The little society, one and all, entered into this laudable design; and set themselves to exert their different talents. The little piece of ground yielded them a plentiful crop. Cunegund indeed was very ugly, but she became an excellent hand at pastrywork; Pacquette embroidered; the old woman had the care of the linen. There was none, down to Brother Giroflée, but did some service; he was a very good carpenter, and became an honest man. Pangloss used now and then to say to Candide, “There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not travelled over America on foot; had you not run the baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.” “Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate of our garden.” -Voltaire (Candide)
A long, long time ago, as valedictorian of a tiny class of 105 students, I gave a speech that ended, as all specials inevitably do, with a flourish–in this case, a paraphrased quote from Voltaire’s Candide: that our mission, as graduates, was to “cultivate our gardens.” Never mind that I didn’t particularly care for Candide, nor could I be certain that I understood what Voltaire was even suggesting, but something about the quote, at least to me, seemed right for the stage of life we suddenly found ourselves in. I don’t know that this choice of quote won me any brownie points with my fellow graduates (the salutatorian had quoted a song by a fellow graduate, the prom king and lead singer of a local popular band), but I couldn’t help but think of it as I prepared to write this post.
Never mind the fact that I first drafted the opening to this post in early June, on the eve of this blog’s sixth birthday (!), and that a thousand things–a wedding, a honeymoon, a homecoming, more meetings of the supper club–have happened since then. And let’s also ignore the small matter that the sixth year of the blog was not its best, as it fell to the wayside in the face of my transition into a very new life. While I’m a little sorry that this post will not include a recipe (it had become somewhat dated in its choice of recipe), I stand by my conviction that Candide and I must have our moment and, more importantly, that I can easily make recipe amends with the next post.
The Greek and I have now been in Delaware for almost exactly one year. Not only does this baffle me (this long? already?), but I also realized lately that I’ve started to feel settled here, joyful even, like I captured a little bit of the Del-mar-va-lous spirit. It may be that it’s just a byproduct of the season (who, after all, doesn’t feel happy when the sun is shining?) or my discovery of a routine (not to mention the omnipresence of crab cakes), but I take a lot of pleasure in the sudden busy-ness of things, the proximity to family and friends and the many charms of the east coast spring and summer: tangy rhubarb, peaches–good, juicy peaches and lots of them–sweet Delaware-grown corn, Brandywine tomatoes…and my own little garden, humble though it is.
Although humble and largely in pots, this garden has taken an extraordinary amount of my time and energy, both mental and physical, since I first planted it back in April and May. I have worried over this garden and faced off with ants for it; I have been bitten by mosquitoes while watering my many pots; I have been stung by the prickles on radish greens and I have gotten more dirt under my fingernails in one summer than I have in my while life. But, no matter what, this little garden has made me ridiculously happy. Do I sound like a modern (pseudo-farmer/hipsterish) cliche? Maybe. Do I care? Not particularly. Why? Because there is such pleasure in working with your hands and leaving the intellectual/overthinking side of things behind. There is a ridiculous amount of excitement in seeing something flower when you have given up hope; every morning contains some new surprise: the appearance of a blossom, the reddening of a tomato, an unexpected insect hiding amongst the leaves. I have waited for at least 3-4 years to have something resembling a garden and I can’t help but relish every moment, even if some of my experiments have been successful, while others have failed. Let me walk you through and impart some of my hard-earned wisdom, as well as mention my moments of sheer dumb luck.
Alpine (aka Pineapple) Strawberries: Though they flowered and I was oh so optimistic that they would bear fruit, we came back from Greece only to discover that the plant had withered. In hindsight, it was a mistake to wait to plant them until late April. Or maybe this year the weather patterns simply weren’t right. In any case, I am more determined than ever to figure out a path to strawberry success.
Carrots, Onions and Basil: I will admit to being a somewhat whimsical gardener, rather than an entirely practical one. I was so excited about planting rainbow carrots that I really didn’t consider that they would need to be planted in a very large pot (or, as my grandma keeps telling me, “in the yard.”) to grow into large carrots; regardless, I got some baby carrots, enough to use in an Ottolenghi recipe last week. The same whimsical spirit can be said to apply to the tiny pot in which I grew my (baby) onions and in which I planted the basil I bought at the farmers’ market when it seemed that mine would never grow. Even if small, the onions offer a steady supply of chives, and it turns out that my basil did grow (see photo below) and, as it was in a large pot, it came to dwarf the farmers’ market basil. Now I am preparing to make and freeze all the pesto we could ever want in the dead of winter.
French Breakfast Radishes: After a failed spring/summer experiment with watermelon radishes (it was too early; clearly, I am also an impatient gardener), I decided to plant a few rows of French Breakfast radishes. Despite the advice on the back of the packet to place the seeds in the soil at a depth of 1″, I followed the advice of an old article in the New York Times that suggested planting the seeds deeply and to monitor the soil temperature; this led to a feast of radishes, both perfectly round and plenty peppery. In fact, I had never quite realized how the temperature could impact the taste of a radish and its greens*; the hot sun and steamy days have resulted in radishes that practically sizzle on the tongue.
*This knowledge also applies to arugula, which, though typically considered a fall/winter crop, ended up being in my spring/summer garden. Naturally piquant, arugula doesn’t need the extra heat; summer growers of the green beware.
Note to Owners of Rambunctious Beagles: If you would like to garden in pots, remain sane and sleep later than 6:45/7 a.m. on weekdays and weekends, do not allow your beagle to see you emptying the excess water in your plant saucers, as the dog might get it into his/her head that this is a great and wonderful game that must be repeated every day of your lives.
Spinach, Marjoram and Dill: A new plant to me, my spinach initially flourished in late May; I was surprised to see how, although at first spindly, the spinach rounded out. Not understanding that it wouldn’t grow (again in a pot on the smaller side) to a very tall height, I left it perfectly edible greens in the pot before we left on our trip. When I returned, it had reached the heights I had hoped for, but it had also bolted, leaving me with nothing to eat. I’m again experimenting with spinach, this time the baby variety, and in much larger pots, so, by early to mid-September, the spinach experiment should have succeeded.
For the most part, I have had a lot of luck with herbs this summer; the garden teems with flavors that make most meals just a little bit better, both by adding flavor and color to the plate. My marjoram, a real treat since it is a good substitute for Greek oregano and a constant in Italian cooking, is still going strong, while my dill, probably because of the heat (there is a reason that dill is Russia’s favorite herb), bolted. The good news is that, like chive blossoms and the flowers on basil, dill flowers are edible; they also, surprisingly or unsurprisingly, taste just like dill.
Rosemary and Cilantro: Though it feels a little bit like cheating, I will confess to having bought a small rosemary plant at the farm we get our CSA box from at the beginning of spring. But, as I have a soft spot for rosemary, I couldn’t resist; sometimes the path of least resistance (and effort) is simply the way to go. The cilantro, however, I planted from seed and, much to my amazement–mainly because I never had luck with cilantro in the sunny windows in my apartment in Berkeley–grew both quickly and thickly. While I know that one is supposed to thin out plants to make them healthy, I was so impressed and excited by the volume of cilantro that I couldn’t bring myself to do it. When we returned from Greece, the cilantro, like the spinach and the dill, had bolted, but unlike these plants, I was able to salvage the seeds as they dried out: firstly, by burying a few of them in the dirt and essentially replanting cilantro and, secondly, by removing each and every seed and continuing to dry them out in the oven. The majority of these seeds made it into the rose petal harissa a few weeks ago. As I told the Greek, he may say I’m a bit of a spendthrift, but the truth is I’m also the most thrifty of wives. In the great scheme of things, everything, from cilantro to the way a lady runs her household, balances itself.
Green Beans: One of the biggest disappointments that followed my discovery of purple green beans was that, once cooked, they would be transformed into your average, run-of-the-mill–that is green–green beans. That said, I still can’t resist growing them, if only for the color it brings to the otherwise overwhelmingly green landscape. Despite the sunshine Delaware bestows on them, my beans, barely a foot tall, have shown themselves not to be the stuff of fairy tales, even if they have borne fruit. Yes, fruit. It continues to astound me, but green beans, as they grow from flowers (and quite pretty ones, too), are technically a fruit, even if they most often make it onto our plates as a vegetable side.
Swiss Chard and Sun Sugar Tomatoes: I have read that tomatoes and brassicas are not supposed to be planted next to each other, but I haven’t personally experienced their incompatibility. In fact, though my chard and my golden sun sugar tomatoes live in the same pot, both have done tremendously well. The chard is tall and leafy, with stalks that are fairly thin; if I had to classify what I have grown, I would probably call it “baby” chard, rather than the bona fide and thick-stemmed Swiss variety, especially since it is tender enough to make an appearance in the salad bowl. As for my tomatoes, they were slow to start, but are now abundant and fragrant; their skin, however, is a little on the tough side, which my grandfather says is because their soil is too dry. I will admit that it can be hard to keep up with the demands of these plants, particularly during a heatwave. Lately, almost everything, from the people to the plants, but never the endlessly energetic beagle, have been looking more than a little droopy.
Peppers: When I was in New Mexico last summer (a post that still deserves to be and will be written), I bought a tiny package of pepper seeds, fantasizing about having the flavors of New Mexico right in my backyard. When I first planted these seeds in late May, I kept going outside each morning looking for tiny green shoots to be pushing through the dirt, but each morning there was nothing. As with most of our plants (and perhaps the result of a particularly chilly and dark spring), it wasn’t until we came back from Greece in early July that the peppers actually looked promising. If you’ve never seen them before, they have the loveliest white flowers, which sadly shrivel up as the peppers (again, fruit!) start to grow.
It was in the peppers that I one day saw a little praying mantis, who appeared to have taken refuge there. While my first instinct was to jump back in horror (they can, to my credit, look a little creepy) and maybe to flick it away, the Greek said no, to leave it alone (our constant debate when it comes when it comes to human-insect relations). I almost didn’t listen, but I’m glad I did. I researched the role praying mantises play in gardens and, apparently, they will save your plants from leaf-munching beetles and aphids (my sworn enemy!), but sadly won’t discriminate when a honeybee or butterfly makes its way into your garden.
Squash (Zucchini and Delicata): The hardest lesson I’ve learned this year–and this is probably the mistake of many novice gardeners–is not to underestimate the growing power of squash. What initially seemed a reasonable decision (planting 6 Delicata squash seeds) has turned into a miniature jungle in the front yard. This small patch was once the home of a flowering rosebush, purple pansies and lilacs, but, in the new world of my small garden, squash was more than happy to play the part of Manifest-Destiny spouting Americans. It is everywhere, and, by everywhere, I mean creeping up the house and following the path of the driveway. I must confess that, as a lover of Delicata squash, I am not overly disappointed, though I suspect I will soon be gifting my neighbors and friends with all the squash they may ever want to eat. I can no longer even imagine what the front yard will look like in the post-squash phase.
Another lesson I learned, and also the hard way, was that you just don’t reach into the leaves of a squash plant to pluck away its fruit; it may not happen to everybody, but both the Greek and I both get mild cases of garden rash (aka contact dermatitis) when we attempt this. It’s much safer to protect yourself from the mildly prickly leaves. Who knew that gardening could be somewhat hazardous?
The few hazards aside, I think this is honestly one of the best ways to spend the summer: in anticipation of all that could be; in awe as things spring up and transform before your eyes. Maybe it is work, but work of the most pleasurable kind.