Sunday, August 12, 2012

Reflections of a First Time Kitchen Gardener

I remember the excitement of planting and harvesting string beans, chives and tomatoes as a child.   My favorite was the chives.  I’d snip them with a small scissor, take them to the kitchen, and my Mom would mix them into cream cheese sandwiches and scrambled eggs.

Yet, when I grew up and bought my own home, somehow, that nurturing gene seemed to recede.   I would attempt to garden with disastrous results.   My sunflowers were only two feet tall, the clematis never took, and the daffodils mysteriously vanished after one season.   Forget a “green thumb.”  Mine was black and blue.  

As I increased my culinary skills, I coveted a vegetable garden, but I was decidedly gun shy.   With a track record of flowers that withered, any attempt at vegetables was a clear path to starvation.  So I chose the next best alternative.  I outsourced.

For five seasons now, I’ve reaped the incredible harvest of community-sponsored agriculture.   I trust my farmers Dan Holmes and Caroline Fanning implicitly and I know there will always be food on my table, despite the unpredictability of Mother Nature.   But, after participating in seeding and harvesting at Restoration Farm for some years now, I begin to think that perhaps I’ve learned just enough to be dangerous.  While I would never forsake Restoration Farm, I might attempt a small kitchen garden, just for the sublime pleasure of having a selection of fresh herbs ready for snipping just outside my back door.  
So, in early May I take the plunge, or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say I plunge my hands into the soil.  I choose an area of the yard that’s already cleared and has an irrigation system, so the plants are not reliant solely on me for survival.  I’ve done my research, and I know that certain herbs and greens will do well in my partially shaded plot.  Of course, the simple vision of a small herb garden immediately begins to morph and grow.
I purchase parsley and basil at the Restoration Farm spring plant sale.   Next, I head to Martin Viette Nurseries on the North Shore of Long Island where I purchased chives, mint, oregano and rosemary.   Here’s where I start to get a little cocky, and throw two varieties of Swiss chard and six Red Russian kale plants into the mix.   That afternoon, I dig and I plant.  Two weeks later I add several marigolds for a dash of color, and one small head of red lettuce that Caroline was giving away at the farm.  The basil, rosemary and oregano, which need more sun, are planted in pots on the deck. 

It’s fair to say I’ve already learned a few things in my first season as a suburban farmer:  
Mint Has a Reputation:  Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE who hears I planted mint in my garden has said, “You know, it tends to take over.”  For the record, I get it.  Mint is a pushy land grabber.  I’m keeping the clippers handy and planning a heck of a mint julep cocktail party.
Swiss chard is the Lazarus Plant:  After several weeks, I was convinced the Swiss chard crop would fail.  The large shiny leaves were quickly turning to fragile parchment.  But, then the plants staged a revival.  And I’ve managed to harvest a good number of healthy leaves for salads and steamed and stir-fried greens.
Choose Flower Pots for Drainage, Not Fashion:  In the back of my head, I knew it was a mistake when I did it, but the pots I picked for my deck herbs did not have drainage holes.   But, I liked the fact that they were Robin Egg Blue and I thought they’d look really perky on the back deck.   Now, after every rainstorm, I’ve got to drain the water that’s pooling in the pots.  Despite this boneheaded move, I’ve been able to liberally sprinkle fragrant basil leaves over all types of salads and sliced tomatoes.   The rosemary looks healthy and is poised for the first potato harvest. 
Aphids May Love Kale More than Humans:  First a word about the fecund nature of kale.   One kale plant can feed a family of two.  Six kale plants can feed a developing nation.  The leaves are the size of Cleopatra fans, and they just keep coming.  Unfortunately, the kale is under attack by little white aphids that seem to be gorging themselves on the nutritious leaves.  I’ve lost some, and the leaves that I have harvested need a good cleaning.  Unless I get really inventive, there’s no way I’m going to be able to consume all this.  Next year, one or two plants should do it.    
When in Doubt, Pick Flowers:  Perhaps my most successful “crop” to date has been the marigolds.   They’re tall and healthy.   Too bad you can’t eat them.  

July is Weed Month on Long Island:  I turn my back for a minute, and the weeds are suddenly everywhere.   That's what happens in July.  But I can't wish it will go away.  Like everything in life, you've got to take the time to kneel down, and start tugging out those weeds if you want the garden to prosper.  

Lovely Lettuce:  The small head of red lettuce, which was really an afterthought, performed remarkably well and resulted in several fresh and colorful salads.  Note to self – less kale and more lettuce next year. 
I Still Love Chives:  That burst of slightly oniony chlorophyll still pleases, and the three chive plantings each resemble an unruly Mohawk haircut.  I need to get better at harvesting the chives so they don’t go to waste.  I managed to pull enough from the garden for this savory chive and smoked cheddar cheese bread created by Dorie Greenspan and recently baked by Mary at the blog “One Perfect Bite.”
Is my thumb any greener?  Perhaps it’s now a faint shade of teal if you catch it in the right sunlight.  It’s unlikely that I’ll ever grow all my own food, but what’s more important to me, is that my garden and I have grown exponentially.  And what’s really sprouted is the idea that it’s important and healthy to tend your own garden and reap the rewards.   
©2012 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved 


Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

I definitely do not have a green thumb. I've been told I could kill a silk plant. Like you, I've also fallen in love with pretty flower pots that have with no drainage holes. Now those pots remind me of the song "When will they ever learn."

After many attempts at gardening, we've limited ourselves to herbs and a few summer cutting flowers and bed of perennials. We did succumb to three heirloom tomato plants this year, but they've only rewarded us with three or four tomatoes at best. All I can say is, thank goodness for farmers.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Nothing compares to the joy of walking out your kitchen door, shears in hand, to cut some herbs for your cooking. Most of what I grow are herbs and edible flowers, with a few tomato plants each year (this year, not doing too well with those). Plant some perennial hardy herbs, like thyme (my favorite) and sage, along with the chives. I also let my mint free-range in a part of the garden where I treat it like ground cover.

Kalyn Denny said...

How exciting! I love hearing about the success of your garden! If you can find a sunny spot, you must try tomatoes next year too! And I recommend putting the mint in a pot, or use some kind of a barrier to keep it in it's place!

~~louise~~ said...

Hi T.W! I don't know what could have happen. I was here bright and early this morning filled with glee and pride when I saw this post and for some reason, my comment seems to have been swished away!!!

Anyway, I am so proud of you for finally "playing" in the dirt. Not only have you reaped the bountiful goodness of the earth you have truly be captured by the evolution and abundance of toiling in the soil.

I had left you a few tips too, organic Marigolds are indeed edible and would probably make a wonderful addition to a Kale salad. (there are many edible flowers) Speaking of Kale, a spraying of a garlic solution of water and a drop of oil whisked up in the blender and sprayed on the leaves may just keep those buggers at harms way. Since moving to PA, I have learned that mulch can be your friend. I never used mulch in NY but here in PA not only does it keep the weeds down, it also saves on watering. I only wish we had your abundance of Oak leaves here in PA. Make sure to fill the garden beds with the leaves in the fall. They make a GREAT fertilizer and will keep the bed a bit warmer during the winter months.

I'm thrilled to hear you are having such fun with the garden and even happier to know that you are already thinking about next year. Martin Viette, lookout!!! (oh how I miss that place:)

Thanks for sharing T.W. enjoy the fruits of you labor...

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Hi Louise! I don't know what happened to your earlier comment, but I sure am thrilled to have these tips. Garlic spray would kind of condition the kale leaves for the salad as well, don't you think? It is fun, and I'm glad to have had some success. Given my past track record, I was expecting to give myself my usual "D" but I think I can safely say I've earned a sold "B" with my gardening attempts!

Gloria Baker said...

I love plant but not always was success! Ha!
But now im planting again; have mint;thyme; now I will plant basil too and Im thinking in tomatos and zucchinis; now we are at the end of winter and near spring is a good time; I love chives too.
Personally I had learned a lot with gardiners here that always plant something:))

Anonymous said...

I am happy that you love the gardening part! Me too!

We all, have our failures & succeses, my friend! I have sown edible flowers, called Tropaeolum majus (garden nasturtium, Indian cress, between my crops of salad leaves. You can eat them too! ;)

Yoyr garden is looking pretty good! Enjoy it! xxx

Deana Sidney said...

When the coop board relented and let me plant big pots of herbs I was ecstatic. I miss having a garden terribly. I am thrilled you are getting your green on and going for a few plants on your own. Yes... drainage is important! The best thing for aphids is soap. good old fashioned Ivory works... better still is lady bugs who LOVE aphids. You can buy them but they tend to run away once you do... maybe if you could just set them right in the kale it might work.

I think for small gardens, it is mean that you have to buy packs of 6. Then you get too much of everything. Better still, to offer small packs in waves so all your broccoli and cabbage and cauliflower don't come out at once! That would be smart. I used to do that kind of planting when I started things from seeds.

congrats on the planting... here's to more next year!

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

Louise had great suggestions. I agree about thyme and sage, those and oregano will come back each year as will your chives. If you cut your chives instead of pulling, your clump will get bigger each year.

Barbara said...

I remember! Chives and radishes(and rhubarb) were my first. And they all almost grow by themselves.
Good work, T.W. I miss having a garden...but will enjoy your successes and posts about yours.
(Mary's bread looks wonderful!)

Catherine said...

Dear T.W., Sounds like your thumb is green after all.
I am happy at hear that your garden is flourishing. It is fun.
Blessings, Catherine

Kat said...

You little garden is lovely and looks great! I am still learning the art of gardening in our poor, clay-filled soil. It is a challenge, but the rewards are well worth all the trial and error. I have the best tomato crop I have ever produced and it has only taken me over 20 years!!!! I say, keep on trying. You are doing great. The bread looks delicious. I must try to grow some chives next year.

Julia said...

Love reading about your gardening adventures! Isn't it just so much fun and so rewarding?

Anonymous said...

We've been trying a kitchen garden over here too! Full of excitements, thrills and you, we have been especially happy with the lettuce and chard....Hope to see you soon at a potluck...