Charlie Bowling arranges fresh beets in his farm truck to take to the farmers market in La Plata in 2006. Beets are full of phytonutrients, iron, fiber and folate. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

With all the recent interest in locally grown, farm-fresh and organic foods, it’s no wonder the number of U.S. farmers markets has more than tripled in the past 15 years. There are now more than 7,175 across the country, according to the Agriculture Department.

Buying local means products are picked at peak ripeness, providing the top freshness, flavor and nutrients. The foods are transported fewer miles and are coming directly from the people who grow them. And you can feel good about supporting your local economy and strengthening the local food system.

Most farmers markets in our area open in April or May. So now is the time to get exploring, to discover new produce and fresh or potted herbs that your supermarket might not feature. For an interactive map of markets in the Washington area, go to

Farmers market salad

Feeling inspired? This salad recipe makes use of seasonal greens including peppery arugula and watercress, buttery bib lettuce and velvety mache (also known as lamb’s lettuce). Spinach is also in season starting in April and works well with this salad. Kale is available starting in May.

This salad gets a sweet and earthy flavor boost from another farmers market favorite: beets, a nutrition powerhouse. Beets are full of phytonutrients, iron, fiber and folate. They are most often found in the deep purple variety, but farmers markets might also carry golden yellow, pink or white varieties. It is best to purchase smaller beets, as they are more tender and sweeter — one to 11 / 2 inches is the ideal diameter. You want the green leaves to be fresh and not wilted. As soon as you get home from the market, trim off most of the greens, leaving only one inch attached to the bulb. This prevents the leaves from stealing moisture from the bulbs. You can then store the bulbs in a plastic bag in your refrigerator for up to three weeks. Be sure to wash them thoroughly before using them, as they probably will be covered in dirt. They are, after all, root vegetables.

In addition to salad greens and beets, this recipe features an herb dressing loaded with dill and oniony chives. Nothing flavors a dish better than fresh herbs, which boost flavor and add depth to dishes without overdoing sodium, sugar and fat. Plus, many herbs contain disease-fighting antioxidants. To prevent spoiling, make sure they are dry when you store them in the fridge. Wrap them in a dry paper towel and they’ll last up to a week.

And one last bonus: The olive oil from the dressing not only ties all those herbs together but also helps your body absorb those nutrients and feel more satisfied.

Farmers market salad with herbed vinaigrette

Get ready for the market

Proper preparation can help make a good experience great. Follow these guidelines to get the most out of your farmers market:

●Bring reusable, clean bags to carry your goodies home. Use separate bags for raw and cooked foods.

●Bring storage containers for delicate produce such as berries and cherry tomatoes that might otherwise get crushed when combined with other products.

●Arrive early in the day before the crowds for the best selection. That perfectly plump tomato will be the first to go. However, if you do go toward the end of the day, you might get some good deals.

●Bring cash in small bills with a bag for change.

●Go in with an open mind. My first experience with garlic scapes was because one of the vendors pointed it out to me and said you could make an amazing pesto out of the twisty, curly plant. Garlic scapes, available starting in May in our area, are now something I very much look forward to and can’t find anywhere but at the market.

●Take the time to scope out the entire market, as different farmers offer different selections and prices of the same items. And be sure to ask the farmers how long produce will stay fresh to make sure you don’t overbuy. They also usually can provide good storage tips.

Gordon, a master of public health professional and a master certified health education specialist, is creator of the healthy recipe site

Salad Spinner Looking for more ways to use those new veggies? Try The Post’s Salad Spinner tool.

Recipe Finder The Post’s Food section has healthful recipes at .