Second Chances for the Beans, the Squash, and Me

I tend my garden every day; weeds offend me—deeply—as do dead leaves and dying flowerheads. I find it easier to keep on top of problems, like squash bugs and hornworms, than deal with them once they’ve taken over. Not everyone can devote the time or energy required to tend their garden this way, and I know how fortunate I am. My tending tendencies are also temperamental. I cannot let things slide.

Here in rural Virginia, most folks grow the same thing--tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, and watermelon—and do it by throwing seeds on the ground and walking away. In a typical year, casual gardening works remarkably well. This summer has been relentlessly hot and humid, with inconsistent rain, and even my garden, coddled and spoiled, has stumbled.

Case in point: after a strong start, my zucchini and yellow crookneck squash shriveled up and died, almost overnight. Summer without squash? Impossible! Not to be defeated, I planted more yellow squash in a different spot about six weeks ago, and I’m pleased to report they are doing beautifully.

The bean season was too short, undoubtedly due to the weather, so I replanted both purple French velour and Algarve beans at the same time as the squash. As the tomato plants become straggly and the rest of the garden winds down, it’s refreshing to see bright green leaves and colorful blossoms again.

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If you’ve been following along, you might recall that I was awaiting news from my publisher about my next book. Well, like the squash and the beans, I’ve been granted my second chance, not for one more book, but for two! Stories We Never Told will be published early in 2020, and the next one…Never mind. I can’t think that far in advance; I have a book to write!

That’s my life for now: making my daily count of one thousand words and tending my garden. (And cooking and storing the harvest, of course.) My garden and I are in stride, making the most of our second chances, approaching the next season with renewed vitality. Getting a first draft down is daunting business. I am hypercritical of everything and yet must stop myself from fixing things. Essentially, I tell myself to shut-up every few minutes. But like most endeavors, if you keep at it, you will get there. So I write, and put my faith in eventual magic.

Winter is coming, but not quite yet. The squash, the beans, and I have work to do.


Salad Days

My garden is taking care of myself right now—aside from daily weeding—so I thought we could move indoors and spend a little time in the kitchen. After the garden, it’s my favorite place.

We eat a lot of salad, my husband and I, to take advantage of the picked-that-day freshness of our garden bounty. (Browse my Instagram feed for a sampling.) I make the usual spinach or kale concoctions, and all manner of slaw, and I adore roasted vegetable salads. But today I’m here to talk lettuce.

If you have your own garden, visit a farmer’s market, or have a generous gardening neighbor, you know how tender homegrown lettuce can be. I don’t know what commercial growers do to achieve such robust leaves, but the lettuce from my garden is delicate and, for the cook, a bit fussy. Pour a vinaigrette over those tissue-thin leaves and you end up with a soggy clump. Yuck.

I’m here to help. In fact, this technique isn’t just for garden lettuce; it will work for any salad. I’ve been doing something like this for a while, but I’m happy to give credit where credit is due: Joshua MacFadden’s Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables.

Start with clean, dry lettuce in a large bowl. My lightweight stainless bowl is a workhorse. Sprinkle vinegar on the leaves—just a little—and toss gently. WITH YOUR HANDS. The lettuce is tender, remember? It needs your loving touch.

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That’s little gem lettuce, a mini-Romaine. Romaine is sturdier than leaf lettuce, but these homegrown heads are nothing like supermarket Romaine.

Back to the bowl. Taste a leaf to see if you can taste the vinegar. Next, season with salt and pepper. Go easy! Toss again with your hands and taste. The beauty in this technique is that the vinegar helps the salt and pepper stick to the leaves.

Add oil. Again, be sparing. Oil is heavy and will crush your leaves if you overdo it. Toss one more time with your hands. Taste and adjust. Ta-da!

If the finished salad will contain herbs or thinly sliced radishes—anything lightweight—I add them before I dress the leaves, but weightier ingredients go on top afterward.

Here I’ve garnished with toasted pistachios and avocado, and served the salad with an artichoke and chard frittata, made with eggs from my neighbor. Delicious lunch! Should I do a frittata tutorial next time? Let me know what other yard-to-table mysteries I might be able to solve. In the meantime, enjoy your salad days!

Earth & Ink: A new blog post series

Gardening and writing. Writing and gardening. It’s what I do and what I have done for most of my life. I’ve had many other pastimes and a couple other careers, but the common thread has been growing things and making words fit my thoughts. 

Have you ever heard authors say they don’t understand their books until at least the first draft is complete? The same is true about understanding ourselves, I think. The first draft of my self was written a long while ago and I’ve been undertaking extensive revisions since. Looking back at the process, my attachment to gardening and writing reveals something deeper about me, as any decent theme should. I’m on a quest for two things: patience and humility. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll agree I still have a ways to go. Okay, so I’m a work-in-progress!

That’s the scaffolding for these new posts. In truth, I will be light on philosophy and heavy on news from my vegetable garden, orchard and berry patch and how I’m using the bounty in my kitchen. We will talk FOOD. Beautiful food. 

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And miracles. I know, that’s a big word. But tell me something, what else would you call it when you start with this…

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(The seed. The object in the middle. I would like to grow money, but alas, I’m not that clever. If you are wondering about the rubber chicken, well, it’s the world’s smallest rubber chicken! It speaks for itself. Well, not literally. That would be a teensy bit worrisome. Even as the world’s smallest mute rubber chicken, it blows my mind every time I see it. Just to be clear, I am also not growing rubber chickens.)

…becomes this?

That’s a kohrabi, by the way. Normally green, I grow the purple variety. I’m all about eating all the purple things but perhaps we’ll talk about that more another time. I know you are still wondering about the world’s smallest rubber chicken and quite possibly are overwhelmed. I know I am and I’ve had it for years.

Until next time, then. Grow yourself. Eat well. Use your words and use them like the miracles they are.

Last Picks

My Mothers' Day garden is closing down for the winter. *Sniff* What a year we have had! The freezer is full of tomatoes, tomatillos and pesto. I've got pickled peppers in the fridge and the memory of enough wonderful garden-supplied meals to last until it's time to start again. Here's what it looks like now.

It's bare all right, but the gnome is standing proud on his pole. We've got a saying at our house: "Don't be such a gnome pole." The meaning is abundantly clear.

There is still a stalwart stand of chard, a few lettuces that survived the frost and the deer, and a clump of radishes that might yet make it into a salad. But the last pick of the season is behind us. Look!

I don't fry much (I'd only have to run that much further every day), so those green tomatoes were earmarked for chutney. We all love Indian cuisine, so chutney is a staple. I hardly ever have ketchup in my fridge, but we go through a dozen pints of chutney a year. 

This year I used this recipe. I'll let you know how it is later, because chutney needs to sit in a jar and meditate in the dark for a few months. I'm certain that's what it does. Pickles need time, too, but who knows what pickles get up to when no one's looking. Let's move on, okay? Oh, I left out the hot chili in the recipe. The chutney is supposed to be an antidote to viciously hot curries, not add fuel to the fire.

Chutney's not difficult to make; you just throw it all together and cook it a while. The tedious part is sterilizing the jars, waiting a year for 60 gallons of water to boil, and, finally, boiling each batch pints for 15 minutes. But, good things take time, unless it's a quickie or a really good knock-knock joke, and this is worth it.

Aren't they fabulous? The '09 vintage was superb, and the '12 vintage was a close second, but I have high hopes for these babies because of the crystallized ginger. But we must wait. The chutney must meditate. 

And meanwhile we can hope. We think of spring as a time of hope, but I'd argue it's fall. I mean, by springtime you don't need hope; you're already in the money. The days are long. The world is replete with asparagus, strawberries, daffodils and peeps. You've got mud instead of snow. It's progress. But here in November, with winter standing like a snowdrift between now and the beginning of the next Mothers' Day garden, hope is what we've got. And lots and lots of frozen tomatoes.