A Surprising Summer Sabbatical

SAM_0420

Dahlia readying to bloom.

This spring of 2016 has been a little strange—and it’s not just the weather.

In the cold days of February I did not venture to the beautiful new Capital Roots Grow Center to dig through bins of donated seeds.

In March, I did not plan out sections for chard, arugula, carrots, blue borage—or any novel plants, either.

I did not go to the April workday at my little plot; in fact, I did not even pencil the date into my calendar.

This spring, after six years, I am taking a sabbatical from Community Gardening.

IMG_4809

My first community garden plot, in 2010. You can spy arugula, chives, tomato plants, butter crisp lettuce–and a hose–amongst the horrendous weeds. I had a lot to learn.

***

I call the time off gardening a sabbatical because, like a traditional academic sabbatical, this seventh season will concentrate on studied time outside of my usual setting. A pause enables me to focus on other things and will include a little required travel. Whenever I might return to community gardening, it will be with a refreshed perspective.

In particular, I am beginning a six-month Forest Therapy* certification in May. During the time I would have spent digging up my plot, fencing, planting and weeding, I’ll be reading about relationships between natural experiences and human health, learning our local ecosystems in more depth, taking a seven day intensive course, sitting under the forest canopy, and leading guided meditation walks.

Beforehand, I’ve started with a series of classes about wild edible plants. They are led by Dave Muska of Ondatra Adventures, and held up at Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center.

IMG_4770

For example, I now know that these trout lilies have edible leaves and bulbs, though proper plant identification and sustainable harvesting techniques are required before ingesting.

***

This summer I also want to finish dozens of pieces of writing about the garden, and about my life. In addition, I am wrestling with three book manuscripts stuck at various stages (hence the increasingly intermittent posting here on the blog). Finally, I anticipate moving into the world of the day-job very soon.

The richness of the outdoor life not only grounds me, it can distract as well. There is always more to do, more to experience.

Strange as it sounds to say, in order to focus on the beauty and meaning of the natural world, I have to decrease the amount of input. Or at least choose which forms I can take in right now.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

On the hill, a much more organized and bountiful garden, 2014.                                                                          (Still more weedy than I would prefer.) 

***

I have very mixed feelings about the sabbatical, like any choice to step away from a beloved activity.

Community gardening is part of how I have defined my summer life and myself, since I moved to upstate New York. It’s felt intrinsic to the new life I have created. My plan, therefore, is to pay attention and be open to how it feels to NOT work this garden.

I ask questions.

What emotions do I feel? Where do they come from?                                                                   What do I miss?
What do I NOT miss? (Aside from woodchucks.)
How do I get out in the dewy world of early morning sun, that feeds me so well?
How do I meet my body’s craving for hands and knees in soil?
What other repetitive jobs do I find meditative and soothing?

I sit with my thoughts, long and patiently. As I have learned to do with my writing–let them steep like tea, simmer like soup, rise like dough.

Then the meaning behind the meaning has a chance to show its shy self to me.

IMG_6733

One beautiful sweet pepper, ripened to red in its own good time.

***

Some questions we can all ponder:

What feeds you?

Which are the “bare minimum” self-care activities that you know you need?
What do you want to leave —and just be done with already?

What do you desire to take a sabbatical from?
What would you concentrate on if you did?

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

End of season plum tomatoes, ripening in the kitchen, 2015.

****

*Forest Therapy is a research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments. In Japan it is called “shinrin yoku,” which translates to “forest bathing.”  I will be leading some meditation walks, required for my training, in the summer and fall so if anyone is interested,  information will be available on my business blog. More information about Forest Therapy is at shinrin-yoku.org

Advertisements

The Summer Affair

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Purple bean blossom, with mature bean behind.

I had wanted more beauty in my life. Isn’t that often the way affairs go?

More specifically, I yearned for beautiful flowers in my garden. I craved a break from what sometimes felt like workaday vegetables and their attendant chores. I enjoyed the healthy produce but after four summers of effort, desired a relationship that was independent, required nothing past superficial attention, and gave me more than I gave it.

Later summer bounty.

Summer bounty, hard-earned: beans and carrots.

***

Back in April, from the bin of donated seeds at the community gardens office, a hand drawn packet from the company Renee’s Garden shone out at me. I’d heard of something called borage oil, which sounded medicinal and icky—like cod liver oil—but I didn’t know anything about borage flowers. The front read “Kitchen Herbs,” pictured five-petaled blossoms and promised, “pollinators love the flowers of this fast growing plant.”

The back panel assured that in addition to bees and ants, children adored blue borage and further, the blooms could be frozen into ice cubes or sugared as cake decorations. Traditional herbalists gushed that borage was thought to “lift the spirits and inspire courage.” Visions appeared in my head of feathery green shoots and midnight blue petals that skipped up and down on the slightest breeze.

When the sprouts came up, I fell instantly in love, in spite of their appearance not matching my fantasy.

Early buds of blue borage.

Early buds of blue borage.

No leggy stalks and stems–instead furry, silvery, thick-trunked bushes emerged. From somewhat more delicate branches, clusters of stems drooped. The flowers sparkled at the tips. Like Jack’s magical beans, more and more plants germinated and grew tall, taller. They crowded out of their designated plot and into the peas, the tomatoes, the carrots, the peppers.

Beauteous blue borage in full bloom.

Beauteous blue borage in full bloom.

Borage bloomed a lighter and yet more intense blue than I had imagined. Many individuals budded pink-blue, then deepened into a pale ultramarine. Once in a while a flower stayed vivid cotton candy color through maturity.

Blue borage with just the tips still pink.

Blue borage with just the tips still pink.

My eyes could not get enough of them.

Makes my heart ache.

Borage in the morning–

Borage in the morning.

–makes my heart ache and sing.

***

The best time was early, when dew still hung like drops of cool moisture on warm lips; early was when the light came from all angles. Before dawn, I would roll out of bed, slap a baseball cap on my flattened dirty hair and hurry on garbage-strewn sidewalks to unlock the garden gate.

Early sun on borage.

Early sun on borage.

Blue borage accepted me as I was. It patiently waited as I stumbled in, half awake. My own tendency to be thick-stalked and overly prolific was not important. I, in turn, accepted its prickles, which never worked under my skin like the hairs on cucumber vines.

Morning after morning, I slow danced with blue borage, marveled the way a new lover does, at its beauty in the light, its shy loveliness in shade. The color softened through petal edges, like a misty photograph. I melted at the sight of these sweet little flowers, stars happily star-gazing, in the dazzle of dawn.

Bee flirting with borage.

Flirting with borage.

The bees and the ants could visit, but these were my flowers.

***

Over time I discovered that to harvest borage, I didn’t have to pinch hard on the open flat flowers. If I waited just a bit longer for full ripeness, the petals would pull slightly away from the fuzzy sepal, like a forward fold in yoga. Then the blossoms could be teased off with gentle pointed fingers into my cupped palm.

Ready for harvest.

Ready for harvest.

On the seed packet, the flavor of borage was advertised as mild, like cucumber. It was a change from the peppery orange nasturtiums from personal gardens past, or the vibrant but grassy-tasting pink and white orchids on restaurant plates.

To me they were strangely reminiscent of the Catholic communion wafers of childhood. Those dry, pale, wheat colored rounds from Sunday Mass had barely a flavor at all. Yet borage was herb-crunchy too, the petals, intensely white center and black stamens, and all that aching blue-pinkness.

Exotic and yet familiar. I smiled at their oddness.

I nibbled borage as I weeded and harvested vegetables, and collected tiny floral gifts for later. They were snuck into salads, with their unapologetic blue, and yes, into ice cubes for sexy summer sangria.

Striking and delicate blue borage flowers.

Striking and delicate blue borage flowers in salad.

***

Half-way through July, my beloved bushes were trounced by a woodchuck. The pushy rodent sneered at my floppy fence and leapt it with ease. He burrowed and jumped and thumped onto my blue borage plants, beating them up, breaking their juicy stalks, crunch! on the way to strip the tricolor beans of their own deep purple beauty.

Willful woodchuck damage.

Willful woodchuck damage.

But borage would not disappoint me.

A week later, I found shoots coming up from the stomped stalks. Bunches of fuzzy leaves, short perhaps but strong, determined—courageous even.

Like a steady love, the plant grew up from the ground once again. Its resilient arms reached out for me and soon bristled with color.

New growth, after disaster.

New growth, after disaster.

By early September, fewer and fewer flowers nodded on the stems, until I went out of town and was surprised not to think about the borage while I was gone—or even when I came home. I’ll need to put the garden to bed this week, and I know that now, since the first frost, what is there will not resemble my summer infatuation. I already feel a tinge of sadness.

Is this the way things always end? I ask, and then answer: Of course. Annual flowers are always destined to live but a few short months.

In addition, I realize it wasn’t just a meaningless or superficial affair; instead, it was one of many gifts given to me, when I have paid attention and let myself fall in love with the natural world.

Winter approaches and along with it, the inside loves of my life. I must return to the hardy, four-season relationships that have patiently awaited me while I tarried outside.

Perhaps blue borage and I will dance again some future June.

Darkness falls, but the sun will return next summer.

Darkness falls, but the sun will return, next summer.

***For anyone in the New York Capital District, please come over to my business website for information about my first nature photography show, at the Bethlehem Public Library in Delmar NY, running for the month of December 2015.

Kale-A-Palooza

End of season bachelor buttons

End of season bachelor buttons

This week, I signed up for my fifth growing season at the Community Gardens, while almost two feet of February snow drifted down to cover the ground.

But back in mid-November, there was that look of fall about the garden. A slight wind tripped brown leaves up the hill behind us; in the other plots, with corn stalks and fencing gone, minimal crops remained: brussels sprouts and fountains of purple, Russian, and curly kale.

In my own stripped plot, where we had gone to put the plants to bed, where we expected only the dead ends of things?

Surprise! Lacinato kale. Lots of it.

Not huge forests of kale, like that which flourished for my more accomplished gardening-neighbors, palm fronds off tall woody stems. But mine was beauteous, dark green and standing proud, though short in stature. A miniature field of somewhat miniature lacinato kale.

Broccoli, presumed spent, had also revived while I wasn’t looking, and grown several small wonderful heads. In addition, the chard had sprung up again. Like those weeds we had anticipated.

Beautiful broccoli.

Bounteous broccoli.

The garden mate was a little grumpy and tired in the November cold, but my joy over un-anticipated produce, in addition to the afternoon sunshine, soon made him grin.

We tugged up the ugly but functional orange fencing, along with the dirt that matted it down. Splattering soil across our faces made the work curse-worthy, and we did: splatter and then curse. Again and again. We yanked out the wilted but sturdy stalks of cosmos and bachelor buttons, noted that some purple alyssum still colored the ground, and used the picnic table to lay out fencing and roll up, roll up, roll up.

The sun went behind clouds just as the last bundle of fencing went into the shed; we gathered the reusable plant markers and piled up the rocks and bricks that had pinned black weed-suppressing fabric between the rows.

I had grand plans for follow-up soil amendment, garlic planting, and weed abatement. They didn’t happen. The sun stayed behind the clouds and within a few days, it dropped well below freezing.

At the end of my fourth year, I’d gotten good at fencing and set up, more-regular weeding and harvesting—but the end of season jobs? Like the rest of my life—still working on it.

Late afternoon sun on lacinato kale.

Late afternoon sun on a floral arrangement of  lacinato kale.

The overflowing harvest basket sat in my dining room for a few days before I bundled the huge haul into the fridge. Bunches and bunches of kale and chard were washed then stir fried lightly or blanched, and packed into freezer bags. The first one came out at Thanksgiving when my daughter and I mixed some chard and kale to make her favorite “spinach” au gratin.

Thanksgiving with kale au gratin in the background.

Thanksgiving’s gravy-splashed corn bread with kale au gratin in the background.

After her too-short visit, a piece of bad news slammed into my life and sank me in a pool of old grief, where I sat like a drowned stone. None of the activities that had appealed just hours before seemed worthwhile. Soft sleepiness from holiday exhaustion along with that day’s prospect of a lovely nap all dribbled away.

What To Do. Or Not Do. Radio? TV? No distractions promised help.

I chose instead to consider the frozen leftovers from Thanksgiving. I pulled out broth, simmered carefully from the carcass of the very expensive, very local, very delicious turkey (roasted with an onion inside and basted every thirty minutes for five hours), a good portion of which had been devoured with that yummy kale au gratin, and also cranberry orange relish, sour cream mashed potatoes and veggie-studded cornbread stuffing.

To the broth I added some trimmed cauliflower previously destined for curry. Then little nubs of carrots from my garden, also trimmed carefully.

Turkey, kale, carrot, cauliflower soup.

Turkey, kale, carrot, celery, cauliflower soup, after it was packed up for the fridge.

As the soup began to bubble gently, so did the thoughts:
You grew this. You harvested and washed it. You made this.

….You can make things again!

Next I added an onion, and diced the package of celery left over when multiple people provided it for the Thanksgiving stuffing.

Finally, lacinato kale, again, that unexpected end of season harvest, when I thought it was all gone and there was a trash bag full, handful after handful harvested just before a hard, hard freeze.

Turkey, kale, onion, garlic soup.

Even later–January’s turkey, kale, onion, garlic soup, whisked with steamed winter squash, and a few white beans thrown in.

You grew this; you cared for it, just like your life.

You can come back again, regardless of setbacks. You have the ingredients.

Your life is rich, with not only your own garden’s production, but other people’s plenty. Look in your cabinets and freezer: basil and apples and sage and parsley, peaches and rhubarb and collard greens, all gifted to you.

There is enough. More than enough.

Along with some surprises.

Remember that.

***

SPINACH AU GRATIN, adapted from Makeover Spinach Gratin at Skinnytaste.com

Preheat the oven to 425°. Sauté until translucent 1 cup finely chopped onion, in 2-3 TB butter, light butter or margarine. Mix in 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg and cook for 2 minutes, stirring. Add 3 cups milk and cook until thickened, 5 to 7 minutes.

Defrost three pounds of frozen chopped spinach–or a mix of spinach, chard, kale or other chopped mild greens. More is possible, too! Squeeze out as much moisture as possible (you can save for cooking soup later if you want) and mix it into the onion roux.  Then stir in 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, salt, and freshly ground pepper to taste. Put in large baking pan and top with  1/4 cup Parmesan cheese and 1/2 cup shredded Swiss Gruyere cheese.  Bake for 20 minutes until hot and bubbly. Serve hot. Makes a little over 6 1/2 cups–or more if you are generous with your greens!

Open to Change: Tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes spill over the counter top.

Cherry tomatoes (and one teeny carrot) spill over the counter top into late summer sun.

As a small child, I hated tomatoes in any form. I particularly remember hating spaghetti sauce; it seemed so sour, so acidic, stinging my lips and hurting my stomach. Like many green vegetables at that time, tomatoes also made me gag.

In one of the few food compromises I recall from childhood, my mother made a separate dish for me when spaghetti was served: Buttered Noodles. Soft, squishy, chewy, buttery, salty, peppery, heaping bowls of elbows; it was delightful to surreptitiously poke my tongue into one end of a noodle, split the bent tube and then stick that noodle-covered tongue-tip out at the others around the dinner table.  When finished playing, I could then chew it, and slurp up a few more, since butter didn’t show on my face like splashed tomato sauce might have–all of this presuming no grownups were around.

Comforting and simple, I loved buttered noodles’ starchy blandness–though I didn’t consider them bland;  I considered them delicious beyond words.

**

Then one evening I bravely tested a worm of vermicelli with tomato sauce and my head jerked up, “What?! You’ve been keeping this from me? I LOVE spaghetti with sauce!” My mother, I am sure, rolled her eyes. This particular jarred sauce was savory and didn’t make me feel icky at all. So I left the buttered noodles of childhood behind as my tastes matured.

But I still didn’t like all tomatoes, just spaghetti sauce. No fresh ones, too watery, and my mother agreed–there is no tomato like a New Jersey farm tomato; having none of those available in our Midwestern kitchen, she didn’t press the issue. As a teenager, I tried small quantities of chopped tomatoes on Mexican food, to cut the heat. Then thin slivers of tomato on a burger, or in a salad.  Over time I diversified, and now even love thicker sliced tomato with fresh mozzarella and basil leaves. Every once in a while I get that childhood gag reflex, but not very often.

Tomatoes in salad with carrot, cucumber, sunflower shoots.

Tomatoes in salad with carrot, cucumber, sunflower shoots and bacon.

I changed my mind, I grew my tastes. I didn’t have to force liking tomatoes either–my desire for them came on my own terms, without someone else’s requirements.

Along with tomatoes, I now eat all kinds of green vegetables–they are some of my favorite foods! and in another area, I have expanded past my color palette of jewel-like purple and blue to appreciate earth tones, browns and even oranges. (My kitchen is painted a dull historical green and accented with red, of all colors, with mud- and rust-colored rugs.)

Preferences shift, and I want to be open to that–not too rigid, in food and color choices, or relationships, or beliefs about the world. “Curious” is the word they use in Kripalu yoga.

As I increase my practice in preparation for Yoga School, I learn to be curious as I study the edge of my likes and limits. Ready to laugh at myself and my foibles.  Maybe I will grow to love huge dripping slices of tomato raw in my mouth–maybe I will grow to love the burning ache in my hip during Pigeon Pose or every damned time I lose my balance in Tree Pose.  Who knows?

Frozen tomatoes from the garden--part of the clearing out cooking!

Frozen tomatoes from the garden–part of the clearing out cooking!

….So all that serves as an introduction:  I used up some tomatoes the past couple weeks.

I’m pretty exhausted from weight lifting, walking in the snowstorm that arrived yesterday, and Yoga Flow sessions, so I will share the photos and leave references if you Gentle Readers desire the recipes. Every one of them used tomatoes.

Piles of vegetables, including frozen tomatoes, crowd the counter.

Piles of vegetables, including frozen tomatoes, crowd the butcher block table.

Cabbage and sweet potatoes formed the basis of Cape Verde Vegetable Soup.

Cape Verde Vegetable Soup, from Sundays at the Moosewood, published by The Moosewood Collective.

Cape Verde Vegetable Soup, from Sundays at the Moosewood, published by The Moosewood Collective.

The carrots and peppers filled out vegetarian chili.

Vegetarian chili, from The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen.

Vegetarian chili, from The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen.

My favorite adapted recipe, Green Chili and Corn soup, used tough late summer Community Garden corn softened by the freezing process, and more black beans.

Highly adapted version of Crema de Elote Soup (no cheese, no milk, waaay more green chilies) from Sundays at the Moosewood.

Highly adapted version of Crema de Elote Soup (no cheese, no milk, no potatoes, plus black beans and waaay more green chilies than originally called for) from Sundays at the Moosewood.

Plenty of tomato based soups and chilies to go around this frozen month of February–though I think I’ll make some buttered noodles, very soon.

I hated tomatoes and then I loved them, but only in some forms. What does that say about changing your mind? Being open? What happens when you don’t force things?

To Plan a Garden, And a Life

Finger Lakes vineyard, with Seneca Lake steaming on a 5 degree below zero morning.

Finger Lakes vineyard, with Seneca Lake steaming on a 5 degree below zero morning.

It flew in through my postal slot this week, a stiff green mailer I’ve received twice before: Continuing Gardener Sign-ups. It means that in February, I’ll toddle down to the public library, pay my small fee, re-read the rules, and confirm my plot.  Ok, so I knew the mailer was coming since I am a Garden Coordinator, but it’s satisfying to jot the date on the calendar anyway, marking the beginning of my fourth growing season with the Capital District Community Gardens.

We are in the midst of deep winter here in upstate New York; when it is absolutely necessary to wear gloves the minute you step out of doors or else risk wind-burned and skin-split fingers; when billowing road salt coats our cars and our street and our pants when we lean over those cars, even flies into our mouths if we are thoughtless enough to open them before tossing ourselves shivering back into our homes.

The standard picture of Gardener Dreaming About Spring is someone escaping that salty, snowy weather, cardigan-wrapped and hugged by an overstuffed recliner. The silhouetted figure, plush-slippered, pores over seed catalogs by a roaring fire, sipping hot chocolate or spiked cider as the wind screams outdoors.

I’m not exactly like that. Don’t own a recliner, fireplace, or seed catalogs, and slippers make my feet sweat. I clomp around the apartment in old socks and clogs and mostly I’ve used the seeds that are donated to the Community Gardens office or buy plants when the mood strikes me or they are on sale during the growing season.

However, this year I’ve been thinking hard about my planting choices. For example,  cherry tomatoes dominated my rows in the past–round red, little snips of yellow, some shaped like mini-butternut squash. I kept them because they volunteered from the first summer my garden was planted for me while I was recovering from surgery.

Now I think I want plum tomatoes instead.

The carrots were such a roaring success last summer, those tasty sweet morsels; if started early enough, multiple harvests would be possible.

I desire green beans, but don’t want to mess with the strings. Maybe I’ll grow lacinato kale along with my rainbow chard. And broccoli-one of my fellow gardeners shared broccoli with me, I could do that! I love broccoli. Perhaps I’ll plant the whole damn plot in flowers to cut for my dining table–then again, zucchini are not only traditional but useful.

I am practicing making choices, not just doing what I did before, not doing what is merely expected.

Last summer's zucchini shredded...

Last summer’s zucchini shredded…

...to make chocolate zucchini cake!

…to make chocolate zucchini cake!

Another envelope arrived this week, not through the mail slot but in my email queue (the way of so much these days), announcing my acceptance to a yoga teacher training program. Another spring planting to look forward to, drowse with by the metaphorical fire–though a more active drowsing, as my challenge now is not only to plan but to become physically stronger and more disciplined in my yoga, before I arrive mid-April. I also must battle my demons of self-doubt, in order for the A+ student to go back to school in a new and different way.

Like the garden, what do I plant?  What do I discard because it doesn’t work for me? How can I be publicly not-perfect, in a setting (learning) where I was so driven before? The plan: to be relaxed like I am about my garden plot: not the best and not neglectful, something in-between.

I’m going in as probably the worst student in Sanskrit names for poses, as well as a mediocre memorizer of everything else, with a life-battered body that hasn’t been doing yoga for very long. But my true subject matter will be one of the themes of Kripalu yoga: compassion. I will learn compassion toward myself.

When I am “not successful” at a particular physical or mental task, I will attempt to be successful at compassion for myself, and gentle even in discovering my lack of compassion. This I can do, and it is all I need to bring.

I vow to break out of my old gardener habits and make new ones, different ones, not sure what the harvest will be, but trusting it will be–something–something wonderful. Storms will come, and drought, and interruptions by the personal and political and societal–and the skills I’ve acquired in the garden will get me through what I’m calling “sleep-away camp” at Kripalu.

Here at the end of January I open the seed catalog of my life, once again dreaming the future into being.

Seneca Lake warmed by the sun, readying for the end of winter, and then spring!

Seneca Lake warmed by the sun, readying for the rest of winter, and then spring! Who knows what transformed things will come out of this ground?

Carrots and Arugula and Soups, Oh My! Final Harvest in My Community Garden Plot

Late season carrots in all their glory

Eons ago, in May, I planted the garden. June, July and August I took pictures of sunny chard and glorious basil, radishes plumping and spiders scurrying. Early last week I tugged water- and wind-proof pants over my leggings and layered fleece under a nylon jacket, in order to brave 35 degree November weather.  The newly arrived cold had trapped me for several days shivering in my apartment and in my mind: Go to the garden? Are you nuts?

But that morning I warmed myself with yoga, breathed through anxiety about lists of other things to do, and gathered my tools, determined to salvage all the veggies before the hard freeze predicted to come after nightfall. Perhaps the produce could have survived outdoors for a week or two more, but I felt ready to put the garden to bed, which starts with the final harvest.

CARROTS GALORE.

My garden-mate and I had planted a second round of carrots in September and when I got to the garden, it was obvious where the plants had been thinned since then, and where they hadn’t been. One carrot in its heft resembled a “regular” vegetable from the grocery store and even required a spade–albeit a small one–to dig it out.

The rest were a little stunted, plump tops peeking out, but not going much further than a few inches into the ground, often radish-round in shape. Over and over again, in un-thinned bunches, teeny, dollhouse versions of carrots emerged with a yank. They were pulled and bagged and hauled back to the apartment; later soaked in the sink, rinsed, soaked again with a little soap, then scrubbed individually until the dirt was non-existent, and rinsed once again. My reasoning for saving even the smallest ones: the cute lil’ nubbins would be sweet, even the tiny bit that only front teeth would be able to nibble.

The minuscule seeds and the dirt and the rain and sun made these bright orangey treats and who was I to judge what was a big enough carrot to eat?

Carrots crowd the countertop

ARUGULA.

All summer my garden-mate kept trying to get rid of my arugula.  I wasn’t very good at keeping it trimmed, and he, not a big salad eater, kept snorting: What is this oversized dandelion? then, as it took over more garden space, Isn’t it time to pull this big ol’ weed? and Hmm, awfully bushy isn’t it?

Watch it, buddy! I’d retort. This is an heirloom variety of arugula! and I can harvest more later; finally, Listen, they will re-seed for next year if I leave them. 

On harvest morning I tasted small new leaves hidden near the ground and pulled big rambles of vines. Yes, Garden-Mate, they were ugly and unwieldy, half-dry and tumbleweed-like, but still…they had grown new baby greens!

I stuffed them in a huge sack and after the carrots were cleaned and drying on the countertop, I plunked down on my kitchen floor listening to the radio and pulled off these little slips, wafer-thin bits of spicy green, washed them and washed them and later mixed them with pea-shoots from the farmers’ market.

I finally did what I said I’d do–use some of that late-season arugula–and that felt good. Next year I will tend them better.

CONTINUING STORY OF THE WHITE CLOUD CAULIFLOWER.

Cauliflower Curry

Way back when I harvested the sole surviving cauliflower, I debated what to do with it. It sat in a bag on the bottom shelf of the fridge for a long time.

I first learned to enjoy cauliflower in yellow curries and so after about a month, I adapted a curried cauliflower recipe (thank you Moosewood once again!), using whole cumin and coriander seeds.

I only had red onions in the house–this is called making-do–and so pinky purple accented the greener than usual cauliflower. A quick raita (yogurt dip with cucumber bits) accompanied the dish, along with a selection of raisins, unsalted cashews, salted peanuts, and coconut shreds.

Eating the concoction, I remembered: Whole is a different experience from powdered spice. Crunching the ribbed and rounded seeds in your mouth, the semi-bitter, aromatic flavor bursts out as they are ground at the moment instead of beforehand. A friend commented that I exuded cumin for a day or two. Perhaps too liberal a hand with those yummy little seeds? I couldn’t help myself–it had been too long since I’d played with whole spices.The cauliflower came to an excellent end.

GARDEN CLEAN-UP SOUP.

Chard and corn swim with white beans in Garden Clean-up Soup

Every time a piece of meat with bone is roasted or baked in my house, I make my own stock; just cook the carcass in fresh water, put in all the scrapin’s of marinating-oil and spices and pan juices, simmer with salt, fresh ground pepper, chopped onion and bits of other veggies lying about, and then strain.  Here I used just such a chicken broth, garden corn and the red chard, along with canned white beans.

At the same time I made the garden veggie soup, I made vichyssoise; its more pedestrian name: leek and potato soup. More making-do: the glass milk jar was almost empty, so I added the last of my half-and-half for tea, to the potatoes and butter and leeks chopped up and sautéed with regular onion, then blenderized to pale yellow smoothness.

In the spirit of play, I created a third soup by mixing the two–some veggie bean soup into vichyssoise, and voila! a creamy textured soup, ingredients suspended in a completely different way from clear broth.

The fridge and freezer were filled, dirty stockpots and cutting boards stacked up for cleaning.

Vichyssoise plus Garden Clean-Up Soup

Tomorrow I go back to the garden to truly put it to bed: clear out dead plants, mulch the soil, and take down the protective fencing. As the snow and wind blow, the woodchucks will dream their sweet overwintering dreams about spring–as will I.

But when I dig through the freezer during December and January, soups from the summer harvest will turn up; in February and March, behind chocolates hidden for self-protection, frozen beans and chard will materialize.  My own dried parsley and dill have taken their places in the cupboard next to cinnamon and nutmeg from far away lands.

Is there deep inner meaning here? Revelation?

Maybe just satisfaction, living in the work of the day.

Orange and red nasturtiums bloomed summer into fall.

Woodchucks (Actual and Otherwise), Part I: Woodchucks Actual

Our community garden sits on a hill, while another heavily wooded hill continues the rise behind us eastward, toward Vermont.  This picturesque setting quietly belies the insidious population (if not hundreds, at least dozens) of woodchucks. Also known as groundhogs, these waddling, middleweight rodents burrow masterfully. They joyfully excavate their little homes and then tenaciously tunnel their way right under any and all barriers to early spring vegetation. Which, while waiting for the wild plants to sprout, includes a delicious twenty-item salad bar conveniently located right in their own neighborhood, a snacking opportunity otherwise known as my community garden.

For three summers I have battled woodchucks. “Battle” is not the most accurate word, since I tend toward nonviolence—so I haven’t engaged in hand-to-claw combat, or even met them up close–but fear not, their presence is clear.

My plot adjoins the first groundhog-hole-under-the-fence that the locals dug my beginning year, when the voracious critters rapidly decimated my early-planted oak leaf and bibb lettuces.

Even as I joked with my fellow gardeners when we discovered the damage, I was heartbroken, and dispirited.  Emails flew back and forth about how difficult these invaders are:

“Woodchucks?—might as well give up now.”

“J only plants corn and tomatoes, ‘cuz groundhogs don’t like ‘em.”

“They WILL destroy your plants, and are impossible to get rid of.”

I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Would this Community Garden thing really be worth it?

At some point that initial summer the gardeners rallied and plugged the holes, making the woodchucks reroute their speedy access over and over again; some folks fenced their individual sections, though I didn’t get quite that far.  Finally, the groundhogs found enough tasty morsels outside of our chain link, and we breathed easier.

Last year, my second year, I planted spring greens and then had to go out of town; I returned to nibbled-away spinach and the weeds that replaced it—It’s too late, anything I do will be destroyed; these nuisances are too numerous to deal with… If I weed now, isn’t that just a big “Come munch me” sign to the woodchucks?  Finally, I volunteered to be the Garden Coordinator and now have the worst looking plot in the place!

I became very sporadic in my garden visits.

But one day I discovered that later seeds, half-heartedly tossed into the soil, had sprouted into sturdy, sprawling, bristle-legged plants, some with orange blossoms promising vegetables to come. The arugula I had allowed to overtake my lettuces seemed to have repulsed the woodchucks, as tender pale frisee revealed itself, barely alive under the weight of now-overly-spicy leaves.

That second year I harvested more salad than the first, and went on to reap more than enough cherry tomatoes to pop into salads and put up for the winter. My belief in Community Gardening was strengthened.

With memories of the previous summer’s bounty dancing in my head, this year I started in promptly on planting.

During the first official workday in April, while I coordinated Perimeter Litter Cleanup and Getting To Know Your Weed-Wacker sessions, my newly recruited garden-mate cleared weeds in our plot; then I joined him to add the peat and compost, form mounds, plant seeds in double rows, and even put in a row of little cauliflower seedlings, carefully selected from the store for healthy stalks and lack of yellow leaves and well-developed but not overgrown root systems.

I came back two days later and saw the plants chomped down to the ground, just one half-eaten cauliflower leaf to identify what had been there. Once again I felt discouragement in my gut as I surveyed the other, untouched-as-yet plots, and sighed.

So, you thought perhaps the woodchucks weren’t around yet this spring? Or that they’d become stupid over the winter? Well, wrong on both counts!

After a phone consultation and determined trip to the hardware store, my garden-partner and I returned to erect an orange plastic fence around our plot, digging slit trenches to bury the bottom edge underground. We sweated, we dug, and rather like Bill Murray in Caddyshack, we cursed the little buggers while giggling at our own nefarious devices.

We still worried they’d get in—one vision involved finding woodchucks on their backs crunching carrots like babies sucking bottles; instead on the next few visits, we found the protected plot lavish with young basil and parsley, nasturtiums and acorn squash, and even volunteer tomato plants sprouting up!

As May turned into June and then July, the whole garden community worked to block the outer fence holes, continuously looking for new holes and filling them. Emails chimed in, this time encouraging each other:

“S has extra fencing if anyone needs it.”

“We just have to wait them out, til the hillside plants give them enough to eat.”

“Stick your weeds into containers with some water and let them rot; then pour the decaying smelly stuff all along the fence-line.”(That one was fun.)

The survivor from that initial vegetable holocaust come back from its gnawed state to inch by inch grow some stunted leaves, and then larger ones, and it finally produced a single creamy-bumpy head of cauliflower–which I harvested this third week of August.

the “White Cloud” Cauliflower that pulled through…

Yes, it’s beautiful.

But I have received more out of interactions with woodchucks than just, well, the skills of dealing with insistently burrowing rodents.

More on that, next week.