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Garden Wrapup, and I’ve Got Broccoli!

To harvest, you need a sharp knife.

The forecast low temperature for tomorrow night is 27º, so I was outside this afternoon doing the last harvesting of my garden – and lo and behold, I’ve finally got two heads of broccoli!

I couldn’t believe it, but they’re beautiful things. One is as big as you’d see in a store, one is smaller – and there’s a little bitty floret all on its own, cute as the dickens.

Took ’em long enough; I planted them months ago, and they didn’t seem to do anything. My cabbage never did form a head, and though I only planted it for decoraton, I yanked it out today and put it in the compost pile. But I have broccoli, plus three whole shopping bags full of produce.

I ended up with two dozen bell peppers, three dozen tomatoes (some green, but they’ll ripen indoors), a dozen or so onions (which didn’t grow as big as I’d hoped) and a whole huge mess of leeks.

I ran into my friend Jayne this evening at Murphy’s grocery, and she’s coming by tomorrow after school to get some leeks, peppers, fresh oregano and green tomatoes. I love her, but I’m not giving up my broccoli!

[Sidebar: Until now I’d have said I am “almost never” a selfish person. I know a lot of others like me, including my best friend Stephen; indeed, none of my friends is the least bit selfish. They’re kind, loving people, which is pretty much my criterion for who gets admitted into my circle of real friends. I have a lot of them.

[But when it comes to my own produce, I am both generous and self-interested. I’ve only got 2.1 heads of broccoli and dammit, them’s goin’ into my soup!

[So come to find out that regarding food, I am as greedy and protective as my dog Luke. He’s developed a habit lately at breakfast. He’ll go and look at his pellets, but he doesn’t start eating until I leave the kitchen and start opening up the blinds to let in the morning. At suppertime he’s entirely different; he knows that meat and veggies are his, and he races to dig in. But in the morning I have to prove that I’m not interested in his stuff.

[The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are very concerned about human selfishness; “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” That constant refrain and warning have never really made total sense to me; I was already brainwashed/in love with Jesus at a very young age, I got the message the first time. I’m a social worker, a Gay activist, a commissioned evangelist; I chose voluntary poverty when I was 14 and I’m glad I did. I also have the tremendous blessing I call the Shared Gay Personality™, which in my experience is wonderfully altruistic. But here I am guarding a dollar’s worth of broccoli. “That’s mine, dammit!”]

This evening I made my friend John’s recipe for potato-leek soup. It’s perfect in terms of technique, though naturally I tweaked it a bit. Mind you, as a smalltown Hoosier I’ve never eaten leeks before, much less grown them. First the recipe, plus my additions in parentheses, and then my reaction.

Puréeing is good, but leave some lumps in, I say.

John’s Potato-Leek Soup

5 leeks, sliced (mine were less than an inch in diameter)
1 onion, chopped coarsely
2 T oil (1 T butter, 1 T olive oil)
3 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
14 oz can of chicken broth
4 C water
S&P to taste
(1 C whole milk)
(chopped parsley to taste)

Heat butter and oil; add leeks and onion and cook to opaque but not brown. Add broth, water and potatoes; bring to boil, then simmer 10-15 minutes until cooked through. Purée in blender (but only two-thirds; I want some lumps so you know I made this by hand). (Add milk, return to low heat; add parsley.) Serves 8 maybe.

The result? It’s very good and technically perfect, since you also get the flavor of the potato broth. And it’s very, very easy.

But the leeks are too mild for this to be as good a potato soup as you can make. For that you need onions, not leeks.

Mind you, I regard onions as a kitchen miracle; they add so much to so many things I cook. Stir-frys, meat loaf, spaghetti sauce, pot roast, omelets, pizza; when I’m chopping onions I know I’m cooking.

Yet I would never describe myself as an onion-lover, as if I can’t get enough of that taste. I use them in proportion, they’re seldom the stars in my cookery, any more than garlic is, another onion relative that adds depth and flavor.

But I guess I do love onions, and my Grandmother made a fabulous potato soup with them, better than this potato-and-leek version. Potato soup was one of the first dishes I mastered, when I was maybe 13.

Leeks are wonderful (and the leaves are so pretty), but so far to me they’re bland. Why would anyone eat this soup when they could eat Grandma’s?

Leeks are described as sweet and mild. But the pungency of an onion adds so much more flavor. Considering that potatoes themselves are bland, why add mild to bland? I did find out to add more black pepper than usual, a dozen twists on my little mill at least, when ordinarily I’m cautious with the peppercorns; I’m a Hoosier, we don’t do spicy food.

My big satisfaction this evening was, as it’s been all summer, growing some of my own food. And you can’t get fresher than just picked today. No fertilizer, no herbicides, just good old Indiana loam, some of the richest soil on earth.

This land is so fertile that my tomato plants bent their cages double. I’m used to the vines growing a yard tall and five feet wide, producing scores of fruits per plant, but this year they just went nuts. Tomatoes are my favorite food, but I let some of them rot on the vine after I’d put up all I thought I could use.

Still, as the season wanes, the last few tomatoes become ever dearer; when winter comes the ones for sale in the stores are pretty much worthless. So even though I had bags and bags of produce to clean and make decisions about, I had to eat one of my ripe tomatoes fresh over the sink with a salt shaker in my hand. You ain’t Hoosier till the tomato juice drips off your chin.

At season’s end I feel like I made great progress as a gardener this year; I had an actual vegetable garden for the first time, instead of my previous haphazard experiments. I cleared out and marked off a good large space with a southern exposure, instead of planting things in flowerbeds next to the house and seeing what worked. I grew several new species; it’s not good to just grow the same old things year after year. I had strawberries and broccoli and leeks, as well as the usual herbs, tomatoes and peppers. I tried new things; I don’t know why the cabbage didn’t work – or maybe I do.

Some people love to eat cabbage; I mostly like to look at it.

The biggest learnings come from failures, including that cabbage. I should have enclosed it, and the broccoli and peppers, in chickenwire to keep the rabbits out. I’m so unmechanical I don’t know how to build things, but I think next year I’ll try driving some sticks in the ground and wrapping plastic fencing around. This won’t entirely deter rabbits, who are happy to dig underground for free rabbit food, but it will slow them down and maybe give me a cabbage or two to look at. I have nothing against eating cabbage, it’s good for you, but I’m a single guy who can’t possibly eat the whole thing before it goes bad.

My other big failure was not watering the garden when I should have. From spring to midsummer we had plenty of rain here, but by mid-August we went into a mild drought, and I should have been faster on the uptake; tomatoes are nothing but sunshine and water. Instead of huge and perfect juicy fruits as I had in early summer, in time they started to split, which invites bugs and then it’s all over. A good gardener keeps track of the rain.

I am not a good gardener yet, but I’m getting there. Most of my strawberry plants survived, but a few of them died, probably because I neglected to water them. That’s okay; instead of planting the ever-bearing variety as I did this year, I’ll plant the spring-bearing “ohmygod it’s a strawberry festival” ones next year, and make jam with the surplus like I used to for my mother.

I doubt I plant leeks. I don’t dislike them but I wasn’t that impressed, and I think I’ll put down onions instead, and maybe some radishes again. Planting leeks as seedlings, which is how Murphy’s offers them, is a pain in the ass. They are tiny little things, 400 to a four-compartment plastic container, and I didn’t find any good advice online about how to deal with them; all the articles from state extension services discuss planting from seed only. I separated my seedlings as seemed best at the time, planting 20 or 30 of them in a hole instead of one by one, but what that gave me was a clump of 30 ingrown leeks. Why would I want 400, especially when they’re “sweet and mild?”

Nope, I want onions instead.

This year I tried out a new type of triangular tomato cage made of plastic, where you can put the crossbars where the plant needs them, instead of where the stamped-out wire happens to go. That plastic cage is the only one still standing; the wire ones I’ve had for some years proved worthless in this rich and juicy rivermuck. In very fertile soil it’s much better to build a modular structure as needed, knowing the vine’s going to grow five feet wide and spill all over everywhere if you don’t control it.

Tomatoes supported on a cage don’t get down in the dirt where they can be attacked by bugs. I’m tellin’ ya, I had a tomato jungle again this year. Leonardo thinks Guatemala’s wild; he should see what grows in my loam.

One last thing: a very old woman who’s an expert gardener lives four doors down at the end of my block. I’m told she’s a farmer’s wife who moved into town with her husband when they retired; that’s common here, because life in town is more convenient. When old age stops tying you to the land, you move to town.

I’ve never met her, a widow now, though I’ve seen her hobbling along on occasional walks, a little old lady in Reeboks. Her home, lawn and vegetable garden are impeccable. She already has her garden cleared for next year; has had for a couple of weeks.

Today I learned that there has to come a time when you say about a garden, “That’s it, I’m done for the year, this is the best I can do.” She gets a head start on next spring by preparing her land this fall. For the first time I emulated her today, as I finished my harvest and started ripping things out.

Every year she builds her own rabbit fence; does her weeding in the morning before it gets hot. Doubtless she measures the rain day by day and waters her garden as needed; it’s always lush. I envy her for knowing so much more than I do, and doing her work instead of getting lazy once the thrill of planting fades away. Anyone can get excited about growing things in the springtime; the key to a garden is regular maintenance.

I did a better job of weeding this year than ever before, and I cleared that land, marked it off and planted new species. My marigold terrace is still half-fabulous, at least until tomorrow night; I had chives and oregano and parsley and tomatoes and tarragon to beat the band. My impatiens and dill, lilies and peonies gave me enormous pleasure. I grilled out on the side porch all summer, and taught my dog to stay there with me.

But there’s no substitute for experience; for trying and failing, for learning by doing. Grow some leeks, see what they’re like; switch to onions next year if you like, or petunias or pumpkins. Keep the water steady and the weeds under control.

The rules are pretty basic but you have to pay attention.

I hope I get to meet Mrs. Voglund someday; maybe we’ll talk about leeks, and why onions are really much better. Maybe we’ll talk about controlling rabbits.

Maybe I’ll tell her how fabulous Grandma’s potato soup was; how she chopped and cooked everything by hand, and never puréed.++

The only image on the internet of a simple potato soup, without garnishes, toppings, machinery or fanciness.

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