The vegetable that relishes the challenge of springtime weather

"The best part of farming is being outside and living the different seasons."

Photo Credit: Brad Wolf

The vegetable that relishes the challenge of springtime weather

Written by: Mark Loehrke
April 2, 2018


At just 32 years old, Jackson Township native Damien Appel has already been pursuing his passion of sustainable organic farming for six years. A teacher by training and gardener by heart, he is able to indulge both of these aspects of his personality through Native Roots Farm in Westville, where he aims to cultivate both fresh produce and environmental awareness.

“The best part of farming is being outside and living the different seasons,” Appel says. “I love the subtleties of each month of the year.” That love extends even to the months of March and April—a time when many gardeners, while eager to get their hands in the soil and usher in the warm growing season, are often hard-pressed to find a crop rugged enough to face the sometimes harsh realities of a fickle Midwestern spring.

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At just 32 years old, Jackson Township native Damien Appel has already been pursuing his passion of sustainable organic farming for six years. A teacher by training and gardener by heart, he is able to indulge both of these aspects of his personality through Native Roots Farm in Westville, where he aims to cultivate both fresh produce and environmental awareness.

“The best part of farming is being outside and living the different seasons,” Appel says. “I love the subtleties of each month of the year.” That love extends even to the months of March and April—a time when many gardeners, while eager to get their hands in the soil and usher in the warm growing season, are often hard-pressed to find a crop rugged enough to face the sometimes harsh realities of a fickle Midwestern spring.

For Appel, the solution is to turn to a vegetable that’s as tough as the climate in which it grows: spinach.

“Spinach is the premier cold, hardy, leafy green crop,” he explains. “It will survive outside better than any lettuce, kale, Swiss chard or cabbage. We overwinter spinach in our unheated greenhouse, which allows us to start harvesting the first week of March. We also start planting new successions for late spring harvest in mid-February.”

Unlike most crops, spinach seems to relish the challenge of springtime weather, thriving in the March-to-May period but fading as summer approaches and the mercury heads toward and above 70 degrees. Appel says that although leafy greens are pretty much the only game in town at this time of the year, the upshot is that spinach just happens to be one of his customers’ favorites, anyway.

“It’s a joy for us to have a bountiful crop during these months of the year,” he says, “but it can be a challenge to market during a time when farmers markets aren’t operating yet.”

For those customers who do find his spinach at this time of year, Appel says it may be worth taking a look at the various sizes that are available when planning their meals. While baby spinach tends to get the most love for fresh eating, the larger, tougher varieties also have great flavor when cooked or wilted.

Some of the bounty at Native Farms will find its way into the lemon chickpea soup that sells so well at its market during the fall.

Photo Credit: Brad Wolf
Damien Appel
Photo Credit: Brad Wolf
Damien Appel

For Appel, the solution is to turn to a vegetable that’s as tough as the climate in which it grows: spinach.

“Spinach is the premier cold, hardy, leafy green crop,” he explains. “It will survive outside better than any lettuce, kale, Swiss chard or cabbage. We overwinter spinach in our unheated greenhouse, which allows us to start harvesting the first week of March. We also start planting new successions for late spring harvest in mid-February.”

Unlike most crops, spinach seems to relish the challenge of springtime weather, thriving in the March-to-May period but fading as summer approaches and the mercury heads toward and above 70 degrees. Appel says that although leafy greens are pretty much the only game in town at this time of the year, the upshot is that spinach just happens to be one of his customers’ favorites, anyway.

“It’s a joy for us to have a bountiful crop during these months of the year,” he says, “but it can be a challenge to market during a time when farmers markets aren’t operating yet.”

For those customers who do find his spinach at this time of year, Appel says it may be worth taking a look at the various sizes that are available when planning their meals. While baby spinach tends to get the most love for fresh eating, the larger, tougher varieties also have great flavor when cooked or wilted.

Some of the bounty at Native Farms will find its way into the lemon chickpea soup that sells so well at its market during the fall.

Appel isn’t at liberty to share the secret recipe, but he believes the similarly inclined concoction below is a pretty decent stand-in, and a great way to take advantage of Northwest Indiana’s hardy early-spring spinach crop.

“My recommendation would be to blend it all up with an immersion blender and let it sit overnight,” he says. “This is a deliciously different soup that you’ll make year after year.”

Photo Credit: Brad Wolf
Photo Credit: Brad Wolf

Chickpea, Leek and Spinach Soup
From BHG.com

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium leeks (white and light green parts only), thinly sliced, washed and drained
2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
4 cups reduced-sodium chicken or vegetable stock or broth
1 cup water
1 lemon, juiced (3 tablespoons)
2 (5-ounce) packages baby spinach
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a 4-quart pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add leeks. Cook, stirring occasionally, 5 to 7 minutes or until very tender but not browned (reduce heat if leeks begin to brown).

Stir in chickpeas and garlic. Cook about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add stock and 1 cup water. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and add lemon juice. Simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes. Gradually stir in the spinach and thyme. Cook until the spinach is wilted, about 1 minute.

Season to taste with kosher salt and black pepper. Serve immediately.

Photo Credit: Brad Wolf
Photo Credit: Brad Wolf
Photo Credit: Brad Wolf
Photo Credit: Brad Wolf