Monday, September 22, 2014

Inconstant Gardener (or Life Lessons I’ve Learned from Gardening)

First official day of fall today, although we had our first hard frost a few nights ago, always a more definitive marker for the end of summer than a date on the calendar. It’s felt like fall for a few weeks now, though, with Isabel back at college and Faye absorbed in her busy high school life. Chris is back to teaching, and I’m trying to buckle down to a more productive work schedule myself. At the same time, September weather is usually the best of the year, with clear skies, crisp air, and a gentle sun. It drifts through the skylight above my desk, pulling me away from my computer and outside for a hike, bike, kayak or, so I can reassure myself I’m still being productive, to the garden.

It’s harvest time—time to collect the fruits of spring and summer labors—so being in the garden doesn’t feel like a chore in the way it can when battling weeds in mid-July. In actuality though, I’ve been harvesting since late spring when the first of the baby lettuces came in. But September is what most people consider to be The Harvest, and it carries metaphorical weight. As I gather tomatoes,

tomatillos, kale, and the last of the basil (which turns black if touched by frost), my mind wanders as it usually does when I’m in the garden. That’s probably one of the reasons I’m drawn to it. 

Maybe because everyone is back to school, I find myself thinking about what I’ve learned from gardening. Life Lessons, of a sort. Here are four to start: 

You get out of the garden what you put into it. Except when you don’t. This applies to most things in life, of course—relationships, parenting, friendships, work. In general with the garden, I find that the more I nourish the soil organically, and weed, and water, the more bountiful the produce is. 

But some years I put in a lot of effort and the returns are disappointing for reasons beyond my control, like the tainted compost that wrecked our soil two years ago, or too much rain, or an invasion of beetles. Sometimes, however, the opposite is true. I put in hardly any effort at all and the returns keep on coming. Raspberries are like this. We planted a row back when we bought the house over twenty years ago and have done nothing but sporadic pruning ever since. Yet every year we get a month-long supply of exquisite, plump berries. Go figure.

It’s nice to share. Not that I hadn’t learned that already, like most of us did back in kindergarten. But we have a way of forgetting that one, don’t we? My garden is small, only about 30 square feet, but it produces more than enough for my family. Giving away extra produce to my neighbors feels good. Inviting them to come over and help themselves while we’re away on vacation is so much better than coming home and finding fruit and vegetables rotting on the vine. I also welcome the wildlife that help themselves, like the bunny I regularly catch hopping stealthily out of the Swiss chard as I approach. I find partially chewed chard leaves strewn in the overgrown paths, but there’s plenty of chard for us both. 

 The same goes for the birds who devour our blueberries

and the squirrels who stand brazenly in the middle of the yard holding an apple in their delicate hands.

Perfectionism has no place in a garden. Except when it occurs naturally, that is, like a single, perfect Sun Gold tomato warm off the vine, 

or a gorgeous head of radicchio just waiting to be plucked. 

I get a certain satisfaction out of weedless, straight rows of seedlings in late May, I have to admit. But within a few weeks, it’s a losing battle with the weeds and somehow those straight rows have gone all crooked. That used to bother me and drive me out there to yank up the weeds until I’d give myself tendonitis in my elbow (twice). But over time I’ve learned that there are a lot of weedy, crooked things in life that you sometimes just have to accept. Instead of fighting it, I try to nurture the beneficial plants as best I can and strive to find the beauty in the whole plot.

Savor every season. We have a short growing season here in Vermont, and for that I’ve learned to be thankful. Even though every year I wish it would start about six weeks earlier, by the end of the season it feels like just the right amount of time. I’m the main gardener in the family, so it’s a lot of work. Chris helps out a bit with the heavy lifting, and when the girls were little they sometimes joined me to pick peas or dig for potatoes,

but now it’s usually just me out there (well, me and Callie) from seed planting to putting the garden to bed in early November.

This past summer, though, Isabel needed to earn some extra money to bring back with her to New York, so I hired her as my assistant. What a brilliant idea this turned out to be. She’s a diligent worker—between the two of us we got an enormous amount accomplished and even dug up and replanted two flower beds that have been on my list of things to do for several years now. Plus I got to spend a lot of low-key time with her when we had nothing else to focus on but thinning radishes or picking green beans.

More than once I had flashbacks to her dancing around in her bathing suit tossing dirt in the air while “helping” me prep the soil for planting, or Faye delighting in finding earthworms and carrying them around by the fistful. I smiled in recalling those times, and I smiled this summer while Isabel worked beside me. 

There are many recipes I could share that celebrate the bounty of the garden, but I’ve chosen a simple one: Raspberry Vinegar. The fruit is a family favorite, and whenever I taste its incomparable flavor I think of the girls when they were babies in front packs. With each of them, I used to stand in front of the raspberries, pulling off a berry and holding it for them to take. They’d stuff the berries in their mouths, little legs kicking with glee. Soon enough, they were reaching for their own. Raspberry season is short, but so very sweet. Preserving the berries’ vivid color and flavor in a mild vinegar that you can keep through the winter and drizzle on salads and other dishes is one way to make them last. 

Raspberry Vinegar
Makes 2 cups

2 cups mild vinegar (preferably white wine or champagne)
½ cup fresh raspberries, washed (you could use fresh herbs or herb blossoms instead)

Sterilize a 16 ounce glass container and its lid (canning jars work well with two-piece lids). Insert the raspberries into the jar and pour the vinegar over them so they’re completely covered. Seal the jar and store in a cool, dark place for 2 to 3 weeks. 

Using cheesecloth (or a paper coffee filter) strain the vinegar and discard the berries. Pour the strained vinegar into a clean glass container. If stored in a cool, dark place, the vinegar should keep its flavor and color for 3 months. To double the length of time, store it in the refrigerator.

*Avoid using any metal utensils or containers while making or storing the vinegar.

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  1. I also have a very small garden. As small as it is, the garden brings me much joy. My dear Frank agrees to help me with the garden prep, but from then on I am on my own. Every year and season is different, and I have learned to accommodate. Just like parenting a teen. Some seasons are warm and fuzzy. Others are cold and dreary. We never really know what is on the agenda. But, The Hagerstown's Farmer's Almanac can predict the way for the backyard gardener in my home town. Ready or not, it will come.
    This summer, the zucchini was my bumper crop this year. So, in return I found every zucchini bread recipe known to man, and created it in my kitchen. My co-workers were in heaven. I made lemon glazed zucchini bread, double chocolate zucchini bread, pineapple zucchini bread, pumpkin zucchini bread and more. My freezer is filled with breads and grated zucchini.
    As fall approaches, I get excited for my fall crops of kale and Swiss chard. Do you have any recipes to share? Soups? Chowders?

    1. Wow, Laureen, you have lucky co-workers! I don't end up with a lot of zucchini because I like to eat the flowers (stuffed with cheese and pan sauteed). With kale and Swiss chard, my favorite way to eat them is just sauteed with olive oil, garlic, and cracked pepper. I also love a kale Caesar. But this time of year, I like to make a white bean and sausage soup with lots of kale thrown in. I've been making it for years and don't really follow a recipe but this looks like a good one: . I use chicken sausage in mine and tomatoes (no celery and carrots) and instead of lemon I put a Parmesan rind in while it simmers. I also use dried beans (Great Northern) that have been soaked overnight. One of these days I'll have to write up the recipe!