They’re cropping up everywhere, and no, I’m not talking about the mushrooms on my lawn. I keep seeing them on menus in chichi restaurants, in recipe guides for gardeners who want to think outside the box, and on foodie sites.
I’m talking about ramps, which look like they’re trying to edge out kale for “trendiest vegetable” status. Unlike kale, ramps have a much shorter growing season, but they’re packed with flavor and they can be used in all kinds of things.
So, uh, what exactly are ramps, anyway? Known formally as Allium tricoccum, these vegetables are also sometimes called wild leeks. They’re members of the allium (onion) family native to North America, and they particularly like the environment of Appalachia. They like rich, moist soil and forest environments, shooting up big, blade-shaped leaves in spring that give way to white flowers. The bulb and stem have a heady, oniony taste with a garlic aroma. (Don’t ask me how they manage it.)
The reason these plants have become so famous and beloved in their home range is that they’re often the first veggies to appear in the wild after a hard, long winter. They contain lots of nutrients, and they’re a welcome taste of fresh green food for people who are tired of eating pickled and canned goods. Some regions really ramp (haha) up the excitement with festivals, fairs, and other events revolving around these flavorful spring vegetables. They’re a great early crop while you’re waiting for your other veggies to come in.
You can wildcraft ramps, depending on where you live, but you can also grow them at home if you want a stable supply. For gardeners fortunate enough to have a forested area on their properties, this is the best spot for ramps, because they love shade and the layers of humus that build up under trees. If you don’t have such an area, you’ll need to erect a shade cloth to protect the delicate plants; put your carpentry skills to work to build a good shade structure for your plants. Your plants will want moist, well-drained soil, and in the spring, they will need a great deal of babying with water, nutrients, and light control during their brief growing season.
Growing ramps requires commitment to the long haul. If you direct seed in late summer or early fall, the seeds may not germinate for another 18 months, and that’s if moisture and soil conditions are right. Then they need to develop before they can start digging out mature plants. If you transplant bulbs, you may have to wait three years or so before you start harvesting; and it’s important to keep transplanting so you have a steadily-growing garden. You’ll also want to mulch with leaves to keep the bulbs moist and healthy.
To harvest, wait until your ramps have packed the growing space, and judiciously thin it. You can simply dig out a chunk of a bed, but thinning works better, especially if you want to be harvesting on a rotating schedule to maintain the bed of ramps through the years. When you thin, you can also pass along transplants to friends and neighbors beyond the garden fence. The bulbs should be trimmed, washed, patted dry, and stored in a cool place until use.
If you have a big harvest, you can turn a profit with your crop and sell to local restaurants. Smaller crops can be used in a huge assortment of recipes — try replacing onions with ramps, roasting or grilling them, adding them to soups in stews, or, a classic, pickling them. When it seems like winter will never end, your ramps will be there for you.