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!

The Calm Before the Tomatoes

Now that Buddy’s back on his favorite plum tree, serenading us every dawn, summer is officially in full swing. And, boy oh boy, did the weather gods get the memo. We’ve been in monsoon mode since mid-April, a time when the norm is 75 degrees and crisp spring air. It’s sticky and icky.

Luckily, my constant presence is not required in the garden this time of year. Sure, I potter around, pulling the odd weed, harvesting a few sugar snap peas, lettuces, and the last of the asparagus. But most of the plants are in growth mode and all I need to do is stand to the side and admire them.

Little gem lettuces

Little gem lettuces



sugar snap pea blossoms

sugar snap pea blossoms

In a month’s time, I will be inundated with produce and my kitchen will resemble a factory. I’ll be cleaning, chopping, freezing, blanching, canning and jamming! But not yet.

Because art imitates life, my writing is in much the same place as my garden. I’ve dealt with the copyedits and proofreading of True Places, my next book, and am awaiting the final cover. (!!!!) Since, well, forever, I’ve been working on What Comes Next—two projects in fact, to be submitted together, like a twofer. One of the proposals, a story of obsession and fraud, is pretty much good to go. The other, an immigrant/ WWII story, is almost there. Once my agent submits the proposals, there will be nothing to do but wait for what we hope will be a green light on one or both projects. And then I will, you know, have to write a book or two.

Any bets I hear from my editor when my garden is generating 20 pounds of produce a day? 

Good thing I love my work, both in the garden and at my desk. In the meantime, I have reading to catch up on, and daydreaming, too. Isn’t that what summer has always been for? Long, carefree days when your bathing suit never dried, you ate lunch in a treehouse and stayed up late playing tag and chasing fireflies until, at last, you were called inside by your exhausted parents. 

What are you looking forward to this summer? Homegrown tomatoes? The beach? Freeze tag?