflower and, by the end of June, the first field-grown tomatoes. Then cucumbers and gourds and on and on.