Tuesday, July 27, 2010



End of July in the garden-- every day brings new evidence of the earth’s generosity. I am so touched that plants and soil respond to what I do there-- the mulch, the half-baked weeding. Snow peas are yielding enough every day for delicious cocktail hour crudites. French radishes are coming in, and the purple beans will join them soon. Even the cantaloups, which huddled in their layer of leaf mold for weeks, looking stunned to find themselves in a New England mountain garden, have taken off. The tomatoes are growing (though not yet red), the cucumbers are responding to my efforts to train them up trellises, and the fennel is feathering out, gorgeously. Red currants are ready to pick.

What could be better than to go out into the garden barefoot and come back with most of dinner in your arms? I am awed every time it happens. It seems to be a collaboration after all between nature and bumbling Yours Truly.

But it’s the zucchini which push everything over the top.

I used to be unable to grow it, which puts me in a smallish club, I guess. Our last house was built on clay, in the shade. The zucchini would have just enough nutrients to leaf out, but it was our secret that I still had to slip over to farmers’ markets for the vegetables themselves.

Zucchini are heavy feeders; here they are flourishing, way too many plants of them, in my failed asparagus bed, triple dug with layers of manure, compost, and everything yummy for plants. Why should I be surprised, let alone resentful?

I have gone from queen of the garden to its slave. No evening meal passes without zucchini in some form: parmesan-crusted oven “fries”, zucchini pickle, the celestial tasting but strange looking slow cooked zucchini, and then zucchini-chocolate cake. To make matters worse, no one is happy to receive zucchini at this time of year. One’s generosity is received with a sigh, as the desperate hand-off it really is.

How quickly the scale tips from joy at all the bounty to feeling overwhelmed at having too much. I have to force myself to welcome the cooking chores my garden demands in return for its bounty. The necessity for canning and drying sessions is much more satisfying than say, meeting tax deadlines, because it is real. Things will rot if you don’t pick them, or spoil on your counter if you don’t do something clever with them.

It is paradise to pick your dinner minutes before cooking it. It feels like hell itself to be in a hot kitchen on a summer day, putting up 30 pints of anything. And yet, that is the small price the garden requires-- respect for your food, ingenuity and skill to transform or preserve it, gratitude.

In closing, a favorite quote from Irma S. Rombauer:

“It is a thrill to possess shelves well stocked with home-canned food. In fact you will find their inspection-- often surreptitious-- and the pleasure of serving the fruits of your labor comparable only to a clear conscience or a very becoming hat.”

----The Joy of Cooking, 1931

PS: If anyone wants a zucchini recipe, I’ll be testing them. Meanwhile, pick them while they’re still small.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

One Greenhouse Problem Solved

One Greenhouse Problem Solved

I know it’s obnoxious to whine about the brevity of our growing season, especially as the earth heats up. But it’s a fact of life up here that May can freeze new leaves on maples so they resemble wilted seaweed and September can bring frost just as you are picking your first marble sized tomatillo. So we are talking three months of more or less crop friendly weather. It’s perfectly true that if I stuck to the plants God meant me to grow, rhubarb and lichen, there would be no problem. However, I’m afraid gardening is about hope and promise, not about sticking to the rules. Even wise gardeners try to grow scrumptious plants from warmer zones in the mad hope that they harbor some wedge of tropical microclimate on their north-faced land.

There is also the issue of seed starting. Some people are consistently solicitous of their seedlings’s needs. They remember to water, they don’t leave the flat outside in the snowplow’s path. Alas, I am not one of those people. I’m very glad there is no DSS patrolling for plant neglect.

Obviously, what we need is a greenhouse. Actually, what we need more is heat in our own east wing, forget the plants. Any loose money will be going toward insulation.

I can’t recall where I read about the solution to these dilemmas, but it’s wonderful: mini greenhouses made from gallon plastic milk jugs.

Use the more translucent, rather than the opaque jug. Cut the jug midway up, around three sides, leaving one side as hinge. Poke some holes in the bottom for drainage. Add potting soil, seeds and water. Re-close the jug, taping the open sides closed with duct tape. This does not have to be a tight seal. Two pieces of tape will suffice. You just want to prevent the seeds from drying out. Leave the plastic lid off the top of the jug. Be sure to label your greenhouse with its contents. Water when you think of it.

Your greenhouse will retain moisture, endure temperature variations with grace, and produce seedlings reliably. When it’s time to harden the seedlings off, pull off the tape and leave the “roof” open, remembering to water more regularly. Transplant into your garden when ready. Gloat quietly. Pictures below.