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Once She Started, She Couldn’t Stop

Purple echinacea stand tall in the backyard garden of Janice Becker. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Every now and then the Chicago Tribune reminds me that it’s still a great newspaper. It doesn’t happen often anymore — the talent level has dropped dramatically from the glory days — but occasionally I’ll run across an article so well written, so thoughtful, so obviously made of love for the languages of communication, that I think, “Well, the Trib’s still got it a little.” Today is one of those times; read the whole thing by Barbara Mahany here.

It’s about gardening. Years ago a woman and her husband went looking to buy a townhouse so they wouldn’t have any yard to deal with. They ended up with a house in the suburbs instead, with a yard that was a mess. She ignored it until one day, after her children were born, she took a notion to try and straighten up a little. Once she got started, she couldn’t stop. Now she’s a master gardener.

I do want you to read the whole piece, but I’m going to quote and comment on some of her tips. I found them helpful; maybe you will too.

Here are her sure-fire suggestions for the finest garden you can fit in any size plot:

Mulch, mulch and more mulch. Becker has 5 cubic yards of organic leaf mulch dumped on her driveway every spring. She hauls it by the wheelbarrow to every breathing inch of her garden. It’s all about amending.

Who says Chicago’s growing season is too short?: Extend your season, says Becker, whose beds are in bloom from March to November, beginning with thousands of bulbs in early spring. (“Pick any area you can see from the house, not next to house,” she advises, to provide an emotional pickup after the long dark winter.) Then wind up with the last of the asters, fall-blooming crocus and a host of colorful berries.

There are two ideas here really, and I want to separate out the one that struck me the hardest: Don’t just make beds next to the house; plant in the yard so you can see your flowers from inside.

When I bought my house, one of the things I liked best was that the entire perimeter of the building had already been made into beds. There were bushes in front and along the sides, most of them planted decades ago, perhaps by the original owner. But there weren’t many flowers, just a few crocuses here and there. Aha, I thought; I will put in flowers, and over the years I have, tulips from Amsterdam as well as Holland, Michigan; irises, mums, petunias, marigolds, pansies, peonies, whatever I could get my hands on. I didn’t have a plan; I didn’t know what I was doing, but I enjoyed myself. Spring planting is my favorite time of year.

I screwed in hooks on the ceiling of my covered side porch and hung baskets of impatiens; I learned over time not to buy plastic pots. I turned my porch into an outdoor room, with a tree and plant stands, table and chairs, lights and a charcoal grill. Everyone who’s ever visited knows I love that porch.

But when I look out my front windows I don’t see flowers, except for my cherry trees when they blossom; otherwise it’s just green trees and green grass. I have to go outside to see my flowers, and I don’t do that often.

What Ms. Becker is teaching me is to plant colors I can see when I wake up in the morning. My first thought is to dig up some of the grass along the sidewalk leading to my front door and plant tulips and daffodils there; when they start to fade, I can put in begonias. (I have begonias in planters on the back deck, and oh, are they gorgeous this year.)

Then I thought, however nice that idea might be, why not create a similar path along the public right of way, the sidewalk that crosses my lot? What would a person walking up the street feel if she suddenly encountered flowers at her feet? Wouldn’t that be a joy?

My dog Luke and I take walks every night, and one of the things I get out of it is seeing my neighbors’ landscaping. Last night we took a new route on less-familiar blocks and I saw the most amazing stand of zinnias (I think); multiple colors planted in bunches, 50 yellows, then 50 reds, a whole rainbow, 20 feet or more. When Luke and I walk and I find beautiful flowers in yards, I always want to get closer to see and maybe smell; but I respect the homeowner’s private property, so I have to enjoy from a distance. Last night at this particular house on 2nd Street, a woman was watching TV in her living room, with the windows open; I wanted to call out, “Your flowers are beautiful!” But I turned shy instead.

People in my hometown are pretty good gardeners and landscapers. I’m envious, in awe; I wish I encountered people in their yards more often so I could tell them how much I love what they’ve done. But alas, Luke and I take our walks in the cool of the evening, and by that time most people are indoors watching the boob tube.

It’s fashionable lately when pseudo-sophisticates write about landscape gardening to decry the “airport runway” look with outdoor lights; but they’re just snobs with deadlines and 750 words overdue. These are the same kinds of people as those who write about food trends, invariably nasty, stuff you’d never want to eat — because they have to write about something and they’re totally completely bored. The New York Times is full of that crap, because New Yorkers can’t stop competing long enough to have a good meal. Here’s my point: anything you do, including landscape lights down the sidewalk, that you can see from indoors, is good. A flowered walk is a great idea, especially one built with the neighbors in mind.

I have a friend Chris who used to walk her little dog past my house all the time. Her husband’s since had a privacy fence built, and Chris and her dog have stopped coming by; I miss them. But if they had a sidewalk landscaped just for them to enjoy, I bet they’d always come this way; wouldn’t you?

My next-door neighbor Debbie has built an amazing garden spot on the corner; it’s got a boulder or two, figurines and wonderful plants. But there’s no reason I can’t do more with my space, even though I’m not on the corner. Some homeowners in town have built flowered areas under their hardwood trees, full of hostas or impatiens or other beauties. It takes time and money, but I think I’d like to do something similar.

And all this is suggested by Janice Becker’s little comment. Here’s more of what she told the Trib.

Sun, yes, but water moreso. Sure, you need to pay attention to shade versus sun, but drainage is too often overlooked. Becker contends it’s more important than sun, and she urges you to pay attention to what the label says — and take it to heart. “The label might say, ‘Will survive dry conditions,’ but what they really are saying is ‘We won’t tolerate standing in water.’ And with so much clay in the soil around here, that’s key.”

I don’t have clay in my yard; that’s Chicago, this is Northwest Indiana, a long-drained swamp. I’ve got 99% black loam from the last time the Iroquois River flooded five miles away. This is the richest soil on earth, according to Purdue University. We’re even the home of the high school soil-judging National Champions 2005!

Shop nonstop.”Don’t stop shopping for plants or planting just because it is July and abysmally hot. If succession of bloom is the objective (and it is), you will miss some great late summer and fall blooming perennials if you don’t frequent the nurseries. For example, chelone (also known as turtlehead) is an absolutely great late summer bloomer that you will never see unless you shop later in the season. And everything is usually on sale then.”

Be ever on the lookout. “Visit gardens all the time. There is practically nothing in my garden that I did not see someplace else and copy. Take notes; take pictures; and ask questions, particularly why that plant is growing successfully here when you haven’t had any success with it.”

That’s good advice too. Don’t get so enthusiastic with spring planting that you fail to keep at it when the weather gets hot, or much of your work will go for nothing. I weed and tend my gardens every day, pick tomatoes and peppers, strawberries and leeks. As Jamie says in The Centurion’s Boy, my novel in progress, “Every day is a new opportunity to excel.”

That’s true whatever your occupation, pastimes and pursuits. Every day is new; no matter how much you screwed up yesterday, today is a new opportunity. Maybe you don’t like digging in the dirt; maybe music or art or furniture-making is your thing. Do it better than ever, because it’s today. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or a CEO, a monk in Mississippi or a gardener in Deerfield, today is a new chance. Build something; touch your loved ones gently; take your dog on an outing. Write, cook, plan, build, take a risk, pull out the deadwood, get dirty so you can get clean; let yourself be fully alive.

And who knows, maybe once you get started, you won’t be able to stop.++

Asters, from gardenersnet.com.

First Tomato a Total Bust, but Ice-Licking Dog Makes Up For It

Here's a nice specimen; mine was rotten.

Yesterday I picked my First Tomato, which was nice and red but lying on the ground, so I knew it wouldn’t be any good. Tomatoes need to hang from the vine or they rot. I took it inside because I wanted to see what happened to it.

It’s a law here in Indiana that any thief who picks your First Tomato may be cheerfully shot with total impunity. But even the Tomato Gang wasn’t interested in this one.

You don’t think there’s a Tomato Gang? You don’t live in Indiana. We all belong to the Tomato Gang (and we’re thieves).

I brought it inside and sliced into it. The bottom half was rotten because it lay on the ground. But the top wasn’t much better, very woody, not juicy at all. I put it in the compost box.

Let’s get this clear, shall we? Tomatoes are supposed to be juicy, and I couldn’t care less if this does not meet the needs of McDonald’s, Burger King and Hardee’s. They don’t like juicy tomatoes, which drip on your skirt while you’re driving up I-65.

Those things are tasteless, which fast food specializes in. Don’t eat in your gol-dang car, hokay? That skirt never did much for you anyway.

Tomatoes, like oranges, exist for the juice. That’s where the flavor is. Never, ever buy a tomato hybrid designed for fast food chains.

Would you want to eat a dry orange that was all meat and no juice? Then why would you design a tomato that way?

It’s not my fault that people like to put tomatoes on their burgers and not oranges. (They’re both very rich in Vitamin C.) If you’re going to eat a burger Be Prepared. It’s called a napkin; you can do it.

My First Tomato was a total bust. I wasn’t that sad, I’ve got a lot more ‘maters on the way; the timing (practically the 4th of July) vindicates my decision to plant tomatoes early and wait to see if the frost got them, which it didn’t. Replacement vines would only have cost a buck or two, so I learned something this year. My tomatoes look like a rainforest, while my next door neighbor’s got these spindly pathetic things.

I’d have eaten part of the First Tomato if it hadn’t been so woody, but I threw it all away. (“Woody” is when the green part of the vine extends down into the flesh. It’s inedible, the whole thing is deformed.)

It was a hot day, and once I cut into it and saw it was worthless, I began to be concerned about my dog. Luke spends most of his time outside on a 30-foot lead, and it’s been hot here, our first hot dry spell of the season. He so likes the sunshine that I worry about how he eats and drinks. When we wake up in the morning he’s never interested in breakfast, he only wants outside, and it’s not because he’s desperate to pee; he takes forever to do that. What he wants is the sun, so I pour out food and water as he clamors to go outdoors. I take him out, and bring him back later, and sometimes he eats or drinks like I want him to. Sometimes he doesn’t, he just wants back outside.

I’ve tried taking his chow-and-water dish outdoors so he can feed when he wants to, but ants got into it and that was a mistake. In the morning I offer him food and water, but he’s not interested, so we go outside and play, and later I bring him back in case he’s hungry or thirsty. Then clamor clamor clamor, jump and turn in circles, “Outside!” Okay, dude.

But it was hot out, and I’d already given him a second chance at the doggy dish, which he rejected, and I didn’t know what to do. I took him an ice cube.

He loved it.

I held it in my hand and he lick-lick-licked; when he got tired I rubbed it on his belly. But then he wanted to lick it again, so we did that. He paused and stood up, and I rubbed it on his back. He thought that was great. Then he licked it again; in a minute it was just a nub. I finally dropped it and he licked it on the grass until it disappeared.

It’s an amazing thing to have another creature eat out of your hand. He totally charms you, while you feel strong and protective and goofy.

Since he likes being out all day, but I can’t trust him to stay in our yard, I check on him all the time; he can’t say if he’s hungry or thirsty, I have to interpret the signs. I wish I were better at doggie-speak, but maybe we’re doing okay.

Luke ate an ice cube; highlight of my day.++

Luke, ice cube-licker. Prettyboy, little wuss, total favorite.

Birthday Week Begins!

The clock is just past midnight as I begin this; it’s Monday, May 17. Today would have been my late brother Steve’s 62nd birthday.

Mine is tomorrow. Either he was born early or (more likely) I was born late; we were anniversary babies. I will be 59, gasp cough cough.

He and I went 20 years without speaking after I came out; he didn’t want a Gay brother. I was never allowed to see his kids, in case I would touch them and give them AIDS. (I’m HIV-negative, but that doesn’t matter to the paranoid. If a person could get HIV from touching, the whole world would have long since been infected.) He was a jerk; then slowly, he began to change.

Our mother got sick with cancer in 1994. He loved his mother, and the three of us debated over who would take care of her. He invited her to come and live with him in southern Indiana; but she wanted to die at home in West Lafayette, and I was an experienced caregiver, available to move in with her, so that’s what happened.

She didn’t last very long; January 9, 1995. Steve and I didn’t see that much of each other during her illness, but he did come north to spell me for a weekend so I could go to Indianapolis to watch Purdue men’s and women’s basketball. Her illness was hard on me, she was demanding, so I was very grateful he gave me that weekend. I know he took the best possible care of her.

After she died I stayed in her house, and he often invited me down south to his house for a visit. We became very close friends, although he never stopped giving me a hard time for being Gay.

On every other topic we were brothers. I miss him very much.

Because of the timing of our birthdays, we quickly developed a shared ritual we called Birthday Week; I commend it to everyone. Mom used to say, “My birthday is My Day.” Steve and I decided, why not a whole week!

Episcopalians and Catholics observe octaves of major feast days, an 8-day celebration. Birthday Week fit right into the calendar. Sometimes we’d start a few days before, sometimes a few days after, this was a moveable feast, whatever our whims decided, eight freakin’ days.

I loved him; he loved me. He was a very fine man with a prejudice. And he was a bit sadistic with it, but I always fought back.

He so loved his mother that he honored me for taking care of her, and that mattered more than our turnons.

I relied on him for certain kinds of advice; I have no mechanical ability whatsoever, while he always knew what to do when the water heater stops putting out, or the car won’t start, or moles invade the yard.

I miss him terribly, but I’m very grateful that we were close those last few years. He died shortly after the millennium turned.

But I still have the legacy of Birthday Week, and I’m going to take advantage of it. I’ve been waiting for this; Birthday Week starts now. I imagine him smiling up in heaven, right next to Mom.

Sunday I drove to West Lafayette and bought more landscape lumber, 8-foot-long border planks for my Proper Garden; I have reclaimed a wasteland in my back yard and made it beautiful. I’ve planted tomatoes, peppers, geraniums, cabbage and broccoli, and put in a strawberry patch; tossed out gravel, replaced it with topsoil, weeded and weeded and weeded, dug and raked till my back hurt, killed off these terrible trees that grow 10 feet tall in six weeks, sawed off the tree stumps, thoroughly knocked myself out. It’s taken a couple of years, but now I have a real garden, planted and marked off. The area’s still a little rough, the ground is uneven, but within those 8-foot planks, there’s a garden. Will the muskmelon seeds I dried and saved from last year do anything? I don’t know, but it will be exciting to find out.

Steve was a big fan of Vincennes muskmelons. In the gravel walkway on the north edge of the garden, I’ll plant gladiolus bulbs, some of my mother’s favorite flowers.

In the front yard with a northern exposure, Steve’s favorite azaleas are giving way to our brother Dick’s prize peonies. The Indiana state flower, y’know?

My garden is done, and I’m ecstastic. It isn’t even my birthday yet and everything’s done!

I also bought a little garden figurine, a foot-tall angel made in China with green and white mosaic wings, ten or twelve dollars; she now stands under the giant maple in the back yard, Our Lady of the Big Tree once featured in the Chicago Sunday Tribune.

The marigolds are happy, the begonias, three varieties of lilies; pansies, oregano, yuccas, impatiens; the hostas are doing okay, and so far I’ve been able to control the freakin’ ivy and the would-be kudzu. I worry about some gifts, though, that date to my buying this house six years ago; Peter gave me some excellent tulips, but they didn’t produce well this year, and a woman I used to work with at Southlake Mental gave me irises, which aren’t doing well either. I can picture her but I do not remember her name! It’s awful, she was very competent and good with clients, we worked so well together, but now, when irises are blooming all over town, mine aren’t. She deserves better, y’know? She deserves to be remembered by name.

But I’m getting older, and this s— happens, and it’s Birthday Week.

I got a dog last October, name of Luke; he hasn’t figured out flowers yet, and has made it his business to topple every planter in sight. He doesn’t mean to, but he’s a fox terrier, and they jump and run and boom, sorry begonias. And geraniums. And everything else he can accidentally knock over. I keep moving his stake-out chain, but I haven’t yet found the perfect spot where he can do no damage, and “Yowzah, Daddy, Arf Arf Arf! (Oops, bad dog, you don’t gotta tell me, I know.)”

He gets bacon anyway. I tell him that come August, when the tomatoes are ripe, I am eating all the bacon myself, BLTs, no matter how much he jumps and yaps and knocks things over.

It’s Birthday Week; my gardening is done. I have an 8×24 space marked off for flowers and food. I have a gravel walkway; the invasive trees are gone. Our Lady of the Maple happily presides in the shade. Maybe I’ll get a couple of jars of strawberry jam according to my mother’s recipe.

As for my homophobic brother: it was good to find someone who knew me all my life, loved me 90% and hated me just 10. It was mutual, after all, I never let him off the hook; attack me and I fight back.

I planted those azaleas for him, and they did better this year than ever before. Ninety/ten’s pretty good when you think about it. So Birthday Week starts now, on His Day. Mine is Tuesday, Jayne’s graduation party is Saturday, and Sunday is Pentecost, the Church’s Birthday with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I finally have a Proper Garden, and an Angel of the Maple Tree. Life is good.++

My Own Little Strawberry Festival

I planted 18 strawberry plants today, and I’m so happy with myself I could spit.

I extended my garden another 8 feet to the east to make room for the berries. That wasn’t where I originally planned to put them but that space will work out nicely. My garden is now three times bigger than it was a month ago!

Strawberries are my all-time favorite fruit since I was a kid. The first house I remember living in, from age 4-7 in Ohio, had a strawberry patch, and my mother used to bake a shortcake every year, right off the back of a Bisquick box. (That recipe’s rather leaden, but kids don’t know any better.) I was in heaven. My brother Steve used to get sick, he’d eat so many berries. We decided he was allergic, which left more for me!

We moved back to Indiana once I finished first grade, never lived in the country again and never had a strawberry patch either.

The berries you buy in a carton at the store are these gigantic things from California; they look fantastic but they’re not sweet, flavorful or juicy. The smaller berries we grow around here are the opposite; guess which I prefer.

They look good, they travel well, but the taste is inferior.

As I grew up I remember driving to a nearby town with my Grandma; in berry sesaon we’d see roadside stands out in the country, which is how you got the freshest, best produce then, some lady selling a few quarts out of a shed. Grandma would stop and look at the berries, but often she wouldn’t buy because of the price. The berries sure looked good to me, and the money didn’t seem like much, but Grandma was not going to pay an extra dime a quart. “We’ll find some others,” she’d say as we got back in the car and drove away. Of course there weren’t any others anywhere, to the great consternation of a little boy.

Grandma was 31 years old when the stock market crashed in 1929, and for the rest of her life she darned socks and saved string, “tinfoil” and Christmas wrap in a drawer. My brothers thought she was a cheapskate and didn’t like her, for that and other reasons, while I understood why she did what she did. Strawberry pie is a whole lot better than gooseberry pie; she had two gooseberry bushes in the backyard, so those were free. (And tasted like it, unless she had ice cream. Gooseberries are sour, fit only for geese.)

My brothers always had somewhere else to go when the gooseberry pie came out.

Episcopalians in the Midwest are very fond of holding strawberry festivals as fundraisers. Christ Church Cathedral has a big one every year (six tons of berries, 18,000 shortcakes) on Monument Circle as the ladies raise money for mission work; my home parish in Lafayette sells berries at the Round the Fountain Art Fair on the courthouse lawn, with lots of volunteers dipping furiously. Michael Martin, a parishioner and pencil artist, shows his new work there, along with a lot of other state and regional artists; I just bought one of his prints. In my book-in-progress, a strawberry fest is the big spring fundraiser for Jamie’s House, a fictional domestic violence shelter in Bexley.

Someday maybe I can have my own strawberry soirée!

The seedling directions said to plant in rows three feet apart, with 1 1/2 feet between plants in a row. This is because strawberry plants spread by sending out runners on top of the ground. I only had room for three rows of four plants that way, which left me with half a dozen plants left over, so I split the difference and got all 18 in the ground. I figure the runners are going to go wherever they want and it’s not going to hurt them to be a little closer together for awhile. Eventually the “mother” plants will die off while the runners take root and start producing instead. As long as my plants get established I’ll be happy.

In her later years my mother started another strawberry patch at her last house. Her health started to deteriorate, so I moved in with her, and one of my jobs every morning starting in late May was to go out and gather her berries, hundreds of them every day. I learned something; do not plant strawberries right next to the house, because you won’t be able to reach them all when you’re sitting at the edge. You have to be able to move all around your patch. I will be able to do that with my garden.

She had an easy method of making strawberry freezer jam that worked nicely; clean the berries, crush half of ’em (Indiana berries are juicy, Lucy), add sugar, bring to a boil, add a packet of Sure-Jell, boil another minute, then ladle into leftover pickle jars, screw on lids and stick ’em in the freezer. Nothing to it and your strawberry fest lasts all year!

But what about the shortcake? The Bisquick version is heavy and fairly tasteless (everything made of Bisquick tastes like a biscuit); you could hurt somebody if you threw it at their head.

If we dropped Bisquick shortcakes on Pakistan, Al Qaeda would surely give up.

The little Twinkie-like “shortcake shells” you find at the grocery won’t hurt anybody but they’re for people who can’t cook and don’t care what they taste like. Some versions on Recipezaar call for baking a yellow or white cake from a mix; they may be lovely but they’re not shortcakes. Maybe I need to get over the “shortcake” idea altogether, even though it was imprinted on my brain from childhood. (Did my mother throw one at me?)

Strawberries on a slice of pound cake would be good; but, aha, I know what I’ll do, combine berries with my favorite kind of cake: angel food, ’cause I’m mommy’s little yadda-yadda.

These berries I planted say they are “everbearing,” while my mother always had one big crop in May and June. Here’s what about.com says about the plants I bought:

Everbearing strawberries produce two to three harvests of fruit intermittently during the spring, summer and fall. Everbearing plants do not send out many runners.

Later it says there aren’t many runners because the plants put all their energy into producing three crops a year. I’ll believe it when I see it. I love the idea of fresh strawberries in August and October, but the key will be how these babies taste. Maybe I should have bought plants like my mother had…

Oh well, I am not my mother! And this is all an experiment anyway; it’s called gardening. The only thing more fun than the growing is the eating.++

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Strawberryman!

Cabbages, Broccoli & Eek, Leeks!

I got most of my gardening done today; the last of the lilies-of-the-valley transplanted under the maple tree, broccoli and cabbages, the last two peppers. They took up most of the space in my newly-expanded vegetable garden, now twice the size it was last year and marked off by new landscape lumber like a proper garden.

Then there were the leeks; of them I’m clueless.

Most of the vegetables I buy at Murphy’s are little starter plants, which come in plastic containers, three or four to a box. It’s very easy to know what one cabbage looks like. But when I pulled the leek starters out of their box, there were no little segments, just 40 or 60 seedlings all thrown together with their roots intertwined. I didn’t know how to handle them.

They’re cousins of onions, and when you plant onions from seed, you drop 2-3 seeds into a little hole, then thin them later. I suppose it will be the same with these things, because a single leek is an inch in diameter at harvesting. But I planted them in clumps of 10-12. I hope that’s right.

But the leeks are a reminder that I’m mostly looking this year just to learn how to grow these things, not for some fantastic yield. I’ve never even cooked with a leek, much less grown one, so this is all an experiment.

In previous years I’ve learned I can grow tomatoes, peppers, radishes and herbs, as well as flowers. Those experiments brought me where I am today, just seeing what happens with cabbage, broccoli and leeks. I’ve already found out this spring that the onion sets I bought at Murphy’s do very nicely; I’ve eaten one already as a scallion, and it was sweet, but they say that if I leave the others in the ground they’ll turn into big onions for cooking. I hope so, because I use onions all the time in the kitchen, to me they’re a miracle food in soups, stews, stir-frys and when they get to star on their own, as in my mother’s patented Onion Dip with cream cheese. (I don’t know why people buy “French onion dip” in the stores, with all the preservatives. Besides, there’s nothing French about it, that’s just marketing based on French Onion Soup, which Americans love.)

Tonight I’m eating the last of the lamb chops I bought at the farmers’ market last Wednesday. I agree with the farmer, the Brook Locker Plant didn’t trim them at all. Last night I broiled a couple of chops and they were good, but tonight, even though it’s getting dark, I will grill them outside. With my great marinade they deserve a charcoal fire.

Now suppose I actually get cabbages, broccoli and leeks out of this year’s garden; whatever will I do with them? One average cabbage would last me a week; I’ll have to check out Recipezaar and Search by Ingredient.

My mother cooked cabbage once and stunk up the house for a week; not a good idea. What do people do besides make cole slaw? Cabbage rolls, I suppose.

From purdue.edu (Go Boilers!)

Next year at this time, because I’ve got that new landscape lumber and the right mindset, I will plan a proper garden, with all the vegetables I really want to grow: radishes, onions, carrots, tomatoes and peppers of course; maybe some corn. This is Indiana, after all, it’s like a patriotic duty to grow corn here. And maybe I’ll even do cabbage, broccoli and leeks if I figure out how.

Hoosiers trying not to fall off the muskmelon truck.

IN THE MEANTIME, I want to start a strawberry patch, and I’ve got a whole flat of 18 ever-bearing plants; some even have green berries on them already. But there isn’t room. However, if I bought two more landscape boards, I could extend the garden another eight feet east… And I’ve got muskmelon seeds I saved last year from a big juicy fruit grown in Knox County (Vincennes). Melons don’t go in until after all danger of frost is past, which is another couple of weeks. I can’t see myself doing well at all with a viney plant like a melon, but hey, you don’t know what you’ve got till you try. Maybe someday I’ll be going door to door trying to give away zucchini in August, you never know.

Gardening is like theology; endlessly fascinating if you’re into that sort of thing, always more to learn, then one thing leads to another and before you know it you’re frying up a mess of Swiss chard in bacon grease and thanking God for your little patch of ground.

I bought this house six years ago this week and I’m still full of gratitude.++

It’s Pansy Time!

Today, March 31, is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 83.

This is also Wednesday in Holy Week. Some years her birthday fell on Easter Sunday. (Some years my birthday is the Day of Pentecost.)

But today is also the day I planted tomatoes—far earlier than ever before.

The rule of thumb with tomatoes is that the safest time to plant is after the last possibility of frost has passed. Around here, that’s approximately Mother’s Day, the 2nd Sunday in May.

Pansies can be planted as soon as they appear in stores; they like cold weather. So mine are now in. I bought yellow ones this year for my planters on the front porch. I usually mix colors but not this year.

I fantasize that tomorrow the mailman will come by and think, “Well, he’s got his pansies in.” I imagine this every year, because I get such a kick out of planting my annual flowers. I want someone to notice them!

The lady across the street has a nice window box. I used to admire and envy it, until I realized she sticks in plastic flowers and calls it a day. No watering that way, I guess.

While I’m excited about the pansies, I’m really psyched about the tomatoes. They’re my favorite food, and nothing tastes better than a homegrown tomato. The ideal way to eat them is out in the garden with a salt shaker, and juice running down your chin.

I may lose this crop; there’s a reason the experts say to wait. When I bought this house six years ago in May and planted my first tomatoes, my friend Mark came down from Chicago to help with a couple of tasks, and told me he’d lost his tomato plants a few days earlier. Frost got them, of course. “What’s up with that?” he asked.

I was so eager to learn how to grow a tomato that I let my mind get spooked by what happened to his. So for the past five years I’ve faithfully waited until all danger was past.

I have now repealed that law, for several reasons. First, the eight plants I stuck in the ground today cost me all of $2.78. If I have to replace them I won’t go bankrupt, so it’s time I got over my anxiety. Second, last year’s experience was not good. We had a cool, wet summer and the tomatoes took forever to ripen; I didn’t get any till August, and mine were earlier than some of my neighbors’.

Third, my pal Peter visited me in May last year, and helped stake up my plants. I felt terrible about it, because I started later than normal; he’s from Amsterdam, and I would so have liked to be able to feed him some of my own produce. God knows he’s heard me rave about my tomatoes this whole time. But there we were, trying to coax along a few forlorn-looking plants that he wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy unless he stayed all summer. He did get to eat some local sweet corn, and marveled that here in the exotic Midwest, we actually eat it off the cob! He probably included this bizarre factoid when he inflicted his Travels in America slide show on his parents once he got home. “What’s next,” they must have wondered, “do they wear grass skirts?”

The bottom line for me is this. As soon as Murphy’s has plants for sale, buy them and stick them in the ground. I may lose a few but so what; God made more. The gardening industry knows when to put plants on sale for a particular market; doubtless Wal-Mart has elaborate data on when to offer what at all ten gazillion stores.

Since I am going to spend every day this spring and summer checking to see if I’ve got a tomato yet, I want my juicies sooner, not later. (I’m not sophisticated enough to do grow-lights in the basement, the way the hardcore tomato people do. And I can’t afford to build a greenhouse off the kitchen.)

It was 78º today in Chicago; we may have hit 80 here, the ideal temperature for planting. Yes, it will get colder, but I’ll keep my eye peeled for frost warnings and buy a newspaper to cover up my crop. It’s worth the risk.

Tomatoes are one of the best foods a person can eat. Here are some nutrition facts from learninginfo.org.

The tomato not only thrills the taste buds and brightens the dinner table, it also helps fight disease.

A review of 72 different studies showed consistently that the more tomatoes and tomato products people eat, the lower their risks of many different kinds of cancer. The secret may lie in lycopene, the chemical that makes tomatoes red, said Dr. Edward Giovannucci, Harvard School of Public Health, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the studies he reviewed, 57 showed that the more tomatoes one ate, the lower the risk of cancer. “The evidence for benefit was strongest for cancers of the prostate, lung, and stomach,” he reported.

Processed tomatoes (e.g. canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, ketchup) contain even more lycopene because cooking breaks down cell walls, releasing and concentrating carotenoids. Eating tomatoes with a small amount of fat enables lycopene to be better absorbed.

Even though eight plants is a lot for one person, there’s no such thing as too many tomatoes. I freeze them, I can them, I give them away; I can even sell my surplus back to Murphy’s. I could start my own farmer’s market!

My chives are coming back; I’ve harvested some already. The oregano is growing, too. Last week I planted onion sets as soon as I saw them at the grocery store. (Then I had to contend with my dog Luke, who naturally assumed that where I get to dig, he gets to dig too.)

My tulips, including some from Peter, are about 8 inches high; the crocuses are in bloom. The lilac bush is leafing out and will bloom in May. A few of the irises have sprouted, but they did very badly last year and I may have to replace them. The daylilies have new shoots. So far I can’t see any activity among the hostas, nor anything from the lilies-of-the-valley I planted last fall under the maple tree. But everything is coming along as it should; God, do I love spring.

And I haven’t even mentioned that the Butler Bulldogs are in the Final Four!

Butler's regional championship last week.

You know what I’m going to be doing Saturday, and it’s not thinking religious thoughts. The Easter Vigil begins at 6pm my time, but Butler tips off against Michigan State at 5:07. I’ll be going to church, all right, but not at Good Shepherd. Mass can wait until Sunday when there isn’t any basketball. I mean, first things first.++

Coach Brad Stevens of Butler.

Oregano Harvest

Oregano, just picked and laid out. The youngest leaves often have a purple color. Oregano is high in antioxidants and is used for medicinal purposes in many cultures.

Oregano, just picked and laid out. The youngest leaves often have a purple color. Oregano is high in antioxidants and is used for medicinal purposes in many cultures.

It’s that time of year, fall in the Northern Hemisphere; the farmers around my house are out cutting their soybeans, while I’ve started to pick the last of my tarragon and oregano. My house smells lovely.

A month ago I brought in vast quantities of tarragon, mostly out of self-defense; the tarragon plant is huge this year, sprawling over everything else in the herb garden, and even though I have stepping stones out there I couldn’t make my way to the back, where a tomato plant had some ripe fruit I wanted. So I chopped tarragon, rinsed it off and piled it on my dining room table to dry. There’s still plenty more of it out in the garden, but I got four jars of the famous French herb packed up, the last of it cleared away just in time to have a friend over for dinner last week. Julia Child would say I’m rich in tarragon – too rich.

Yesterday I picked a smaller quantity of oregano, especially where it had started to go to flower. First I laid it out on my kitchen counter, but that’s working space, so I moved it onto a cookie sheet and then to the dining room.

If you look online about how to dry oregano you get advice that isn’t very practical; bunch it up, then hang it upside down, put it in paper bags with holes cut out, then hang the bags upside down, which would put the oregano back rightside up; huh? Then let it dry for a month, hanging somewhere. Or you can freeze it with a little olive oil; tastes good when you’re ready to use it, but doesn’t look appealing because the freezing wilts it. Obviously drying it is the most practical thing, which is how most cooks use it. Some people dry it in the oven or even the microwave, which saves time but halfway cooks the herb. So I asked my foodie friend Ed what to do, and I liked his answer: “Throw it on top of the refrigerator and forget about it for a couple of weeks.” Now that’s the Hoosier way!

I have two favorites among the herbs I grow, thyme and chives. Thyme is small and delicate, and last winter I actually ran out of dried thyme, so this year I bought two plants instead of one; thyme’s an annual so you have to replace it every year. I’m eager to get going on the thyme once this batch of oregano is done. Chives, meanwhile, fresh-snipped from the garden, are too fabulous, whether you put them on a baked potato with sour cream, in soups and salads or any other way you use them. They add that extra zing that makes herb gardening so worthwhile.

Last year I grew cilantro, which I really enjoyed; this year I switched to flat-leaf parsley, and it’s good too. I’ve used it fresh a bunch of times, whenever an extra taste of “green” seems to help. And of course when you’re decorating a plate, any bunch of leaves adds visual interest.

Here’s a simple recipe for a vinegrette that uses several of my ingredients. I just made a batch of this, and as I type I’m enjoying a salad. The recipe calls for tarragon vinegar, but the stuff you buy at the store ($3 for 12 oz.) is a waste of money, with almost no tarragon flavor. So make your own. I buy vinegar by the gallon ($2), and the dollar you’ll spend for one tarragon plant (which is perennial, year after year) means just a cup of homemade vinegrette has already paid for itself – no artificial flavors, no preservatives, no xanthan gum, no polysorbate 80.

Josh’s Tarragon Vinegrette

2/3 C olive oil*
1/3 C white vinegar
24 fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
1 1/2 t fresh oregano, chopped (1/2 t dry)
1 1/2 t fresh parsley, chopped (1/2 t dry)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 t salt
1 t dry mustard
1 t paprika
1/4 t fresh-ground pepper

Dump everything into a cruet or lidded glass jar, shake well and let it sit for an hour to blend flavors.

* Soybean oil (“vegetable oil”) is good too, but olive oil tastes better and is three times higher in monounsatured fat – the good kind.

If you’re making a green salad or some soup, whip up a batch of croutons while you’re at it. I guarantee you’ll never waste your cash on those store-bought things again.

Herb-Garlic Croutons

1 T margarine or butter
1 T olive oil
1 slice of bread
1 clove garlic, cut in half
pinch of basil, oregano, thyme or whatever

Heat a small, non-stick frypan on medium-low, melt butter and add olive oil. Sauté garlic for a couple of minutes to release flavor, then discard. (Or substitute a little garlic powder or garlic salt.) Cut up a slice of bread into inch or half-inch cubes. Toast 8-10 minutes, stirring once or twice, sprinkling herbs. Dry croutons on a paper towel. Leftovers will keep for a few days in a plastic bag.

* * *

I’m pleased to report that my composting experiment is turning out well. Both bins have gorgeous-looking black stuff on the bottom, which I occasionally turn with a half-size pitchfork. If everything looks dry I’ll add a cup or two of water. But the holes I drilled in the lids (large plastic bins, 5 bucks each at the discount store) let in the rainwater, so I’ve only watered once. Now that it’s autumn, I’ll fill the bins with fallen leaves and evergreen trimmings, then bring them into the garage for the winter, continuing to add vegetable scraps and coffee grounds from the kitchen. After the spring thaw, I’ll dump one bin into the other and start a fresh round of composting in the empty bin. The finished compost I’ll work into the soil in my back garden, reclaiming that former wasteland so it will grow tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and flowers next year.

Food cooked from scratch tastes better. Cooking with ingredients you grew yourself tastes best of all.++

Oregano&Flowers10.09

UPDATES: It seems the oregano doesn’t take long at all to dry; after just two days I’ve already stripped all but the youngest leaves and filled two jars. Plus I picked all of the thyme yesterday, filled a whole shopping bag and now have a gorgeous mound of this very versatile herb on my kitchen table. No running out of thyme this year.

Now I’m off to make some pumpkin raisin muffins, an ideal breakfast food when you’re on the run. Surely there’s a man out there somewhere who’d beat a path to my door if he knew about my muffins…