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Into the Rampy Woods

Apr
16

My woods aren’t rampy yet, but they shall be! I set off upon the trail that starts above the barn yard. This photo is taken looking back as I started up the trail. You can just barely see the white fencing of the barn yard.

Looking down, you can see the goat yard and beyond–the house and studio.

The first spring at Stringtown Rising, I wandered about our 40 acres with a plastic bag looking for ramps. For those of you not in the know, ramps (Alliium tricoccum) or wild leeks are the odiferous springtime treasures of Appalachia. (I do believe they are found–and can be grown–other places, but they are most well known here.) The white parts can be used in cooking similar to a strong onion or garlic, and the leafy greens are just as edible. The white bulbous end is the most stinkily delicious part, of course. Ramps can be found in patches on hillsides and near streams in shady, forested areas. The best time to find them is usually around mid-April, but based on the early appearance of out-of-the-trunk ramp sellers along roadsides, our pre-emptive warm weather pushed that date up a bit this season.


This is what ramps look like when you find them in the wild:

If you’re still not sure, dig them up and the smell will hit you right away.

There are a couple of ways to plant ramps. You can collect seeds after they bloom. (This is slightly more tedious than other methods, at least to me.) You can plant them whole, just imbedding the root in the soil, leaving the stem and leafy top above ground. (This is dead simple, though it wastes your entire ramp.) Or you can cut off the root end, reserving the remaining parts for culinary pleasure.

I like to do a little bit of both of these last two methods, because I’m really not sure which way works best. When I cut off the root ends, I do leave quite a bit of bulb, too. Probably more than necessary, but I’m into getting my ramps growing and I err on the side of caution.

Ramps are the center of springtime celebrations in West Virginia. Communities hold “ramp suppers” cooking up gigantic messes of ramps, often together with eggs and potatoes with pinto beans and cornbread on the side. This is your basic traditional ramp cooking, but ramps have gone gourmet in recent years and can be cooked up in all sorts of creative ways. If you love garlic, think “strong garlic” and go for it. The bulb, up to the white part of the stem, can be sliced, diced, mashed, etc, and added to dishes as you would garlic. Use the leafy greens as you would any greens. They can serve as the fresh greens in salads, or be diced up to add to soups and other dishes. Finely diced, the greens can be used somewhat as an herb. One of my favorite simple ways to use ramps is to dice up white parts and greens and sprinkle over pizza. Diced and mashed white parts can be used to make an easy “ramp butter” for grilled or toasted bread. The bulbs can be pickled to save for later. Ramps can also be frozen.

Most of my haul this year went into planting. This is my fifth year planting ramps. I started planting ramps the first year we lived at Stringtown Rising. I never did find any ramps that spring when I went out walking with my bag, but a neighbor took me to his farm and showed me the hillside of ramps he’d planted. I started planting my own, and planted more every year. It could feel a little defeating to start over at Sassafras Farm, after four years of establishing a ramp garden at Stringtown Rising, but hey, it just makes me a smarter ramp planter, right?

In my fifth year of planting ramps, here are my pseudo-expert tips.

Location, location, location!!! PEOPLE! Plant your ramps some place where you want to go back and get them later. Exhibit A:

Here I am on the trail above the pastures at Sassafras Farm. Note that to the left, the ground drops off steeply here and to the right, it goes up a bank. Imagine a similar bank, only steeper, at Stringtown Rising, and that is where I planted my ramp garden. It was a perfectly good location by other ramp standards, and it was close to the house (which is why I picked it), but every year, I had to clamber up the steep bank to check on my ramps. Lesson learned. If you have to, go a bit farther afield until you find a good location that does NOT include any bank-clambering. You’ll thank yourself later.

Aside from a convenient location from the human standpoint, ramps want shade amidst the hardwoods and they need rich, dark soil. A moist area is good, too. They like to live near streams, but short of a stream, near a spring will work, too.

I moved along the trail, looking for a good spot.

As the trail continues, the ground levels out on either side.

There are a number of springs all over this farm, and standing water where there should not be standing water is usually a good indication that you’re near one.

As I looked down into the woods below, it was relatively flat (or at least an easy slope) and there was something of a natural trail.

There was lovely shade and hardwoods. I set up shop.

I brought with me a bowl with a few inches of water in the bottom–enough to keep the intact ramp bulbs moist, a bag of root ends in a bag (with a damp paper towel to keep them moist also), ribbon (for marking trees where I planted the ramps), scissors (for cutting the ribbon), and a small garden shovel.

I tested the soil.

Dark and rich, with natural woodland composting. It turned over easily, soft and lovely. Not too much clay here. Perfect.

My bag of root ends:

To plant root ends, just dig a hole large enough to fit them. I like to put two or three per hole. Plant them root ends down (more or less), cover them up, and tamp the soil lightly.

For intact ramps, plant them as if you were planting starts from a garden center. Just stick them in the soil, covering up the root ends, bulbs, and white part of the stem, and tamp the soil around them. I usually will put two in a hole.

The reason I put more than one in a hole is because 1) I’m lazy (this means fewer holes), 2) in case one dies, and 3) ramps like to live together anyway.

By the way, if you get a bag of ramps and aren’t ready to plant them right away, you can preserve them for several days by placing them in a cool place. (The fridge works.) Wrap them in damp paper toweling to keep them moist until you’re ready to plant.

I chose four or five trees to plant the ramps around, testing the soil at each spot and assessing the shade. I planted several dozen ramps–some as root ends, some intact. It took about an hour. I just sat down at each spot and started digging.

The most important thing I’ve learned about planting ramps is that they’re easy to grow. I worried and fussed over my ramp garden at Stringtown Rising, but those ramps came up every April like clockwork, so there was no need to worry. (I’ll probably fret over these a little bit anyway until I see them come up next spring.) On the other hand, the best thing about fretting over your ramps is that it’s all in your head. You don’t have to do anything with your ramps after you’ve planted them. Leave them alone. Visit them in a year. When you visit them the next year, bring some friends–as in, plant more ramps.

I also learned that a ramp garden doesn’t grow and spread as quickly as I expected. After four years of planting ramps each spring at Stringtown Rising, I would not yet have started harvesting. I thought that in five years, they would spread enough to harvest. Now I suspect it probably takes closer to ten years to establish a ramp garden that spreads enough to harvest without robbing your base. Remember, however, that you can just plant root ends, which means you can have your ramps and plant them, too, so no big deal. Keep planting, and eventually you’ll have enough ramps of your own to harvest without taking away from your foundation. The only way to speed up this process is to plant more at a time. I planted probably two or three times as much this year as I planted my first year at Stringtown Rising, and will keep doing it every spring, so we’ll see. I might have enough in five years if I keep it up at this rate. You shouldn’t harvest until you have big, glorious patches where you can harvest without taking away from the base from which next year’s patches will grow.

When I was finished planting, I tied ribbons on all the trees where I planted ramps.

I also tied ribbon on the two trees to either side of the path down to my new ramp garden.

I’ll come up with a more permanent way to mark the ramps later, but for the time being, that will do. I didn’t mark my ramp garden at Stringtown Rising quite so well. I knew generally where they were, but once I clambered up the bank, I had to wander around to find which trees they were planted around, which was an added annoyance on top of the clambering.

The ramp sellers are still out there. Go get some ramps! They’re easy to grow, I promise.

P.S. No, I did not dig up any ramps from Stringtown Rising. I left them for posterity. My legacy. My place in the history books. I’m like Johnny Appleseed, only I’m spreading ramps across Roane County (which is not a highly rampy county for WV) instead of apple trees across the land. I’m….Suzanney Ramproot! That’s it! Yes! I’m like…. A West Virginia LEGEND!

Signed (with stinky fingers),
the one
the only
Suzanney Ramproot

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Posted by Suzanne McMinn on April 16, 2012  

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21 Responses | RSS feed for comments on this post

  1. 4-16
    9:12
    am

    Love the post. I was actually wondering about how to get them going. I just wanted to add that you can dehydrate ramps also. But chopping them up and either drying them in the oven or in a dehydrator. You can have sprinkle all year round.

    Enjoy your ramps I think I will go get us a few bundles for the week and begin my own ramp garden! :happyfeet:

  2. 4-16
    9:13
    am

    Suzanne, After reading your reports of planting the bulbs, I started our ramp patch, the same way. This marks the third year I have planted them in my ramp patch area. They are coming up, Years 1 and 2 look wonderful, if sparse. This year my ramp cup runneth over. First, my neighbor invited me over to pick her patch, she doesn’t eat them, but the prior owner likes to come back and visit the patch he started. So we picked lightly. We always try to take about half leaves only and half bulb and leaves. We got a couple good messes, and I shared half with another neighbor (They are celebrating their 65th anniversary this year!). Well you have heard the adage, if you give some away, more will come to you…Ha!
    Easter Sayurday, I returned home to find a large heavy sack. Of Ramps. Whew it was heavy. I could not imagine how many ramps were in there, and set about to discover the locals’ way of gathering ramps. With a large shovel! So in addition to a moderate amount of ramps, I also had several shovels full of rich dirt, which went into the bucket to cover the new bulbs with. I cooked them for dinner, and darned if one of our guests says he knows of a patch over the ridge. So the next day – Easter Sunday and my birthday – off went my 5 year old grandson and his two grandfathers to get ramps. 2 five gallon buckets later, and not much dirt, I had another big bunch to put up. And even better, a slew of bulbs to plant.

    We will see how the patch looks next year, as I would love to pickle some ramp bulbs, but this year they all got planted.

    So what does everyone do with their ramps? I actually threw the leaves chopped a bit into a veggie stirfry. Yum, with noodles. Tonight, I am going to toss some in my oven roasted potatoes.

    Be well, Billie

  3. 4-16
    9:52
    am

    Great story Suzanney Ramproot – love it! Hope they grow well for you. BTW is had never heard leeks called ramps before reading this in our blog several years ago – we call them ramps now too http://chickensintheroad.com/wp-includes/images/smilies/airkiss.gif

  4. 4-16
    9:55
    am

    rhubarbrose, well, these are wild leeks, which are somewhat different than the cultivated leeks grown in gardens or found in grocery stores. Wild leeks aka ramps are smaller and stronger.

  5. 4-16
    9:56
    am

    Your property is so beautiful. How wonderful just to be able to walk through it all, and be able to plant what you want, where you want.

  6. 4-16
    10:46
    am

    I enjoy all of your posts and the photos of your farm. Will you harvest ramps from Stringtown Rising before it sells? I live in Oregon and I know they must grow here somewhere, but I haven’t found them yet, we are still overrun with blackberries. Have a great day, BLESSINGS

  7. 4-16
    11:37
    am

    Beautiful photographs! I’ve never heard of ramps. Thank you for their story. I would love to try them.

  8. 4-16
    1:34
    pm

    According to West Virginia University botanist Earl L. Core, the widespread use in southern Appalachia of the term “ramps” (as opposed to “wild leek” which is used elsewhere) derives from Old English:

    The name ramps (usually plural) is one of the many dialectical variants of the English word ramson, a common name of the European bear leek (Allium ursinum), a broad-leaved species of garlic much cultivated and eaten in salads, a plant related to our American species.

  9. 4-16
    10:14
    pm

    I just pinned a recipe for “Pickled Ramps” on Pinterest. I categorized the recipe under canning and preserving …but it was just for keeping in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.I don’t know where I will ever find ramps…but I am ready when I do!

  10. 4-16
    10:17
    pm

    WvSky, thank you. As I was reading this, and as I have read other posts about ramps, the lapsed linguist in me was dying to go find out the etymology of the name! Thank you for posting that!

    Surely there are ramps somewhere in Indiana. I’ll trade you all some of my nasty wild onions/garlic in my lawn for some ramps! :D

  11. 4-16
    11:27
    pm

    I assume you could harvest if you only took the tops but left the roots? You’re planting only the roots anyway so wouldn’t they grow new leaves again if you just cut them off?

  12. 4-17
    1:50
    am

    …oh my goshness.. my mouth is watering for ramps as I read through your post Suzanne! My tastebuds are yearning for them now. We have not been able to find any nearby where we live, but have found them a few times in neighboring woods. I never thought to plant a patch.. that would of been great for us to of done years back.
    I will have to throw some hints out to friends who have woods if we can go exploring with a bucket in hand. :) When we were blessed to be given a bunch a several many years ago, I used them in cooking, and froze them in wide mouth quart canning jars in the freezer to use throughout the year. Kept the smell from permiating elsewhere in the freezer. Love the thought of pickling them. Thank you for sharing your days with us.

  13. 4-17
    5:06
    am

    Suzanney Ramproot, love the name…makes me think of a storybook character.

  14. 4-17
    7:57
    am

    I started a “ramp garden” last year….was very surprised and happy to see them coming up this spring….I too added to my garden this year also.

  15. 4-17
    3:39
    pm

    Thank you, Suzanney, for sharing the ramp tutorial with us and for giving us the scientific name. I looked it up and found that is is native to our county and all counties surrounding us, so I took a little walk to see if I could find any in suburbia. I didn’t have to go far, as there is a wooded lot across the street and down one lot where I found ramps growing in a big patch under a tree in damp soil. I know who owns this lot and think I will look him up and get permission to collect some ramps or perhaps seed in summer. Thank you for the great idea!

  16. 4-17
    9:25
    pm

    Jen, I’m guessing that wouldn’t work, although maybe one could harvest a few leaves from each plant. The reason I think that is the warnings you hear about not trimming leaves off decorative bulbs like tulips until they’re completely brown – the plant needs time to collect nutrients for next year.

  17. 4-18
    4:54
    pm

    Yeeeah…I’ve heard about these little thingies. They sound interesting and I’d love to taste them sometime. But I’ve also heard that after a good meal of them, you do a lot of “alone” time. haha. Also, bad news if the cows find them before you do…so I’ve heard…unless you love garlic milk. :} Great post.

  18. 4-18
    8:07
    pm

    Holy cow…
    This eastern NC lowlander just ate ramps for the first time ever tonight. They were “imported,” since I’m told they don’t grow anywhere but up in the mountains. I didn’t know exactly what I was eating, til a couple of hours later and it snuck up on me all of a sudden and…
    I’m not sure I can stand to breathe my own air right now. I’m not quite sure whether I love them or hate them.
    That’s a jolt!!!

  19. 4-18
    8:18
    pm

    Hmm. Love them. Need more. All stinkiness aside. Although next time I will USE LESS OF THEM.

  20. 4-20
    7:11
    am

    I got my bag of Ramps yesterday, Yaaa! For many years now I have been getting them from the same area, but the last 2 years place that has been over grown with Ramps all of a sudden has no Ramps! Has any one ever heard of a large ramp patch to just disappear? I’ve never know wildlife to eat them and even if they would it would only be the tops and no known diseases. This area is in a state park and I don’t think they would have used any spray to kill them off, as there are many deer and other wildlife that roam there. Has any one ever heard of a entire patch to just disappear? Over harvest, maybe?

  21. 4-20
    7:14
    am

    marymac, over-harvest could kill it off for sure if people went in and took them all. That’s why you don’t even harvest at all when first establishing a patch (when planting) and have to harvest judiciously after it’s established.

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