“My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.”
There is nothing, absolutely nothing that makes me happpier than stopping by the Farmers Market on a Saturday morning. We have some serious winters here, and a pavilion that smells like ripe melons, bundles of herbs, onions, cut flowers and ropes of fresh garlic is really heaven on earth after months of a natural world set on “mute.” I do my best cooking during market season; it’s possible to find something new to experiment with almost every time I go (tiny Thai peppers, little white eggplants, bitter melons, 10 different kinds of garlic) and there are recipes I save all year until the necessary ingredients are available in a fresh and local incarnation. I’m not saying I never buy green pepper or carrots at the grocery store during the winter, sighing over my giant carbon footprint and the fact that I am buying foods bred to be portable rather than flavorful. I do. It’s different, though, to make chile verde using peppers that a farmer grew and picked less than 20 miles from my house. It makes me feel all authentic and organic…and it tastes better.
Every year I decide that, in addition to shopping the market, I am going to grow some things of my own, and that I am going to “put up” some things for winter. I have an irrational fear of the canning process, but I just read an article explaining that it’s really not all that complicated…one only needs the ingredients and a recipe, jars, lids, seals, stockpots and tongs. It seems likely that if I can make croissants from scratch, I should be able to can things. So I am dreaming again, dreaming about preserves made of peaches, plums, berries, and combinations thereof. I am fantasizing about chutneys, pickled watermelon rinds like the ones Mrs. Wolf used to make, corn relish, apple butter, and pickles. Well, I’d like to make pickled everything – pickled green beans, pickled peppers, and carrots and onions like we get at the Taco Truck. I’d like to cook and can tomato sauce when the tomatoes are at their freshest, and onion marmalade and garlic confit. I picture rows of gleaming jars in my basement, a veritable fleet of goodness captured to nourish my family during the months of whiteness and dormancy. I believe can do that stuff, because it’s cooking. There may be some planning and discipline involved, but I know that (although I may not put up everything I have listed because I am not actually Ma Walton) I can preserve some of what is best and freshest.
Gardening, however, is another matter. When we moved into this house, there was a sort of shade garden, complete with a stone path and decorative trees; within months I had pulled it all up, because I was going to have a garden My Way. My preferences included some marginally thought out combination of English cottage garden flowers like Hollyhocks, Morning Glories and climbing roses. There would also be a tidy plot of herbs and vegetables, strawberries growing in those cute strawberry pots with little holes in them, and a tee pee of sticks covered with sweet peas and runner beans, that Sam and his friends could play in. Mornings, I would head out with my clippers and trug and cut flowers for the house as if I were living at Manderly, and in late afternoon I would harvest herbs, salad greens and side dish vegetables.
Ten years later, Sam is taller than the tee pee would have been (and would be mortified at the notion that he and his friends might play in a tent made of beans), and things are pretty much as I left them after tearing everything up. It turns out that the garden I destroyed was carefully planted because there is no sun on this lot, anywhere, ever. Well, more accurately, there is a solitary rectangle of sun about the size of a twin bed that moves around the house from East to West as the day progresses, providing enough sun to please the sorts of things that I pulled up – fuschias, ferns, and some other thing I just didn’t like. I left a Peony, because I loved it, and the Rhododendrons, and the Lilies of the Valley, but this flora is scattered all over hell and gone and is not so much a “garden.” One year I actually tilled a patch and planted vegetables and herbs. The vegetables all sprouted and died (although the green peppers made a valiant effort) because the soil was still too hard and heavy, and there wasn’t enough sun. Most of the herbs still return each spring, which is great if I can find them – I am frequently seen on a July evening on my hands and knees in the “garden” pulling at green things, sniffing them, nibbling them, and deciding whether they are Oregano or Ragweed.
This year, I am going to try a moderate approach based on the fact that there is no sun, and that I clearly don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I am going to grow a small selection of things in large pots – green peppers, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce, herbs, things like that. I am going to plant them in the proper kind of soil in their pots, and I am going to move them during the day so that they get enough sun. It’s really no harder than walking the dogs, and if I’m careful not to put too much soil in a pot I should be able to move them as needed without having to buy some sort of decorative garden hand truck. This plan, of course, forecloses the possibility of root vegetables, which would have to be planted in pots the size of trash cans, or my tee pee of beans…although I could maybe have a little one of those, I guess. If I can do this, and end the season with something appealing and edible, then maybe next year I’ll be ready to make a real garden again…probably no Hollyhocks or heirloom roses, but something pretty, and home-y to keep my herbs and vegetables company. Then maybe I can get some chickens and a goat, and have fresh eggs and goat’s milk, and make yogurt and cheese…..