Garden Notes — August 17.2009: Taking my breath away!

morning in the garden

morning in the garden

I realize that I have not told you all about my garden for some time, so here goes with the latest edition of “Garden Notes”. Let me say at the outset: I am having an even more wonderful time in the garden this year. We all know that doing a garden involves much work, and requires constant attention to endless detail. But I do find it all so rewarding, so worth while: to me it is all a simple labor of love.

Nature –even in a tiny garden– is, among many other things, a constant university of research and learning, and a monastery of contemplation unto itself. A person becomes…different…in a garden. Every little thing in a garden is alive and engaged in a process of becoming. Even the smallest life form in a garden –the smallest atom– is infinitely observable and discoverable, with layers and layers of knowledge to be discovered. In nature, it seems, everything is the way it is for a reason –a good, logical, elegant reason. A good, logical, elegant evolution. In nature, everything makes sense.

Last year I was on the lookout for new plants to grow, and this year I set out to include some of these in my garden plan. So –in addition to my 2008 list, my many varieties of tomato, and all the basil and peppers, and mustard leaf and arugula (which, if one can believe Rush Limbaugh –which I do wonder about– only North-East Liberals consume) I tried many kinds of beans, including a wonderful dark green Lima with an edible pod, and peas, and my cantaloupes and nasturtiums which I love, and my herbs –parsely, dill, cilantro, mints, Thai basil, et al., I tried Squashes, Okra –what a beautiful blossom (which lasted but one day) and, believe it or not, the common (or garden?) cucumber which had seemed so utterly and widely available that I had not considered growing it up to this. I’ve never gone for those large-jarred vinegar-pickled crispy cukes.
Was this last some embedded snobbism on my part? Possibly. But if it was, I had simply and effectively denied myself the sheer pleasure of eating those very thin slices of peeled fresh cucumber which I have been taking, accompanied by very thin slices of ginger pickled in rice vinegar. I will spare you the sentence or two –or indeed, a whole paragraph– of indulgent lipsmacking “mmmns” that most food-writers today seem to find obligatory. Let us settle here for a simple “Most enjoyable!” and be done with it! (Or –as my friend Tim would put it– “unspeakably toothsome”.)

A friend recently treated me to a meal in a fine little Japanese restaurant, where I had renewed a close acquaintance with that sliced pickled ginger (–I have to tell you, in full recessional-confessional, that I had pretty much stopped going to restaurants long long, LONG, before the global financial crisis began weeding out those fat cats on expense accounts and unconscionable bonusses, and closing all those restaurants.)
I have to make this pickled ginger, I said to myself!

Recipe? There are a million of them just a Google-click away. And hey, look at that –an old bottle of Rice Vinegar tucked away behind all those other bottles! (the only other ingredient I needed.)

My tallest tomato plant is already over 8 feet tall –well on the way to the 16 foot tall plants of last year. You remember my great discovery from last year? It is now widely accepted as The Universal Rule of Tomato, and it is this: give any tomato plant enough soil, enough water, and enough sun, and it will grow to the sky, or well into December –whichever comes sooner.

And here’s the amazing food-fact to emerge from my tomato-growing experiments: for every extra foot of growth with my cherry or Juliet vines, add up to 27 fruits to the productivity of each plant. (At least that’s what it was last year –and there is no reason to think it would be any different in 2009.

One may learn –acquire– much maturity in a garden –IF (of course) one is open to that sort of thing. (And probably not just in gardens, we may safely add.)

In addition to my cuke-snobbery, there was…The Race to The First Tomato on the Planet.

I admit it: I did last year allow myself to get…. slightly drawn into… that competition –which seems to be the pre-occupation of every red-blooded Suburban American Male who year after year carries on his torrid affair with Early Girl. (It’s become one of the clearest signs that Spring has indeed….Sprrroinnng!)

Now I’ve embarrassed myself, so –let me try a delicate Back-Away from this confession.
Let’s see….hmmmn….I think I’ll try the “unconscious” route: You know, (–always start with affecting the casual; tilt your head to the side; think Ronald Reagan: “I don’t think I was even aware that The First Tomato on the Block was such a big deal with Red-Blooded Suburban American Male…….

But –wait a minute! That’s not true. Yes I was aware!

I got all those Seed Catalogs in the mail every couple of days! All those…Tomatoes! Page after page. The Biggest. The Reddest. The Sweetest. The Earliest. The Juiciest. The pages were awash in Tomato Testosterone, spiked with Tomato Viagra!

I knew what was going on. I knew what was expected of me. Yes –I would take them on! [Just in case you haven’t seen any recently, Seed Catalogs have become like the tabloid press: they all have that Ripley’s Believe it or Not quality of Freakishness to them –why, here’s a bush that on its own grows all the ingredients you need for your salsa –cilantro, tomatoes, peppers and, wow, Baby Limes as well?

[As I’m at it, I want one of those new Nursery Developed Book Bushes; they grow both hardbound and paperback books; choice of ten different titles….sort of thing. You think I’m kidding? Well, yes I am –but not for long!]

Last year, I ate my first tomato on June 6th –the date is emblazoned in, or is it “on”?, my memory!

This year is different. This year I ate my first tomato off the vine on the first of August, a miserable 2 months late.

But believe me, I’ve shed (garden shed?) all that competitive stuff. In fact, I have no idea who else in the neighborhood is growing tomatoes. Oh yes, I do know one person –Ira. I’m pretty sure that Ira was eating tomatoes before me this year; in fact now that I think of it I know he was, –he gave me a few the one day I saw his wonderful, crowded, blooming deck-garden.

And this year, no more 16-foot-high staked tomato vines. This year those vines will get trained over into an arbor, 8-9 feet high. (Remember “The Godfather”, that stumbling Brando clutching at those arbored vines. What was it?: “Leave the gun; take the tomato.”?)

This year, a Tomato Arbor! I will reach up, easily, comfortably, and pick my tomatoes one by one as they ripen….

The hedge at the bottom of the garden: Quite a mixture –Rose, Forsythia, Honeysuckle, and Bamboo. Beautiful bamboo cane that I cut and make into elegant stakes –for tomatoes, and cucumbers, and (some) peppers.

(This year Milton told me to look out for bamboo shoots: I found just a few, but they were a little on the tough, rather chewy, side –no competition to the neighborhood Chinese takeout! My Bamboo Green Shoots were much rarer than those much-heralded Economic Green Shoots that mark (–“this time for Sure; no, THIS time for Sure”) or will mark, or marked but we all missed them…the End of the Recession!)

By the way, I did experience a whiff of another brand of the Garden Hubris we have been talking about: when I looked under the profuse broad squash leaves in a container, THERE was the most beautiful zucchini I ever saw, all grown, ready to eat –I hadn’t even noticed it.
My surprise and delight at discovering it did momentarily have to jostle with another sense –that sense of “I GREW THAT!”

OK, well yes –I did help, and –indeed– in an essential way. Yes, I was present at The Creation.

But no, I was not the seed, nor the soil, nor the sun, nor the rain or the water.

Very early on, one becomes aware of a powerful OTHER PRESENCE in one’s garden space –The Weeds!

Some of them are quite magnificent. Tough. Vigorous. Often Beautiful. Often, quite stately, with an elaborate architecture. And with inventive and often ingenious rooting and proliferation strategies. [Incidentally, I started a new feature in my garden this year –The Weed Museum! I try to let the “weeds” grow where they choose but if that is not possible I transplant them to…the Weed Museum, probably my newest invention. I grant that they do look somewhat ill-assorted in their patch, but otherwise impressive.]

To me, many of the Weeds seem very…Ancient!

(The word “weed” is itself quite old, Old English, from the earlier West Germanic). And Weeds –if you think about it– have always been on their own, with none of the privileges that come with a Nurturing Cultivation. Weeds have made it on their own. They are –it seems to me– proud of being weeds; even derive a certain sense of nobility from the persistent rejection that they are subjected to by a weed-whacking world gone mad! [I often see my neighbor –a very nice man from Liberia who I am glad to have as my neighbor– in his back-garden, talking in a language that I cannot make out, on his cellphone to someone halfway round the world in Liberia, as he whacks dandelions with his sputtering machine in his garden in Staten Island. I used to sneak into his garden to pick some of his dandelion leaves before he whacked them; now I have such a profusion myself, that I have no more need of raiding.]

The essence of the definition of “weed” is its “unwantedness”. The Dandelion is a Weed! We don’t want it on our lawns –its outrageous Yellowness; its irrepressible Puffballness. If that’s the right word. Even if it ISN’T the right word. We DO NOT WANT the dandelion in our lawns.

Forget that in China it’s liver-cleansing properties are highly regarded, or its considerable diuretic qualities are lauded in many different parts of the world. The latter has placed it at the top of a list of natural healing agents in the battle against prostate disease. (In Ireland we called –colloquially– Dandelions “piss-a-beds”; in France, the name is “piss-en-lit). Many other languages have an equivalent word.

It is probably true that a majority of us still reaches for the new radical pharmacological treatments. But that has been changing. Suffice it to say that even a suggestion from a prostate research facility that Dandelion is the next “wonder-drug”, and we will see it quickly taken off our list of “unwanted” weeds and hawked mercilessly.

By the way, the ubiquitous purslane –another so-called “weed”– is one of the very highest sources of vegetable omega-three oil that exists. I have a huge amount of it around in the garden.
In my morning garden-walkabouts, my first “snack” of the day is usually a mixed salad of purslane leaf; dandelion spear; mustard leaf; spike-of-chive; arugula leaf; basil and parsley florets; and Nasturtium flower and/or leaf; together with a cherry tomato or two. [Etymology note: “Nas-Turtium” translates to “Nose-Torturing”! In other words, it explains that strong/peculiar peppery, spicy taste that we sense on tongue as well as in our nasal passages!. Of course, nothing can compare with the head-clearing, eyes-watering fumes of freshly sliced Horseradish –a root that I also grow.

The heavy rains have definitely affected general growth this year; the tomatoes especially do not like too much water. The yellowing, spotty lower leaves of the vines are a telltale indicator.

And last year was great for profuse wild mushroom crops; this year by comparison has been rather poor, though –as I reported in an earlier post– I did find One Glorious Morel, and now check that spot (near a large pot of mint) every day. One lives in hope for such blessings!
Another great (and pleasant) surprise from last year was my finding one huge crop of Chantarelles –they kept popping up in huge profusion in one particular area, one week at the end of October.

Some plants thrive with the extra rain –bamboo, horseradish and mint (which by the way are always talked about as “Watch out, they’ll takeover”) spring to mind. Indeed my several varieties of mint are doing really well, with some blue-flowered plants already as tall as the 3-foot high trellis.
And –too– I have been reclaiming a small patch of the garden area by planting it with a variey of vigorous mint. A satisfying little project that I stumbled across recently. Rooting-Mint in action is a marvel to behold!

Yes –I’ve been drinking a lot of Mint Tea this summer; I have two large glass four-litre flagons in my downstairs fridge (one with “Earl Grey Mint Tea” ; the other with “Malachi McCormick Decent (Mint)Tea”. When you come round to see the studio or the garden, or both, we will take time out to sit outside in the shade and sip some of the minted brew. (You bring the cookies.)

I am very attached to the taste of cilantro and of dill, and like to grow them. But both herbs rigorously test the Greenness of My Thumb –everything else I do pretty well with, but not these two. What is it about them? Any tips?

(Any seeds that I can try out? If you send me some –which people do do from time to time, be sure to label the package clearly. Thanks.)

Earlier in the season I began to feel that I need more flowers around me. I began to look out for some suitable kinds. At one point a friend gave me a package of Morning Glory seeds, which I duly planted. And in due time they put up their shoots, and before long their tendrils were assiduously, ingeniously, intelligenly, climbing every stake that I used for them.

So –lots of tendrils curling back and forth, and up. And around. And hanging in pots.

Even some buds…

–but, NO FLOWERS. Not one!

Last Saturday morning, as I was leaving for the day for Sag Harbor (for an artist friend’s opening at a gallery there),
I was….
stopped….
in my tracks….

There it was –one single solitary GLORIOUS Morning Glory bloom, open like a trumpet.
Announcing… letting everyone know….

I gasped! I simply gasped –everything had worked together to create this moment, especially the long long wait, and the acceptance that there might not be a flower this year. (I was simply probably too late in planting.) I could not have been better primed for this magnificent sight –the intense purple, the hints of pink at the edges, the spherical beads of dew that stood up, motionless, on the intense flat purpleness of the bloom!

A gasp was the only way to express what I felt –an involuntary gasp of…utter pleasure.
It was the same gasp that I heard myself emit fairly recently on turning a leaf in a large book and seeing a page of Irish Uncial calligraphy from The Book of Kells.
Things can take still very much take my breath away, and that is probably the greatest gift one can be given!


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