My day-job places me in a lot of situations that require making small talk with strangers. There are conferences, dinners, and meetings with extended teams of “colleagues” that I’ve never met or barely know and may never see again. I’m sure others have figured this out too, but I’ve found there are a handful of conversation topics that work perfectly in these situations. You want fun and light topics, the opposite of the proverbial “politics and religion”. You also want things that everyone can relate to. Travel is perfect. Sports works in most situations too. And every August and September, I make it through at least one awkward encounter based on the question “so how did your garden do this year”?
I was in Omaha Nebraska a few weeks ago, having dinner with a group of computer programmers, the kind that develop and maintain massive databases. (I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to hear what happens next, aren’t you?) About 20 of us were having dinner at an Italian restaurant; it was right next to a Super 8 motel, so you know it must be good. (Are you jealous yet?) Actually it was pretty good, with nice touches like local heirloom tomatoes on their salads. We were enjoying these salads about 20 painful minutes into the event, when the person next to me mentions that she just got done canning 50 jars of tomatoes. Success! The rest of the night was spent in pleasant conversation. We didn’t have to talk about databases even once.
So how did your garden do this year? Each year at about this time, I look back on the season and evaluate. There’s always something that didn’t germinate well (yellow crookneck squash this year), and something that was hit by disease or pests (green beans, and the peas that our chickens devoured). Something grew like crazy and we couldn’t eat or give it away fast enough (cucumbers!), and something new we tried grew quite well and was a fun new addition (kale).
Gardening is many things to us. It’s a way for us eat the highest quality, freshest, healthiest, and tastiest food. It’s an intellectual hobby, a challenge to improve our skills, to grow something better next year that didn’t work this year. It’s an adventure, the fascination of watching dirt and seeds turn into plants and grow into delicious edibles. It’s a puzzle, like an Iron Chef challenge every night, continuous baskets of perishable food that either need to be turned into dinner or preserved for the future. It’s relaxing exercise, a peaceful zen meditation where we commune with nature, and spend pleasant time in the sunshine and fresh air.
If I’m being honest though, many Septembers are about 95% puzzle and 5% zen. Like my new friend in Omaha, I’ve canned my 50 jars of tomatoes. It usually involves an all-nighter or two, where I set alarms to wake me up every 25 minutes while I process batch after batch in my boiling-water canner.
Bounty is a good thing, but it can be overwhelming. Some garden products lend themselves to abundance: tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants, corn. The interesting thing is that they also all come in at about the same time, abundance on top of abundance. But we’re not about to let beautiful produce that we worked so hard for go to waste.
One thing we’ve been trying hard to do is spread out our harvest. Instead of one wild September, how do we enjoy more in the Spring and Fall? How do we use the space we have, not to grow more, but to grow… differently?
A year ago we planted asparagus, to get started on the Spring half. It was amazing to see these squirrely little dried out roots turn into enormous plants, they seemed to love our otherwise mediocre soil. You’re supposed to wait 2 years before harvesting, but the plants took so well, this year we just had to sneak a few. They were delicious, needing only a quick minute of cooking to bring out the flavor and tenderness. Next year the previous empty zone of May and June will be loaded.
This year’s challenge was winter greens – kale, collards, and chard. We’ve started to cut and use them a bit, and there’s an iron chef like challenge here too, learning to cook with unfamiliar vegetables. Beyond stewed greens and the now ubiquitous kale salad, we’ve been trying to work small amounts of sautéed greens into other dishes – soups, pasta, eggs. The results have been surprising, they’ve brought texture and earthy flavor that I hadn’t realized was missing before.
But the best part about these new additions, may really be about what they replaced. We still had plenty of our late summer favorites this year, plenty of beans and peppers and cucumbers (oh so many cucumbers!). But I had no all-night canning sessions. No desperate trips around the neighborhood to find homes for my produce.
As a family we’ve taken on a lot of extra work to produce our food the way we do, and it’s rewarding in so many ways. Taking steps to bring a little balance to what we do, gives us the time to look back and reflect, appreciate what we’ve accomplished.
Last weekend the weather was beautiful, and we had time to just sit and look out at our garden from our deck, a glass of white wine in hand. I remarked at how relaxed we were, how unusual for this time of year.