Dig for the 'oyster' -- salsify -- in your garden

A few years ago, when visiting friends in England, I was given a hearty bowl of stew in which a major ingredient was salsify. "If," said my host at the time, "you have a particularly fertile imagination, you may just conceive of this as oyster stew."

In fact, the recipe book entitled the dish Mock Oyster Stew, and the salsify itself is often referred to as "vegetable oyster." For my part, the salsify didn't taste like oyster, but it was enjoyable, nonetheless. I am told, however , that salsify most resembles oyster in taste when creamed and included in a soup.

More recently a colleague of mine has grown the carrot-shaped salsify in his own garden and given it rave notices.

"You must grow it," he has insisted on several occasions. So this year I shall do just that.

A major plus for salsify is its hardiness. Like its fellow root, the parsnip , it can withstand the freezing winters of the Northern United States. Also like the parsnip, it needs a full growing season to mature -- spring sowing for a fall or winter harvest.

On the other hand, it grows nowhere near as large as its sweet-fleshed cousin. Brown to purple-skinned and white- fleshed, the salsify at maturity is a little smaller than an average-size carrot.

Like all root crops, salsify does best in a light, well-drained, fluffy soil. Incorporate as much compost as you can into the soil or use old manure. Avoid fresh manure, because this only encourages forked roots. A sprinkling of limestone or wood ash is advisable on most soils east of the Mississippi.

Plant the seeds (they look like little pointed sticks) a half inch deep and 2 inches apart in rows 12 inches apart. In wide rows or beds plant the seed 3 to 3 1/2 inches apart in every direction. Mulch lightly once the plants are several inches tall.

Water well in dry weather when the plants are young, but once they are 3 or more inches tall they are tolerant of all but long dry spells.

You can begin harvesting the salsify once it is as thick as your finger or, in other words, when it is about two-thirds mature. Young salsify leaves also make an interesting addition to a salad. Dig up the bulk of the crop once the cold weather of fall has set in.

You may store them outdoors in the ground under a protective mulch or in a shallow, well-drained trench dug especially for the purpose of storing the salsify and its hardy companion, the parsnip.

Line the trench with straw or dry leaves, put in the roots (with the tops cut down to one inch) in place, cover with more straw, and top this with a light covering of soil to keep the straw in place. Obviously, such a storage trench should not be placed where water collects.

Another storage option is to lift the roots and store them in a box that has been filled with damp sand in a cool cellar.

In the spring, at the first sign of new top growth, the salsify should be lifted and used or cooked and stored in a freezer. This is because all second-year growth is directed toward the forming seed. The plant does this at the expense of the taste and quality of the root.

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